Sitting in the garden in the late afternoon today – the Summer Solstice – I watched the daisies in the sun and the breeze. Here they are.
Midsummer – and the tall daisies are full of light, nodding and glowing, glowing and nodding, saying yes, it seems, to all that is.
Simplicity – to receive the light and shine out in turn. To have roots in the dark earth, in the damp earth and to shine like this – with a purity of brightness, and such depth of yellow, while swaying, like this, in the breeze.
Perhaps it is so – simply to be is holy, to receive and to give is enough, this longest of days.
Alchemy – for surely it is a glory, and a wonder, to turn earth and damp and light into this brightness, this daily beauty, shining like the distant sun here, in this shady place, beneath my apple tree.
But this poem, a little later than I’d intended due to a bout of covid, came about only a few weeks ago, on a wild and unpredictable day. The way the crows stayed together as they flew was remarkable – they held a bond, they held their distance, tumbling together, despite the unpredictable blustering of the wind. It brought to mind all the things that we find hard to measure in our systems of measuring – the bonds between us, the gifts of attention and intent, the power of belonging. In this poem, the question of hope came to mind. I have not resolved it. I was thinking about hope in the face of all the pains of the living earth, including ourselves – the disruption and destruction of networks of life that have been in place for aeons.
Perhaps the question is one I can let go, learn to live with. And another, perhaps more useful question is can I continue to turn my attention to these strange, immesurable qualities of love, belonging, gratitude, which can shift our attention, and therefore our action.
In any case, here are some pictures from the garden, and a poem for you.
Two crows in an April gale
And as the wind blows slant across the patched and mottled sky, I watch two crows tumbling and twisting sideways through the cold air, keeping together
As if each is the other’s fixed point, their north star, dark as they are against the darkening clouds, in this sudden, unfamiliar cold, as the wind veers north, then south, then north while the day’s unease lengthens.
And these two birds floating through so much turmoil, an upended sky, remain, strangely, together – paired, equidistant, invisibly tangled, gyring like lost kites with sinuous strings.
Is there any hope? I know not. Facts singe and darken with fire. Even Spring seems provisional as the wind shifts strangely.
Do I hope? I know not. And yet this bond between the birds speaks of much that is not counted in our counting of facts. Our reckoning speaks not of the loves between us, the urgency of our turning, the efforts we bear to remain close, all things holding together in strange union.
Now, a lull, the crows are gone, and the blackbird sings still, and yet, and
Oh I cannot bear that he should sing in vain. So sing into being a new, ancient world, brother bird, dear one, sing on, calling to another, calling to life, and who knows where this bleak wind will carry our songs.
Who knows the power of these loves, of that sweet melody, of the tumbling together of crows.
The lino cuts at the top of this post were done to go with some poems which I posted before. If you would like to read them, you can begin here.
As I was thinking about all that binds us together, these words from the New Testament came to mind. They help me. Colossians 1:15-17
Once again, we’re having a strange time of preparation for Christmas. With so much uncertainty about the virus, and some confusion about plans, and travel, I’ve been finding it hard to think I’ll really be able to see loved ones this year…. but so far, it’s looking like it might all still be possible.
And as I woke up this morning, I thought about how uncertain, and bewildering, Mary and Joseph’s situation was at that first Christmas. How much it was, in the end, about God being with us even in the most unpromising situations. For them, it was hardly shining tinsel all tied up with a bow, but the gift of a child born far away from their home was the most profound blessing, after all.
So, whatever ends up happening, I’m trying to hold on to that thought, to steady myself and ready myself as best I can.
May you have a peaceful and blessed Christmas, wherever you are.
The Roman Emperor, Caesar Augustus, had ordered a census throughout the whole empire, when all the people would be counted, and taxed. The orders spread along straight Roman roads, and were proclaimed first in the white marble cities and ports, and then in the towns and villages of the countryside.
Even quiet Nazareth heard the news, and Mary and Joseph began to gather together their belongings, ready to travel to Bethlehem. That was Joseph’s family home: he was descended from King David, of Bethlehem. They set off south on the crowded road, for the whole empire was travelling. But, for Mary, the journey was especially hard, and the road seemed never ending. It was nearly time for her baby to be born.
