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.

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?



A poem for New Year’s Eve – Crossing the Blyth at sunset, at the turn of the year

All the photos in this post were taken by my husband on a wild and stormy day at Walberswick.

This is a strange New Year’s Eve. It’s disconcerting to think how little we anticipated what this year would bring at it’s beginning. It throws our attempts at planning and new resolutions into all kinds of disarray, if we try to look ahead. So I’m attempting to leave the future where it is today. I’m trying to look deeper, at some of the lessons this year of a long pause, a long hesition. I’m noticing that there are things I can take forward…. the things I miss and therefore know their worth, the things I don’t miss as much as I expected. Knowing the value of community, connection, kindness more keenly, I’ll look for ways to nurture them in these new days. Knowing how the natural world has sustained me this year, I’ll be looking to continue to deepen my appreciating, and active care.

The poem I’m sharing with you today was written at a previous New Year. We nearly missed the foot ferry between Southwold and Walberswick while out on a long winter’s walk with our family. It ran till sunset – and sunset was upon us. It speaks of a happier time, when family could stay, when the foot ferry was open, as well as The Bell Inn at Walberswick. Today, husband and I did a long bright blue walk along the River Deben’s bank downstream from the creek, as far as you can now before the breach. It was beautiful, full of birds and ice. Little flags of ice clung on to the reeds after high tide and flashed in the sun. But I did remember this Walberswick walk, and the strange feeling of being suspended between the two shores, the two closed gates, in the hands of the ferryman whose course was sure even though it seemed to slant so across the water.

It helped me thinking about today, where I feel suspended between two shores. This year, the new shore seems further away, and harder to know. We are not used to feeling quite this adrift, and uncertain. Trust, hope, faith, love – and action drawn from these – are important now. But so is sitting with the uncertainty, with the not knowing where we are going and what we are doing. Perhaps in this space we can dream of a shore with warm, welcoming lights, with togetherness, with hope. Perhaps we may find we can be such a shore for each other, and keep lights of hope and welcome burning in the long cold nights.

I’ve shared with you another poem about winter walking along this shore, and a murmuration of starlings. You can read that here.

Crossing the Blyth at sunset, at the turn of the year.

We walked fast towards the ferry –
nearly too late –
and saw the ferryman on the other side,
the gate closed behind him.
But we waved, and he came,
his blue boat a long wide
curve across the river.

Behind him the setting sun,
the treeshapes
black against the orange sky,
How beautiful it is.
He helps us on board,
offering me his hand
with nautical courtesy,
and then shuts the gate
firmly behind us.

So we thank him, and our blue boat
begins to churn those golden waters
rippling with a fast tide,
as we seem to hang for a time
between those two closed gates,
between those two jetties,
in neither one space, nor the other.
We are somewhere else instead,
where all is gold,
where darkness lies behind,
where the lights of the houses and
the wide-open pub are ahead of us,
lights that warm with the hope of welcome.

We are suspended for a while
in this Adnams-blue boat
with the diesel and the saltsmell
and the cry of the birds,
bathed in light, trailing
an ice hand in water
the same colour
as the light.
Here we are.
This moment.
Between two moments.
How beautiful it is.

Poem: November Trees – twilight

I wrote this when it was darkening fast – by the end I could not see the marks my pencil was making in my notebook. Darkness comes so early now, but that change into night is beautiful, and, if we can take a moment to notice it, has things to teach us too.

So I have no photo of this moment, but am offering you others from autumn, and hope that you will have a chance to look out of the window, or walk through darkening paths, and see the trees as they settle for the winter, and the birds as they settle for the night.

November trees – twilight

It grows dark.
The trees are black lines
against a yellow sky
which shines, illuminating
through a net of ink,
and the last birds drift
overhead to their roosts
by the river,
and the last birds murmur
and settle in those darkening
trees,

And quiet sadness
creeps like frost across the grass,
as the last flowers
bow their rimy heads.

And suddenly, the question –
What are we to do?
seems a different kind of puzzle.
Not one to solve, but
one to lay down,
in its many pieces,
on the cold grass,
slowly, in wonder.

All this before me knows
what to do, and does it.
Rooted, patient,
receiving the weather like
weather –
whatever comes, comes.

From this place, it will act
when action stirs it with
the unsettling brightness
of spring.  When the ink
stirs once more with green sap.


Until then,
the cold trees will
net the light,
and wait, and deepen,
the darkness will spread
as I am learning to be
grateful for this breath,
to watch this red leaf
spin on a thread of
spiders web,
to feel the cold
sting me alive.

