Poem: Wings – Boyton salt-marshes, Autumn Equinox

Boyton foot ferry

Yesterday was the Autumn Equinox, and now, today, there is more dark than light. Yesterday, too, in the UK, there were announcements from politicians about measures to slow the spread of the virus. We are still experiencing pandemic, and six months to the day the first lockdown began. Many will be feeling anxious about the thought of the winter ahead. It feels as if the world grows smaller again.

I’ve been exploring some aspects of our crisis in my meditations on Exodus. You can read the latest poem in that series here. In those reflections, I’ve had at the back of my mind how we hold on to hope in difficult times, and I’ve been thinking of hope as an act of defiance, a radical act. Today’s poem looks at joy in a similar way. As well as looking at the difficulties we face, I am seeking to cultivate joy too as an act of defiance, a radical posture that looks deeper than circumstance, real and pressing though that may be. Of course, it is not always possible. Sometimes, we sit with our sorrows, or our sorrows sit with us, and are reluctant to leave.

Often, though, we can take this stance. Maybe, we can receive both the gift and the grace of joy when it comes, and maybe we can also work to cultivate it as a habit, a practice, a spiritual discipline, a work.

Can we do that? Can we, at least some of the time, choose to take joy where we find it? And even cultivate it, and treasure it?

When that is too hard, perhaps even such beauty as this poem seeks to share will be some help.

On related themes, you might like to read two other poems:
Moment/Joy
Sorrows

Boyton marshes. Both photos by Peter Skevington

Wings

Boyton salt-marshes, Autumn Equinox

The hot lane is full of wings,
rising over the sand-blown tar,
spiralling together
with the urgency of life.

Dragonflies, dozens –
red, blue-green, yellow,
joined or unjoined,
flying with rainbows
caught in their light, clear wings –
I have never seen so many.

And large white butterflies
dancing, spiralling,
looking like great white
poppies caught in the breeze,
seeking each other, dazzling
in the dazzling light.

How it lifts you to see them,
how it lifts you to feel the
warmth of the sun
on your skin
as it turns
on its balance point towards
sleep, and coldness.

And then, down past
the foot ferry and
the wild swimmers
it all opens up –
the great windy
marsh-weave
of river and saltwater,
island and marshland,
blue of the sky
rippling in water,
shining mud,
and the hiss of rushes
in the north wind

Which carries other wings.
Long skeins and lines
of honking geese,
endlessly joined by
threads of sound –
the loud echoing call,
the beat of thousands of wings
that bring dark with them
on their dark flight feathers,
racing with cold at their backs.


And we know how winter comes,
we know the night lengthens
with its endless stars,
we know our days
grow short

Even as this joy rises,
even as it rises up,
bears you up like
wings that beat
with such effort of heart,
with effort of voice
to cry out,
cry out like this –
look, look
how good it is,
how good.

Retold: The first plague. The river’s lifeblood – Exodus stories.

I’m working on a poem based on the first of the ten plagues of Egypt, where the River Nile was turned to blood. It’s not easy, this whole business of plagues, as I’ve said before. It feels an ancient interpretation of events, and I’m seeking to be honest about the unease that interpretation stirs in me. At the same time, a series of catastrophies befalling a nation, even as great an empire as ancient Egypt, seems so current, so in line with our daily news broadcasts, that I’m sticking with it, and seeking to be open to the movement of the Spirit, to show us what wisdom, what help, there may be for us. One of my guiding principles when I find a passage difficult is to ponder – if all scripture is useful for teaching us goodness, then what use is this scripture? What goodness might be learned from it?

As I’ve been allowing my mind to inhabit the story, a number of things have come to mind, and won’t be shaken. The first is the symmetry of the story. The story most people remember about Moses – if they are familiar with the narrative at all – is how he was found by Pharaoh’s daughter in a basket concealed among the reeds in the Nile, found in the morning when she went to bathe. This new Pharaoh seems to keep to the same tradition, of visiting the river at dawn to bathe, accompanied by attendants. Moses therefore finds himself standing near the place where he was left by his mother, and found by the princess, waiting to challenge Pharaoh. The symmetry is so striking I’ll copy the retelling from my earlier post Retold : On the banks of the Nile.

