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.

Poem: Moses waits by the Nile for Pharaoh. Exodus poems 9

On the banks of the Deben

Here we are, then, in this series of poems drawn from my meditations on the book of Exodus – we have reached the first plague. The first of ten terrible blows to strike at the stony heart of Egypt, when Pharaoh refused to release his slaves from their labour.

You can read this section of the story, and reflections on its meaning for us, now, in our time of crisis, in my previous blog post here. As I’ve said, I find the story of the plagues hard to read, hard to understand in the terms it is set out. What I do see is a picture of God who longed for this people to be free, who cared for their suffering, and who asked their oppressors, through Moses, to release them. I see that the slaves found it hard to hold on to hope, as did Moses. I see how Moses and Aaron persist at risk to themselves, and their people, in asking for freedom, and to warn of the consequences if freedom is not granted.

It seems to me, that in the Hebrew scriptures, plagues and national disaster are linked to injustice – especially towards the vulnerable, and even to the land itself. We see this in the book of Amos especially, but it runs through the words of many prophets. However we interpret these stories, the ancient wisdom gives us connections between not following the ways of justice, and mercy, and peace, and the unravelling of nations.

This poem, like others in the series, is uncertain. We are part way through a story, and if we are to honour the story, we can acknowledge the confusion, the fear, that must have been felt by those who lived it. We are used to reading stories in the pages of scripture, and they can become, in time, stories we know well. We can forget that these people’s stories were full of deep uncertainty, fear, and confusion, as we find our own lives to be. But if we remember, and enter into them compassionately and prayerfully, we may see where they found their hope, and how they lived even when hope was not to be found. Perhaps we can draw some encouragement from their ancient wisdom.

This poem echoes the first in the series, Pharaoh’s daughter, and the child. It draws out the parallels between the beginning of Moses’ story, and this moment when the plagues begin. That seems significant to me.

Thank you for joining me on this walk through this most foundational of the Hebrew Scriptures. I hope it helps as we navigate our way through difficult times.

Moses waits by the Nile for Pharaoh.  Exodus poems 9

Here you stand,
by the place where your mother left you
in a basket,
where your sister stood watch,
all those long, restless years ago.

In the place where a Princess’
attendant drew you out from the water,
crying,
out from the Nile-reeds,
where crocodiles waited,
out from the flood and the snakes
and the hum of mosquitoes,
out from the sentence of death –
instead, adopting you,
making you her own.

And now, all these long,
restless years later,
another from the royal house
makes his way to the bathing place,
just as she did,
and will find you there

as you stand, with your brother
by your side,  
as golden Nile-waters
swirl and eddy and
ripple outwards, outwards
from the place where you stand,
shining and fearful
in the dawn light.

And, as there was no freedom
to be granted that day,
You raised high your staff,
brought it down to
strike that golden water
which thickened and reddened
and turned to blood.

And the Nile,
which should be the life-blood
of the land,
became instead the blood of death.
Death like that
of newborns
cast without help or mercy
into these waters, long restless
years ago, at the time
when you were saved.


Judgement,
could this be judgement,
stretching out like
darkness over a dark land?

Where is peace, and mercy,
and life to be found now?
Where a soft heart
in this dry land?
Where freedom?

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: Bricks without straw II – Exodus poems 7

This is the next poem in the series, continuing to stand in that difficult moment after Moses and Aaron had asked Pharaoh to let the people go, and before they reached their freedom.

At this point, as the slaves began to stand tall, and to hope, and to make their presence felt as fully human rather than cogs in the power machine of empire, things grew worse for them. Their labour was made harder. The first poem of this pair explores the moment more, and you can read it here.

It can be hard to see the way forward…..

Here in the UK, our steps towards returning to more normal patterns of work and school, of re-invigorating the bonds of family and community, are faltering, as we see that the virus is on the rise once more. Hope deferred is hard. Steps towards “building back better” seem to be faint and hard to find. Once again, we see those calling for a better world, for respect for all people and all living things, opposed.

But, but…… we know the right dwelling place for hope is in these dark and difficult times. Hope does not belong with blind and sunny optimism, but with the courage to walk along hard and stony ways, and to act from the faith that there is a movement towards goodness and justice and flourishing in the world. What is more, by acting, we can help bring such things about. We can know that Spirit broods over the face of chaos, seeking to nurture something new, and calls forth balance, harmony, and the flourishing of life.