Retold: The plagues of Egypt – Exodus

Sitting alongside my series of poems drawn from Exodus, I’m sharing retellings from my book, The Bible Story Retold. I hope this gives some shape and context to the poems, which are free meditations, drawing on what has come up as I’ve spent time in prayer with the stories. This, on the plagues, is a companion to the most recent poem, Stone Heart/Let Go.

This is a hard story. The journey to liberation for the Hebrew people passes through great difficulty. The new beginning comes after a terrible ending. It is a story of the stubborn refusal of Pharaoh to let go, to release the people. It is the story of catastrophies piling up, one on another, or of a cascade of difficulty. Some of the Hebrew scholarship I’ve looked at in researching this section of the story invites us to consider how we can usefully refect on this section as environmental disaster, where exploiting the land and labour leads to these terrible consequences. One of the traditions of Hebrew scholarship is that of midrash, where different ways and levels of reading the story are held, each one having some light to shine for us. So there are, of course, other ways of seeing things, but for me, now, this one is speaking, and illuminating a path to action..

What if we, as individuals and as a culture, let people go, released them, allowed people to do something as apparently unproductive as to journey into the wilderness, and worship? What if we acknowledged that God desires justice, and mercy, and humble walking? I wonder what that would mean for us. Perhaps there is some hope for us, as we find ourselves at a time when difficulties mount up, when things are falling apart,that this could be a turning point, part of the process necessary for things to change.

It’s a long extract, so I’ll leave it to say what it says. You can find the Exodus account from Chapter 7 to Chapter 12, if you would like to read the original. I hope to write about the last plague, but now doesn’t seem the right time. Now, I’m turning my attention to Advent, and hope. When I do write the end of the Exodus series, I’ll share it with you here, and put together a post to help find all the Exodus material together.

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.

Second came the frogs. Once again Moses and Aaron warned Pharaoh, and once again he ignored them. So Aaron went around the land, stretching his staff over the Nile and all of the pools and ditches. They heaved and swarmed with frogs. The frogs came up into people’s houses, hopping on beds, clustering together on the plates.

Pharaoh was disgusted. “Yes, yes, I’ll let them go!” he said, and Moses prayed to God, and the frogs died. The Egyptians swept them into festing heaps. But then Pharaoh changed his mind.

Third came the gnats. There was the warning, and the refusal, and then gnats rose up in clouds like the dust of the destert. All people and animals were covered with bloodsucking insects. There was no relief. Pharaoh’s magicians had never seen anything like it; “This is God’s doing,” they warned him. But Pharaoh’s heart was hard and stubborn. He would not let the people go.

Fourth came the flies. “Go and confront Pharaoh on his way to his bathing place. Tell him he must let my people go. Warn him of what will happen next – the air will be thick with flies. But they will not come to Goshen, the place where my people live.” God’s words were clear, but Pharaoh did not listen. Soon the air was loud with buzzing, and every surface was crawling with flies – all the food was speckled and black. Only Goshen was free from them.

“Go on, then,” said Pharaoh. “Go to the wilderness.” But then he changed his mind.

Fifth came the animals. Moses and Aaron warned Pharaoh, but his heart was as hard as ever. All the livestock sickened and died; all the cattle, the sheep, the horses that pulled the chariots, and the traders’ camels – all dead. Only the animals in Goshen were spared.

Sixth came boils. The warning was ignored once again, and Moses threw soot up in the air right in front of Pharaoh. The soot blew onto the people, and they were covered with red, pus-filled boils. The boils spread, but Pharaoh remained as hard and cold as stone.

Seventh came hail. “This is what God says,” Moses told Pharaoh. He’s warning you: ‘You’re still building your kingdom on the backs of my people. You do not recognize my power, and so you will see more of it. I will send hail. Get everything under cover, for nothing will survive.'”

Pharaoh’s servants heard these words, and some hurried to hide their families and animals. Then the sky boiled with clouds and shuddered with angry thunder, and the hail come down. Huge white hailstones bounced on the earth, smashing everything. Nothing could survive in the open – and the crops were pummelled to a sodden pulp. But in Goshen, the sky stayed clear.

Eighth came locusts. When Pharaoh’s court heard the terrible warnings, they said, “Why don’t you listen to these men and let the slaves go? Can’t you see that the whole country is being ruined?” But Pharaoh’s stony heard would not soften, and so a terrible army of locusts marched across the ground, hungrily devouring everything that had been smashed by the hail. Not a tree, not an ear of grain, was spared.