On the Banks of the Nile.

Jochebed and her daughter Miriam slipped out just before dawn.  They walked silently, shapes blending into the darkness. At every sound they stopped, afraid the slave mastrs might hear them.  They crept down to the green banks of the Nile, the great river that was the lifeblood of all Egypt.  There, by the trembling papyrus, they stopped and set down their load.  It was a tightly woven basket, a tiny boat, contaiing Jochebed’s three-month-old baby son.  She lifted the lid and leaned down to kiss him, splashing him with her tears.
Miriam said, “I’ll stay nearby and try to keep him safe….”
Jocobed slid the little boat into the reeds, and ran back to her cramped mud-walled slave house.  “May God protect and keep him!” she prayed.
She knew Pharaoh wished her son dead, along with all the other Israelite baby boys.  For the Egyptians hated the Israelites now.  The Egyptians had forgotten how Joseph had saved them from starvation many generations ago.  In Egypt, the Israelites had grown in number and strength, and the Egyptians looked at them with fear in their eyes.  So they made them slaves, but they could not crush them.
In his anger Pharaoh summoned the two midwives who delivered the Israelite babies, and gave them a terrible order:
“When the babies are born, let the girls live, but kill the boys.” The midwives bowed as they left, but they would not do such a terrible thing!  The baby boys continued to live, and grow strong.
Then Pharaoh commaned everyone.  Throw all the baby boys into the Nile!”

Miriam stayed by the Nile, hidden among the reeds near her tiny brother’s basket, and waited.  Then she heard the sound of singing, and saw the princess, Pharaoh’s daughter, coming towards the river with her maids.  Miriam hardly dared to breathe.  Would the Egyptians find her brother?  The princess and her attendants were so close now.  Miriam watched the princess take off her jewels and glide into the water.  It shimmered like gold in the early morning light.  Then the princess stopped.  She had seen the basket in the reeds, and sent one of the slave girls to fetch it.
Peering inside, the princess saw the baby crying. Her heart melted.  “This is one of the Israelite babies!” she said.  Miriam seized her chance.  She scrambled out of the reeds, and bowed down before the princess.  Swallowing her fear, she spoke.
“Your Highness, shall I find one of the Israelite women to nurse this baby for you?”
“Why yes, go as quick as you can!” For the baby was crying very hungrily indeed.  Miriam ran back home to get her mother.
“Care for this child, and bring him back to me when he is weaned.  I’ll pay you for your trouble!” said the princess, gently placing the baby in Jochebed’s arms.
Jochebed’s heart nearly burst with joy.  She had her son back! So she sang him Hebrew songs, the songs of the Israelites, and told him of thier God, and his promises, while he was a young child.  She prayed for him, and cared for him tenderly until it was time to give him up to Pharaoh’s daughter.  The princess called him Moses, and adopted him as her own son.  He grew up as an Egyptian prince, educated by the best tutors and trained to rule.”
From The Bible Story Retold

Within this symmetry is also a terrible symmetry of justice. This is the subject of the poem I’m still working on, so I’ll say more when I share that with you. But I’m sure you’ll note, if you read the story above, that the river at this time was a place of death for the baby boys born to the Hebrew slaves. The river that was the life-blood of Egypt had become for them a place of death. On doing a bit of research, it seems that some ancient commentators suggest that this first plague was a punishment of the Egyptians for that terrible act, and that ties in with description of the plagues as judgement. My previous poem, The space in between, also holds this possibility.

Others see the plagues as a challenge to the Egyptian gods, and this one is a challenge to Hapi, often seen as a symbol of life and fertility brought by the river’s floods. As we’ve seen, the cruelty of the command to throw the babies into the Nile is in itself a serious undermining of that understanding of the river as a source of life and fertility, and perhaps an offence to those principles even under the Egyptian’s own belief system.