So, as we reflect on how hard it must have been for the slaves, to see their hopes seemingly dashed, perhaps we can draw courage for our own situations, and know that this is part of the process, and that vision, and persistence, are powerful even in the face of those who seem to hold all the power.

If you would like to read more of the story, you can do so here.

Bricks without straw II  Exodus Poems 

Hope.
The people hoped
when they knew that
God had heeded their
pain

Spoken
through fire and thorn,
Spoken to Moses –
the one placed between
palace and slave,
of-them,
but not
of-them.

Shown Signs –
The staff-snake,
the whitened skin,
and its healing.

So long,
so long looked for –
through four long centuries
of silence and slavery.

But see now how
this hope has
shattered.
Their deliverers,
Moses and Aaron
have roused Pharaoh’s wrath
put a sword into his hand.

Now, the people
scour the fields
bent double,
gathering straw
to make bricks out of mud.
A cruel reversal of
their old story,
when God moulded
the first human,
in God’s own image,
out of the very earth.

Instead of hope’s promise –
liberation, a new land,
they were
crushed, broken breathed.
They could no more
hear the consolation
of the prophet.

 They dared not hope.
Their state was worse than before.

So it is
when liberation begins.
So it is.

Poem: Bricks without straw I – Exodus Poems 6

New things are struggling to begin.

It’s been a little while since I shared a poem with you. August was hot, a month for resting, and exploring some of the new freedoms of a loosened lockdown to see people, and do things, that hadn’t been possible before. I also wanted to take some time to think where the Exodus Poems might be going. I knew there were more things to explore, but wasn’t quite sure what. As ever, patience and openness helps. Not forcing or worrying, but waiting for whatever it is to emerge.

And as the hot month rolled on, I felt that what I needed to write about was the moment that Moses and Aaron went to see Pharaoh to ask leave to go into the desert – “Let my people go”.

The meadow – our lawn just before mowing

It’s a key turning point, and one we often overlook in our hurry through the story. We know that this people will, in the end, find their freedom, and go to the wilderness. But what must have it been like to be in this moment, when they ask for freedom, and Pharaoh doubles down on their slavery, making it so much harder for them to work? Now, they have to make bricks without one of the main ingredients – straw. I have written two poems on this moment so far. I may find there is more to come, but I’ll share these with you. I’m also sharing the story from my Retelling, and you can read that here.

Power is not relinquished readily. As we see the rising tide of unrest in the USA, calling for civil rights, as we see the creative protests of Extinction Rebellion beginning again in the UK and elsewhere, we see how reluctant those in power, and perhaps more humanely, the systems they too are caught up in, are to change. We see the usual blame – people are lazy, not being good citizens, disruptive…. Perhaps it is instructive to see this Exodus account – unusually written from the perspective of the slave, the oppressed – and realise how instinctive, how ancient, this reaction is. Perhaps it will help those of us who seek change to anticipate, and to plan ahead. If we know how Power is likely to respond, perhaps we can use all our creativity and self discipline to remain peaceful, and compassionate, in our calls for justice.

It has also crossed my mind that the demands we are hearing in the UK for people to get back to work has something of the same desperation about it. Those who depend on the machine need the machine to keep running, just the same as before. I hear the crack of a whip in my mind. But we have had some time away from our normal rhythmns of work, and now, many who can work at home prefer to do so, finding their lives more harmonious, less harried. In time, this may provide the impetus for a shift to a more local, more sustainable, greener economy. But that is not the whole story. There are many who long to go back to work, and fear for their livelihoods. They may fear they do not have jobs to go back to. That is a very different situation. And the insistence on going back to work must seem particularly cruel for them.

In the meantime, we can return to our Exodus narrative, back to the Hebrew slaves, and consider how their situation may help us interpret current events. Their first steps towards liberation must have looked like something very different: an increase in crushing labour. The second poem on this part of the story will turn towards their experience, in particular.

Often, it seems, the beginning of hope, the beginning of progress, looks a lot like falling apart, and disaster. There is no certainty that disaster will pave the way to something new and better, but within these challenges, we can begin to remember the resurrection hope, and the dawn that follows the darkness.

Hollyhock seeds

Bricks without straw I – Exodus poems  6

A few days they asked for.
A few days to journey
into the wilderness,
and worship.
A few days to lay down burdens,
to stand tall, and to freely bow.

A few days of music, and laughter,
to feel the hot desert wind
that hisses over the sand.
To camp amongst thorns,
to live free, open to immensity.