Ninth came a heavy, suffocating darkness. The air was thick and hard to breathe. Such was the darkness that for three days and nights no one could leave their homes. All sat and talked in whispers under its weight. except in Goshen, for there was light in Goshen.

Tenth was death. Terrible, terrible were the warnings that God gave, heavy with the knowledge that Pharaoh would not listen, for his heart was set against God and the Israelites.

“This is it: get ready. After the tenth blw, Pharaoh will beg you to leave,” God said. And so Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and warned him of the grief that would crush Egypt if he did not let the slaves go.

“This is the final message from God, your last chance to change your mind. Listen now to God’s last warning: ‘Every firstborn son will die. From Pharaoh’s son to the son of the lowest slave woman who grinds the grain by hand, no one will be spared if you do not spare my people. When this terrible thing happens, all our people, courteirs and servants alike, will beg on their knees that you let my people go.'”

Pharaoh listened in stony silence. He would not relent

From my book, “The Bible Story retold in twelve chapters”.

You can buy the book online, for example at

Eden

Bookshop.org

The Little Christmas Tree – some ideas for 2020

Last year, I shared with you how my children’s Christmas book had taken on a new resonance as we considered the need to protect our wild spaces – the home of so many beautiful creatures. The story is set in a wood, and the characters are the woodland animals. You can read more about it in last year’s post here. As we’ve been in lockdown, many of us have experienced a closer bond with nature, realising how important the natural world is to us. In simple ways, we can deepen that bond. I am finding it helps to care for the creatures I share my garden with – in the last few weeks I’ve built – or assembled – a hedgehog house, and put up a new bird feeding station. It gives me joy to watch the birds through my window, even as I’m typing away here.

This year, the story’s themes of kindness and hospitality, of gentleness and welcome, matter greatly. At a time when so many people in our community are facing loneliness and hardship, considering how we can best help when our usual practices of hospitality are not possible is very important. For instance food banks, and our Little Free Pantry, are a good way of giving and sharing if we can. A reverse advent calendar, where you add something to a box for every day leading up to Christmas, can be a way of sharing.

So that’s a couple of ideas that draw on the themes of the book. They might be appropriate for Advent this year, things we can do as individuals, households, or maybe schools. I’d like to share with you some ideas from other people, too…

I’m finding it’s really hard to think about Christmas this year – what might be possible, and what might be wise. It’s hard to think of not seeing those we love as we would wish, and it’s hard not being able to plan ahead. But we can begin. I am greatly encouraged that people are making plans, and beginning to get in touch and share how they’d like to use my books this year.

Here is the sparkly paperback edition

I’ll share something else about The Little Christmas Tree here, and then, an idea for another book another day!

The first idea comes from Janeene Streather, who makes engaging Youtube videos using BSL. Her videos are for the deaf community, their families, and schools – many of whom integrate some BSL into their classrooms and assemblies. You can find a link to her channel here.

She would like to make a BSL video of The Little Christmas Tree, as part of her series of stories for children. Once again, I’ll post more details when I have them. I hope to share the link with you, so you can easily watch Janneene.

For all of us, we are used to being able to visit schools, or churches, or share our work with communities in other ways, and are unable to do so this year. But we can share here.

Please do use these ideas and resources, acknowledging the source. If you’d like to use my book, I’d love to hear your ideas from you, and share them on here if you’d like me to.

If you’d like a copy, you may well be able to order through your local bookshop even if it’s closed. Alternatively, there are the usual online places. I’m particularly excited about this new venture, though, and commend it to you….

Bookshop.org is a new enterprise which supports local bookshops while selling online. It’s applying for B corporation status in the UK, which means it operates to high ethical standards and makes a positive contribution to communities. You can read a newspaper article about it here.

If you follow this link, you’ll find my book The Little Christmas Tree on sale there.

You can also find it on Eden bookshops, and all the other online shops.

Note and Correction:

In an earlier version of this post, I shared an idea for an outside nativity. I’d got my wires crossed and thought it was using The Little Christmas Tree. It will be using another of my books, The Bible Story Retold. You can read all about that here. Apologies for the muddle!

Poem: One and Many

This week, as the darkness and the weather continue to close in, and the news is full of sadness and anger, I’ve been doing something I have never done before – as so many of us are.

I’ve been participating in an online retreat, by zoom, with the Community of Aiden and Hilda, which should have been at Lindisfarne – Holy Island. I’ve never been to such a retreat before, and had not planned to go, but I was encouraged by a friend to try, and dip my toes into those North Sea waters from further south. The week’s subject is The Way of Three, exploring the Celtic love of Trinity.