If there is some truth in these understandings, then this first plague might also be a foreshadowing, a forewarning of the last and most terrible – the death of the firstborn boys. We shall explore further.

For now, here is the fragment of story we are dealing with, taken, as they all are, from my book, The Bible Story Retold.

You can find the original Exodus account here.

Ten blows for Egypt

Moses and Aaron warned Pharaoh of the terrible things that would happen if he did not set the slaves free, but he would not listen. And so, it began.

First they spoke to Pharaoh by the Nile as he went down to bathe. Moses and Aaron stood by the banks of the river and said, “This is what our God says: you must free our people to go to the wilderness. If you won’t listen, the river will become blood red, undrinkable, stinking. Egypt will be thirsty.”

Pharaoh turned away and carried on toward the bathing place. Then Aaron raised his staff and brought it down on the water with a mighty splash. The water swirled, thickened, and reddened, like blood, and gave off a foul smell. Fish floated gasping to the surface and died. But Pharaoh’s magicians could change water too, so he simply went back to the palace, unimpressed. He would not let the people go.

From “The Bible Story Retold in Twelve Chapters”, published by Lion

The next thing I’ve been thinking about in the light of this passage, is our own waterways, and whether they bring life, or death. If this difficult passage is useful, and I believe it is, one of the things that it may be teaching us is that actions have consequences. We can live harmoniously with God, with each other, with creation, or not. And those choices have consequences.

Yesterday, it was revealed that not a single one of Britain’s rivers met water quality standards. This is terrible, a tragedy for all the life that depends on rivers. And all life does depend on water. As we reflect on the ancient story of the Nile, the lifeblood of the country, turning undrinkable, we can remember how important our own rivers are, and how the actions of people, and corporations, may make them instruments of harm, rather than good. If this passage is to train us in goodness, and perhaps rebuke us, this is one way we can permit it to do so.

We can seek to become aquainted with our own rivers, our own watershed, and seek to care for it – perhaps with a litter pick, or perhaps with simply our respect and affection. Maybe, as we explore, we may notice things that spoil – outlet pipes, plans for unsympathetic development – and then take action. We may notice things that help – conservation efforts, stands of trees, efforts to clean up rubbish – and wish to join in. We’ve been walking our river the Deben over the lockdown, and you can read a poem about that here. If we start with love, and respect, then our care may lead to different action.

Perhaps you can see why it’s taking me a while to write my poem about this first plague! There has been much for me to think about, to prayerfully mull over. I’ll share it when it’s ready, and I hope that’ll be soon. Thank you for joining me on this Exodus journey.

Poem: The space in between – Exodus poems 8

Photos of the River Deben, dusk – an in-between time.

Welcome to this continuing series of poems drawn from the ancient account of Exodus. I’m finding some common ground with current events, and much wisdom, in that story. It’s an account, from the perspective of the slaves, of their journey to freedom from the Egyptians. Both Hebrew and Egyptian suffer on that journey.

It’s taking me a little time to come to meditating on the plagues that beset Egypt. In many ways, it seems to raw, too close in the time of pandemic and climate upheaval, as well as a challenge of interpretation. What does it mean, to speak of God acting in these ways?

If you’d like to read more about the story so far, you can do so here.

For now, I feel I am standing on the brink of the time of plagues. Still in the space in between, between the request Moses makes – Let my people go – and the beginnings of the consequences for Pharaoh of his stony and cruel response. But I’m nearly there. Watching the news yesterday evening, I felt like I was watching something like it beginning to unfold in real time. The pandemic is accelerating once more, beginning to break away from attempts to manage it, and many are now enduring the related sorrows of environmental destruction with Atlantic hurricanes, wildfires, and difficulties with harvest. In response, we have the understandable political upheavals that arise at a time of fear and uncertainty. On Sunday, in the UK, we watched David Attenborough’s remarkable programme on Extinction, which helped us see a little more clearly how these different elements are related, related to our lack of care for the Earth, and for each other. Even those of us who live in what we may regard as a developed country, with a tradition of plentiful resources, can see this does not protect us from the common fate. Being a great and long-lasting empire did not protect the Egyptians. We are all connected.