At last they came to Bethlehem, but it was not the end of their troubles. The city was noisy, bustling, and heaving with crowds, and Joseph searched anxiously for somewhere quiet for Mary to rest – her pains were beginning, and the baby would be born that night. The inn was already full of travellers, and the only place for them was a stable. There, among the animals, Mary gave birth to her firstborn son, and wrapped him up tightly in swaddling bands and laid him in a manger full of hay. Then, she rested next to the manger, smiling at the baby’s tiny face.
There were shepherds who lived out on the hills nearby – the same hills where King David had once watched over the flocks, long ago. The sheep were sleeping in their fold under the shining stars, while the shepherds kept watch. Their fire flickered and crackled, and the lambs would bleat for their mothers, but they were the only sounds. All was peaceful. All was well.
Suddenly, right there in the shepherd’s simple camp, appeared and angel of the Lord, shining with God’s glory and heaven’s brightness. The shepherds gripped each other in terror, their skin prickling with fright. “Don’t be afraid, I’m bringing you good news – it will bring joy to all people!” The shepherds listened, awestruck, their faces glowing with the angel’s light. “This is the day the good news begins, and this is the place. In the town of David, a saviour has been born. He is Christ, the Anointed One, the one you have been waiting for. And this is the sign that these words are true: you will find a baby wrapped tightly in swaddling bands, lying in a manger.”
The shepherds watched as light was added to light, voice to voice, until they were surrounded by a dazzling, heavenly host of angels, all praising God and saying “Glory! Glory to God in the highest, And on the earth be peace!”
And then, in an instant, the angels were gone, and the shepherds were left in dark night shadows, listening to the sound of a distant wind. But their eyes still shone with heaven’s light. “Let’s go and see for ourselves!” they called to one another as they raced over the dark, rocky fields to Bethlehem. There, they found Mary and Joseph, and, just as the angel had said, they found the baby wrapped tightly in swaddling bands and lying in a manger. They saw him with their own eyes, and spread the angel’s message to all they met. “The Promised One has come! The Christ, the Anointed One, has been born!” The angel’s words were on everyone’s lips that night in Bethlehem. And, as the shepherds made their way back to their sheep, bursting with good news, Mary kept their words safe, like treasures, in her heart.
A few years ago now, I wrote a poem called Sorrows. You can read it here, it might be a good place to start. In it, I describe the endless task of attempting to lay sorrows down, to look for what is good, to notice the beauty even in dark times.
That task does seem to be endless. It can get you through when things seem too heavy, it can help minute by minute, but, before you know, you find there they are, back in your arms, needing to be carried still. I have not found it helps as much as it used to. I have been learning a different way, a way of welcoming, of caring for each apparently unwelcome guest as if it were a child, or an elder with wisdom to offer, or both. I am seeking to learn to be gentle, and tender, with myself, as I would be to another. In this I have been influenced by, among other things, the beautiful and challenging Rumi poem, The Guest House, and Mary Oliver’s small treasure of a poem, The Uses of Sorrow. I include it here.
The Uses of Sorrow, by Mary Oliver. (In my sleep I dreamed this poem)
Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness.
It took me years to understand that this, too, was a gift.
And so I have written a sister poem to the first, one which expresses more roundedly what I seek to attempt now. I hope it speaks to you, too. I leave it up to you to wonder who is speaking the words of the final stanza.
I carry sorrows in my arms. They are heavy, and my arms grow heavy with them. I ache with the weight of both.
When I look up, away, they seem lifeless, and grey, but this day I choose to look down.
I find, to my surprise, a weeping child in my arms, a child who has known no consolation.
What if I cradle her gently? What if I ask her to tell me her sorrows, and stroke her hair, while the blue sky and the clouds and the trees bend softly to listen?
What if the high buzzard joins in with her cry, and the flower bends too, even while watered by her tears? I rock from side to side, the sway of a mother strong with love,
And in time, in time, I say “hush, I am holding you, I have heard you, rest now, sweet child.”
And she raises her bright head, full of wisdom, quiet with beauty, and looks at the darkening sky, and the golden trees where a white owl wakes.
Look, there are stars in the darkness, a whole Milky Way of them, there is the softness of dawn light coming, coming. Take courage. I am carrying you. We go together.