Celtic prayers and blessings are full of references to this threefold presence of God – not as inscrutable doctrine, but as a deep way of experiencing God, and indeed, all things. Its participatory, and dwells in the dance of interconnection. I have had a growing awareness of this other way of seeing, and just begin to explore it in the chapter on the True Vine in my book, Jesus said “I Am” – finding life in the everyday. You can read a little from that chapter here.

It’s a beautiful and wise retreat, full of welcome and love. I am so glad I joined. On the morning of the second day, I woke with a really strong sense of how everything is bound together, held together in love, and how our new understandings of interconnectedness in ecology and physics and computing and economics are opening our eyes to a new way of seeing and being in the word. As we see reality as interconnected, it gives us a picture, a frame, to help us see God as participating in a dance of love. We find it hard to open up our understanding of God, and these new ways of looking at the world can work as metaphors, helping us picture what is hard to comprehend. What was, at least to me, a doctrinal puzzle, from a perspective of separateness, is now something liveable, relevant, and joyful. It’s taking me a while to find a way of articulating and knowing more deeply this sense, but in the meantime, here is a poem, which I wrote that morning – the day before yesterday. I hope it helps.

One and many

In my garden, I greet the birds
as they slow to land, and hop amongst
the plants, and the feeders.

I greet too the plants,
arriving more slowly still.
I work with what is.
I seek to welcome what grows,
and as things come to the end,
I thank them for their presence,
their work in the garden.

This space is encircled with green,
protected,
so the sharing and flourishing
is open, free.
And within, and without,
all is joined together
in the air, the light, the
rain, and the soil,
the pale threads, deep, deep
in the dark earth that join
under fences and hedges.

Sometimes, I look and see
this bird, this tree,
and flower, and butterfly.
And then my eyes widen,
my focus shifts
and I see the whole,
bound together
in all that is.
I see one loud
singing green,
and that glorious,
and that, welcoming me.

Be the eye of God dwelling with you,
The foot of Christ in guidance with you,
The shower of the Spirit pouring on you,
Richly and generously.

Taken from Wise Sayings of the Celts

This morning, I watched and listened to this beautiful piece by David Whyte – another blessing.

And a quote from today’s notes….

Maximus the Confessor (6th century theologian):
“To contemplate the smallest object is to experience the Trinity:
the very being of the object takes us back to the Father;
the meaning it expresses, its logos, speaks to us of Logos;
its growth to fulness and beauty reveals the Breath, the Life-giver.”

Plant Hope #PlantHope

Over the summer, I had some dreams of what I might do come the autumn. I wasn’t too foolhardy in my dreaming, I knew that the pandemic was likely to bite back by winter, but I wasn’t anticipating it being quite so soon, or feel so much like tipping into darkness and confusion.

One of my dreams was to “do something” by way of creative protest in support of the environment, something small and local that would perhaps offer hope, and a touch of beauty. I had dreamed of a creative, peaceful presence in my town’s shopping street, giving out bookmarks and daffodil bulbs, encouraging people to #PlantHope. Somehow, I never quite got to the place where I felt brave enough to do it on my own, and I miss the collective gatherings where we can encourage and support each other to do things together. I miss church community, I miss other communities too of friends and likeminded people.

But I am thinking, it’s not too late to start something. And, as local people, and people far away, join me on this blog, I thought I’d share the idea with you, and see what happens. Release it, or plant it, and see what grows.

As the seasons are turning, I’m suprised to find how urgently I’m seeking to prepare for winter, and plant for spring. As news from the pandemic, the economy, the natural world feels grim, I am looking to the natural world to help me through this coming time, as it helped in the spring with the Lockdown Poems. And so the idea of #PlantHope began to grow in my mind. Maybe some would like to pick up the idea of giving out bulbs, observing social distancing. Maybe we can also all do some hopeplanting, or planthoping, in our gardens or windowsills, seeking to nurture and care for something green and growing over the winter, and into the spring.

A reminder not to give up. A reminder that nature is resillent, relentless in its capactity to grow and flourish in even the most difficult situations. It only needs a little light, a little water, and some hope.

Shall we give this a go? Shall we plant hope?

I made my bookmark with a stamp by the lovely Noolibird.

The plastic free bulbs are from Farmer Gracy

And the table is from Hannah Dowding Furniture

Part of my intent to Plant Hope is to try to support independent traders and businesses doing their best to be sustainable, where that’s possible.

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 loud geese,
endlessly joined by
threads of sound –
the strong 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.