In some ways, this gives me hope, as we can work together on deep-level solutions to all of these, by seeking to love and tend the earth, and to act with justice and mercy towards all – all creatures, all humans. It gives me hope that we will not be stony-hearted in the face of all this difficulty, not turn to fear, but instead, to compassion, justice, mercy, and the pursuit of the welfare of all. And where we cannot work together, we can take small steps ourselves. Jesus offers abundant life, God’s call is to live with peace – shalom, justice and mercy.

For now, we are in a space in between, where there is time – but we too are faced with questions about where we will stand at this moment, and also, how we will respond to the call for justice and freedom, just as Pharaoh was.

May we, this day, seek to live within God’s shalom, within abundant life, and justice, and mercy, for ourselves and for all.

The space in between  – Exodus poems 8

You stood in the space
in between
palace and shanty,
power and poverty,
ease and despair,
slavery, and freedom.

Knowing the language
of both, being
of-them but
not-of-them both,
you stand, now,
and with such reluctance,
such unquenchable fear,
in this dark no-mans-land,
this swirling God-space

You make in
the court of Pharaoh
as you ask for mercy,
and freedom.
It is holy ground,
where you speak
with the voice
of the silenced,
speak with the very
voice of God, but
no-one takes off
their shoes.

You spoke to power,
and it paid no heed.

And so, YHWH,
breath, life, being,
I am that I am,
will stretch out a hand
in justice.
What follows will be
strange justice,
A steady unfolding of
consequence,
stretched out like darkness
over the dark land.

Poem: Moses and the Burning Bush – Exodus Poems 4

I have continued to turn the Exodus story over in my mind, as one that may help us as we think about the multiple, colliding crises we face. I am finding it illuminating, as we consider how we might move out from the situation we find ourselves in, to the possibility of a more hopeful future. These meditations are forming the basis of a series of poems. If you would like to read the stories, you can do here.

You might like to read the other poems so far, and you can find the links here.

Poem: Pharaoh’s daughter, and the child. Exodus poems 1

Poem: God saw – and God knew. Exodus poems 2

Poem: Holy Ground, barefoot. Exodus poems

In this latest poem, I wonder what it must have been like for Moses, who started out so full of hope and promise, who so wanted to defend his people, to right wrongs, that he responded force against force, and killed a slavemaster. In fear, he ran, ran away from all he had known, he built a new life away from Egypt. Did he remember his brothers and sisters, did he despair of this system of oppression that he had been unable to change? It must have seemed so powerful, so resistant, too cruel to those he loved to even hope for freedom.

I wrote about Moses, and this encounter with God, in my book, Jesus said, I am – finding life in the everyday. You can read a little more about that, and some extracts, here, if it interests you.

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Walking down from Golden Cap, in the sunset dust of Storm Ophelia

What do we do, when it seems we’ve lost our chance to work for a more beautiful world? What do we do, when it all seems too fixed, too permanent ant, too big and powerful for us to make a difference?

Maybe we can see things differently, maybe our eyes can be opened to deeper truths, as the old ones crumble before us, and something new – something that was always there – begins to emerge.

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Moses and the Burning Bush

You stood on that dry mountain,
eyes narrowed against wind
and sand, scanning
the bright horizon,
looking for threat, or grazing
for those sheep.

Were you content to be a shepherd
now, Prince of Egypt?
Were you reconciled to this life
smaller than your dreams?
Did you think it was all too late,
too late to do anything
to help your brothers,
to help your sisters,
the slaves,
to reclaim your people?