They stood in the courts of Pharaoh,
they dared stand there,
and ask these things.
They did not draw swords,
They did not rage.
Instead, they stood,
tall in their humanity,
in their dignity,
speaking of loyalties
beyond those of labour
to Pharaoh.

But Pharaoh could not hear.
He only knew these cogs
in his great machine
were stopping.
Not working.
His heart hardened.

Lazy he called them,
rebellious,
and added to their burdens.
Now, they must scour the fields
for straw, and make bricks,
as many as before.

So it is, how power responds,
When asked.
Resists. Clings tight,
presses down its heel,
strong, and cruel,
certain of victory,
certain of rightness.
So it thinks.
So it thinks.

Poem: On fire, but not burned. Exodus poems 5

IMG_0988This next in a series of poems drawn from the story of Exodus circles again around the mystery of the burning bush.  Like all these poems, it draws on my meditations on the Hebrew scripture held in one hand, and an awareness of our current situation in the other.  I am exploring what this ancient story may have to tell us at this critical and bewildering time.

This poem takes the delightful idea that maybe there are burning bushes all around us, and moves us to a consideration of what the voice from the burning bush said to Moses, and what that may mean for us if we are on the look out for revelation, and hope, as we go about our daily business. It follows on from Holy ground, barefoot – an earlier poem in the series.

This poem touches on an episode from the gospels, where Jesus is revealed in brightness on a mountain in the presence of Moses, and Elijah.  The two stories are deeply connected. You can read about the Transfiguration here, if you would like to. It is the time of year when some churches celebrate the Festival of the Transfiguration, and my link will lead you to a beautiful blog from the Iona Community, “This new light”.

If you would like to read the story of the burning bush, you can do so in my earlier post, here. If you do, you will also find some fragments of writing by others which helped inspire this meditation.

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On fire, but not burned  Exodus poems 5

Do angels speak
from every bush?
Whispering in the
rustle of leaves,
perhaps,
the low hum of insects –
or louder, clearer,
more insistent.
Was that holy fire
for one place,
one purpose,
or might it
happen –
could it happen –
everywhere?

The bush on the hill
of Horeb was aflame,
we read of it –
worth turning aside
from the work of tending
sheep, or finding water,
turning aside to see.

But I glimpse, too, a deeper
Transfiguration,
unveiling,
peeling back an ordinary
moment to reveal
depth, and warmth,
brightness,
and truth.

I catch a glimpse,
a hope, of
each living thing
with a heart of life-fire,
not of burning,
not of perishing,
but of God-fire growing,
giving, sustaining, all.

Maybe, angels still speak,
louder, clearer,
telling us
to take off our shoes,
for the very earth is holy.

Telling us
of a God who has talked
with our ancestors,
those who walk behind us
speaking old wisdom
we tend to forget.

But most of all
these living flames
speak of affliction,
they spark forth
in suffering,
roused by
the pain of all things,
of a suffering people,
they call to the work of
deliverance

through
the body of one
who will listen to
this voice,
who will turn aside
to gaze on
holy flames.

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: Stamps

eadt woodbridge

Photo from the EADT, from some time before the coronavirus crisis

I had to go to the post office today, walking through the shopping street of the market town where I live.  It was much busier than it has been, which is good for trade, but means you have to engage in a complex dance of awareness and courtesy to give people enough room, especially near those who seem to be moving to music all of their own and not noticing the paths of others.  There is some anxiety even seeing your neighbours and friends, trying to remember to keep your distance, and suppress the desire to be close, to hug perhaps.

I remembered this poem as I was at the counter, which I shared with you some time ago.  I remembered it as I felt the absence of the connection I associate with running errands in the town, a lack of touch, and often of looks and smiles, as we seek to navigate a world where we look different in our masks, and sometimes don’t yet recognise each other in these new guises.

It’s a poem about contact and connection through a perspex barrier, how we long for such connection, and seek to make it.  It is also a poem about the gentleness we can adopt with strangers, not knowing the sadness, the burdens, they may be carrying.  It seems an appropriate poem for today.

 

Stamps

Two of the blinds were down,
Position Closed, but yours
hovered, unreadable, just
above your head.

There was   no queue,
and I approached you
cautiously,
clutching thick manila
envelopes.

Are you open? I asked.
As you raised your head,
I saw trails of tears down
your smudged cheeks,
such large heavy drops.

First class, two –
I’m so sorry.
You smiled, and
I stretched out my
hand and touched
fingertips to the glass,

Passed warm coins
through, which you
held a moment,
then gave me stamps,
straightening your back.

 

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.