Shepherd, with the bleating
of the flock about you,
did you dream still,
under the strong sun,
of what-could-or-should-have-been?
Did a new world seem impossible?
Or were you breathing
in this moment,
with the dust smell,
and the sheep smell,
and the plants thick with resin?

It was no dream,
what happened next,
no could-or-should-have-been,
that burning bush –
crackling, smoke smell,
burning, but not consumed.

In that moment you took
off your shoes, and learned a
name for God that is no name,
I am what I am.
I will be what I will be.

In a moment,
your reality peeled open,
revealing fire within,
the truth within,
giving you back
the discomfort of hope,
giving you back
your people,
and your way.

Poem: Strawberries

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The main crop strawberries are over now, but these little alpines continue – first one part of the garden, then another, is the place to hunt.  It depends on light, and shade, and water, and when the robins and blackbirds discover them.  We – people in our neighbourhood – are sharing plants, and produce, when we have surplus.  It’s part of the deeper connections we’re working to make, to give and to share.  It’s a kind of abundance and connection that gives me hope.  The Transition Woodbridge movement have been doing a marvellous job of facilitating sharing surplus plants and produce, especially during lockdown, and are continuing to plan harvesting from the community fruit trees as the seasons begin to turn.

 

I wrote this poem when the space under the rosebushes was full of big juicy strawberries – and I took photos, too, but my memory card was playing up, and they were lost. So the pictures are of the smaller ones, which seem to keep going most of the warmer weather. Whenever I eat the big maincrop strawberries, I think of the friend who gave me the parent plants to all I now have.  She lives further away now, but is still growing beautiful things.  She taught me a lot about gardening, especially about listening – to the land, and the things that grow there – and learning from your place.  I miss her, and, when harvesting strawberries one day, I thought of the good fruits of friendship, and its spread and reach, and how it enriches our communities and lives so much, along with the plants and the produce.  We see the goodness of the fruits.

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Strawberries
for Kay

Today I am thankful
for strawberries,
growing under the rose bushes,
festooned with casual netting
like a green scarf.

Some rest on the old
stone path, ripening fast,
others are hidden among
leaves of ladies mantle,
sheltered from sun and beaks,

And most of all, I am
thankful for the friend
I watched as she gently
dug the parent plants
from her own rich patch,
who held them out to me
with a reminder to
plant at dusk,
in the cool.
How they have spread
since then.

Friendship, too,
sends out long runners,
who knows where,
small plants that root
as the moment arises,
and how, years later,
these too give
sweet red fruit,
again, and again.

 

 

Poem: Meadow

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The meadow flowers close up, a few weeks ago.

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We’ve been leaving more of the lawn long this year, especially at the end pictured, where the grass has been unsuccessful, and other plants want to grow.  It’s been so good to see butterflies and bees above the flowers, and, in close inspection, to see  so many small creeping things below.

We have various heights of hawkweed growing prolifically now, and I particularly love their seedheads – like dandelion clocks.

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There is something very special about these windborne seeds – their profligacy, abandon, opportunism – which I find good to think about right now.  When our movements and interactions are reduced as we seek to keep one another safe from the virus, I find it helps to think of these seeds blowing freely. You never know where they will go, and what their impact will be.  The task of the plant is to produce the seeds, and to release them to the wind.

It reminds me of the extravagance of the parable of the Sower, and of the many times Jesus talks of seeds falling to the ground.  These things help remind me to be less attached to outcome, to just do the task before me, and to trust the blowing of the wind.

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Meadow

I love the softness of this path
mown through the long grass,
the many yellow flowers.
How it curves to here, where
the old gate is bound by ivy,
where the silver birches,
planted as chance seedlings,
are growing tall and graceful
above wild strawberries.

I love the round seedheads,
the not-dandelion-clocks
of hawkweeds,
that dip their opaque globes
in the breeze,
and the self-heal,
and the speedwell,
beneath.

The seeds shake in the breeze,
and blow free.
The lightest fragments of life.
Who knows where they will
blow to?
Who knows, the smallest of
things – a thought,
a hope, a prayer,
can be borne up
by many breezes,
and tumble and travel
through many airs,
and find a place to catch,
to break open, to root,
and to grow.

Poem: Butterfly Path

This next poem is another written following a walk by our river, the Deben, as we make our way down towards the sea.

You can read the first, Waldringfield Salt Marshes, Seal, by following the link.

This poem is about a diversion.  We could not pick up the walk where we left off, by the seal, on the other side of the water.  The footpath was closed, there were diggers and warning signs as the flood defences were being shored up.  We took another route, and were rewarded by butterflies.  I am seeking to learn the names of the many wondrous plants and animals I see, to name them and honour their names.

Some of you may have come across the beautiful book, The Lost Words, written and painted in response to the Oxford English Dictionary’s decision to lose nature words from its children’s edition.  It’s a beautiful, elegaic work – incantations of the names that are nearly, but not quite, lost.  Musicians too have responded, and I have been listening to The Lost Words Blessing, as I seek to do the work of honouring the natural world, and learning its names. It’s a fine piece of music, from Folk by the Oak. I find the lyrics very moving, and resonant.  They express what I hope to do in many of these poems, so coming across the piece was like finding someone who shares a way of seeing the world. Each verse begins with a variation on this refrain:

“Enter the wild with care, my love
And speak the things you see
Let new names take and root and thrive and grow”

it ends..

“Even as the hour grows bleaker, be the singer and the speaker
And in city and in forest, let the larks become your chorus
And when every hope is gone, let the raven call you home”

You can read them all under the video, reached through the link above.

I didn’t take any pictures of the butterflies, unfortunately, but here are some from the Butterfly Conservation website.

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Comma

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Ringlet

 

 

Butterfly path

Evening.  High summer.
To our right the open grass
ripples in the breeze.
And a kestrel hovers,
tail splayed, intent on
what is beneath

the surface of this
silvergreen
watery rippling,
while we walk
down the path
by its side.

Less a path, more a strip of
wildness, of wood and scrub.
Rich with nettles and pink
flowered brambles
and tumbles of flowers
under the shade of thorns
and oaks and hornbeams,
and before us, and around us
on our bright sandy path,
are butterflies.

Ringlet and meadow brown,
the showier admirals,
tortoiseshells and commas,
gatekeeper, small copper –
I am learning these names,

saying these names
for a beauty
I hardly ever see.
Years ago, they say,
butterflies rose in clouds
about you as you walked.

We did not intend to take this path.
Our planned way,
by the river,
was closed.
And so, I receive this shimmer
of beauty as a gift,
in a harmony
of grassland and field edge,
and scrub and wood –
We walk amongst plenty,
amongst what could yet be,
again, cradled in lightness,
and sadness for
what we have lost.
We walk quietly among
many wings,
eyes open,
wide open.

Poem: Midsummer evening

I have been trying to share with you poems soon after they appear in my notebook, keeping a kind of record of the times.  Going back a few pages, I came across some jottings I’d overlooked while working up some other pieces. So, although we are a little past midsummer, the world still has that midsummer feel, of short nights, and abundant life, and I thought I’d share it with you now.

There are a few East Anglian dialect words for some of the large flying insects we have at this time of year in the poem, I do love those words.

I don’t have garden evening photos for you, but here are a few from the footpaths nearby, taken by my husband, Peter Skevington, which are full of the beauty of a summer evening.

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Midsummer evening

Ten o’clock, there is
a glow of light in the sky.
The honeysuckle is sweet,
and the lawn, a pale round
glade in the darkness.

Around that glade, bats
fly, rapid, light, and silent –
at least to me,
around and around,
threading back, and forth,
through the feast of gnats.

Against the deep turquoise
of the low sky, smaller
dark shapes drone
heavily, slowly, on,
rising improbably
over the old barn.

Billywitches,
cockerchafes,
precarious stag beetles,
wings unfurled,
weighted.

Night is short,
and full of life.
Night turns slowly
on this pale circle,
Earth turns slowly,
too, a moment
of almost stillness,
before it begins again,
when the deer comes,
and the night birds
start their callings,
as I turn my back,
turn away to sleep.

Hush, hush now,
these are creatures
not of the human world.
Creatures of their own
quiet, and their own time.
I leave them the gathering night.

Poem: Waldringfield salt marshes – seal

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These beautiful photos are by Pete Skevington, with thanks.

We haven’t been far from home, since Lockdown started.  It’s been astonishing how that restraint has made us more inventive, seeking out places we haven’t been to, or haven’t been to for years.

We have a very loose walking project of seeing how far along our local river, the Deben, we can go. How much of it is walkable, and accessible by footpath. The river is an estury downstream from us, an unstable and changing and hazardous landscape.  At times, the public right of way marked on the map crosses open water.

We hadn’t attempted to walk this particular route for a very long time ideed.  My memory of it, my first experience of this kind of landscape, was nearly losing my boot in sinking, sucking mud, and being unable to pull myself free.  Now, being more accustomed to the great outdoors, we tried again, knowing the route would be completely different.  How far could we get?

Having got as far as we could, we paused where the marsh-creek joined the river, surrounded by mud and flowing water.  I ate some of the salty samphire that was growing there.  And then, we saw the head of a large seal in the creek, very close by.  The whole experience of being out on those marshes was full of awe, transcendent and earthy at the same time – a deep, lively peace, a beauty and a rightness.  Being met by a seal at the furthest reach of our footsteps was such a gift.

I’ve tried to catch some of that in the words of this poem.  I hope you enjoy an excursion over saltmarsh.

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Waldringfield saltmarshes – seal

This thin strip of solid ground
turns away from the shore,
snaking through saltmash –
sea lavender, sea purslane,
samphire glowing
in the fading light,
the saltsmell of algae –
until we are far from
ploughed earth,
far out on this wide,
flat, dizzying
land-water-scape.

Pools of infinite grey mud,
the hiss of water receding,
we walk just as the tide
turns to ebb,
this winding path our
thin line of safety,
draped with a strand-
crust of drying weed,
studded with hundreds
of tiny white crab-shells,
oysters, mussels.
How fragile I feel myself
to be.  How quick to be lost.

After many turns further,
and further out,
we come to the place
the path stops.
On the other bank,
we can see the woods
where great white egrets nest.
At my feet, the red of a
spent cartridge hurts
my eyes
as I hear oystercatchers,
and sweet skylarks,
and water,
and wind scuffing the water.

There, at the end,
the limit of where we could go,
we saw, in the water,
the seal –
a low flat head,
intelligent eyes,
sleek and fat,
as grey and rounded
as the mudbanks –
swimming.
We crouched, concealing
our profiles from the
luminous sky,
we held our breath,
and watched its dive,
and breath, dive,
and breath.

And as it swam upstream,
we turned to go back,
retracing our steps exactly,
watching its joy,
its contentment,
as we grew closer to solid
ground, the smell of ripe
barley after rain,
and mallows,
and sweet chamomile
carried on the breeze,
welcoming us.
But the taste of the saltmash
sustained us,
sustains us,
the peace of the seal
stayed with us,
stays with us.
And the cry of the curlew
remains.

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Poem: Holy Ground, barefoot. Exodus poems 3

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Cockle spit near the Chapel of St Peter-on-the-Wall, Essex

We come to the third poem I’ve written drawing on the early chapters of Exodus, the Bible’s second book. I intend to go back and write more – in particular about the burning bush – and I’m amending this post to tell you I have done so, and you can read that new poem here.  However this exploration proceeds, I’ll make sure numbers on the poems work with the story in Exodus, so they can be read together.

I was drawn to write from this foundational story as it begins at a mighty civilisation’s turning point – a time of divided peoples, of injustice, inequality, and exploitation.  The world we are in right now seems to be at a turning point, where things cannot go on as they have been.  I’ve been seeing echoes, and warnings, and hope, in this story from long ago.

For this poem, I have continued the theme of God saw, and God knew, from the previous poem, which you can read here.  I have progressed the story to when Moses stood before the burning bush, and took off his sandals, for the ground is holy.

You can read more from the Exodus text here.

Some things struck me, in addition to the themes I’ve explored before.  The first is, the matter of holy places, and temples.  For those of us who have a practice of corporate worship, most gather in a set-aside space.  Not all – there are many gatherings in homes and coffee shops and dance studios and woods where people, together, are open to the divine.  Now, we cannot gather, and our relationship with these places is changed, as well as our relationship with our worshiping communities.  Although I know, as the poem explores, that God has no need of temples, I find that maybe I do.  I include two photos here from the ancient chapel of St Peter-on-the-wall, founded in the seventh century.  And the wall of its name, the wall it is on, is Roman, so its history is very long. There is real peace in that space.  I find my spirit soothed by such places.  And I am finding, as the poems on this blog show, that I connect deeply with the divine in nature, too.  I am increasingly barefoot, on holy ground.  This seems a very deep and helpful truth, especially now.  It gives me hope.

A little tentatively, I have been thinking about gods and idols as I’ve been reading Exodus, and wondering what our equivalents might be. As I’ve been mulling over our economy, the systems that drive our lives that seem bigger than any of us, I have reached for the ancient language of idol.  I have found the word Mammon comes to mind, and it says something significant for our times.  I’ve mentioned it briefly before, in my blog post on The company of bees. As a modern person, I’m aware I’m dipping my toes into something that may stir up ideas of superstition, and that I don’t really understand what these concepts of idol and god meant to those whose culture they belong to.  But I do know that now, as ever, there are forces bigger than us, which we don’t seem to control, in our daily lives.  We call them economics, or big corporations, or debt, or. The ancient stories suggest they have feet of clay, and can fall.  They are human constructs, agreements and stories we hold in common about how the world works and what matters, they may become more…. but they are not laws of physics, and we can, through collective effort, change them.

I wonder what that might look like in our current world, where these systems, or machines, or idols, seem to be demanding the sacrifice of life to their ends.  We can see that in some places with the response to coronavirus.  We can definitely see it in how we contine to destroy ecosystems and drive creatures to extinction.  Are these things really more important than life? Can we decide to do better?

Here, in this poem, I look at how the enslaved Hebrew people were forced to build temples to gods who didn’t hear them, or help them.  I wonder how many people, in today’s economies, might feel they are doing something similar, as they are made to serve the demands for more, and faster, and cheaper.

This poem, though, only touches on these things.  It turns to something more hopeful, a promise of the deep reality of the glory of God in all things,  and carries echoes Isaiah 11, and our deep hope – of the dream of God, of the kingdom we pray will come. It circles back to the beginning, to considering a holy place, where we are safe, and heard. Even when there are no places of worship available to us, these things are true.

We can be grounded in the earth, in the depth of our connection to God, and to all.

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Inside the chapel (660-662 AD), looking out.

 

Holy Ground, barefoot.   Exodus poems 3

This people had no temple,
no worship-place.
This people built temples
for others,
for gods they dreaded,
rising in terrible power
over them, having
no regard for
their misery.

They prayed under
the weight of their burdens.
They cried out in
the unprayer of pain,
and God, having no need
of temples, heard,
as God always hears.
And God, leaning to the
brokenhearted, saw,
as God always sees.

For the very earth is holy.
The ground under our feet.
Take off your shoes and feel it,
feel the dry-ground-powder
and the sharp stones,
the infinite tiny beings
that call the earth home.
Take off your shoes.
Know you are part of
all this, part of the
the glory that fills
all things, as the waters
fill the seas.
You will be heard,
wherever you are.
You can listen,
wherever you are.
You are home.