Things change, yet leave their mark. I was thinking about this as I looked at one of our apple trees, grown curved in its search for light. You can see the shape of the trunk most clearly in the shadow it leaves on the fence. It grew like this to adapt to the dense shade of a neighbouring shrub which grew faster than it, and cast it in shadow. That shrub died, it is gone now. Yet even as light returns, the curve remains. Grown like this, the tree has given us apples in autumn, and beauty all year. I thought about how the tree found a way of flourishing despite the shade, and admired its resilience. So, the poem is mainly about the tree, but also, murmuring away underneath, was an awareness of the tree as teacher, making visible something that is often hidden within us.
The tree adapted to its setting, and as the setting changed, the adaptation remains even though there is more light. We all do this, whether it’s growing accustomed to living quietly and distantly during a pandemic, or learning from a young age how to live in difficult emotional or physical circumstances. Even when things are better, lighter, more friendly, we can find ourselves living as if they are not. Patterns of mind can be changed, new growth can happen, but it takes noticing, with compassion, and stretching ourselves a little into the new, more open space.
As lockdown eases, we can go gently with ourselves as we try to asses what is safe, and what has become a habit that is no longer needed – and those assesments are far from easy. We can be gentle with each other, too, as we all navigate our way into more open living. The changes in how we respond may be, in part, due to patterns of being which were laid down long ago. These, too, can be nurtured into more helpful shapes that keep us safe and help us flourish, both. I believe we can become free from patterns that no longer serve us, and grow with full vigour.
All these things I thought about, as I looked at the apple tree. But mainly, I though how beautiful it was, and how much blossom it bore this year.
The apple tree, having grown in shadow
I follow the curve with my eyes, the way the thin trunk arches back, seeking light. On that side, the branches grow thicker, surer.
It bends away from the dense shade that was there, only weeks ago, a dark shrub that outgrew it, then died. Now, the blossomy branches lean back, away, from open light-filled space.
Cast in shadow, it grew thus, leafing and flowering, supple, adapting to shade, and seeking light.
I wonder, what will happen now? Now we have cut down that dense, dry growth? The thin branches on this side will fill out, strengthen, divide, reaching into the place that was once too dark, heavy, in time, with fruit.
But what of the trunk? Will it bear, one hundred years from now, that curve, lessened, perhaps, by years of thickening growth? The adaptation no longer serves it, yet the tree may still bear it, And the tree’s beauty is held in the grace of this curve.
Such shapes of growth and thought persist, gently, strangely, known or unknown. We make allowance for the ghost of a shadow no longer seen.
Today is the day some call Blue Monday – the most depressing day of the year.
Here in Suffolk, though, we have had some sunshine, and the frost has sparkled, so it’s less gloomy here – at least meteorologically – than it has been for weeks.
I thought I’d share this poem with you. Churchill called his depression his Black Dog, and it seems a good name for it. I have tried to express the care and nurture we wish we could give ourselves, and those we walk with, when we notice the Black Dog is beginning to sniff around. Those gentle nudges towards the things that used to bring life and joy, in the hope that they will again. I hope that has quite a different feel to injunctions to pull up your socks, or whatever. It’s more a hope of holding on to the capacity to notice what does you good, and to keep on doing that, even when you don’t feel the good being done.
I hope it is a simple and gentle hand to hold.
The Blurt Foundation offers compassionate support resources online, as do many other organisations.
Throwing Sticks for the Black Dog
When I’m walking, I pick up sticks,
they feel rough and dry in my hand.
I have been collecting them for a while,
just in case.
And that black dog, well, can you see him?
Is he walking with us –
sloping through the undergrowth?
Or there, breathing at our heels?
I will throw some sticks.
Maybe he will turn playful,
maybe he’ll run after them
and not come back. Maybe.
Maybe he’ll leave us alone for a while.
I can try.
Here are a few I have gathered:
Beauty, any sort of beauty
that takes you unawares
so the mind halts in its circling tracks.
Green beauty of growing things,
beauty that comes from the human
heart and mind –
words that build castles in the air.
Look, there they are!
Light, and the patterns it makes
through these leaves,
and darkness, when it is soft,
when, awake at night,
sitting by an open window,
I hear the owl – can you hear it?
Movement and prayer, together,
if movement and prayer remain possible.
Good food, that grows in the earth,
its colours and smells as I chop, chop.
Friendship, and kindness –
either given, received, or witnessed.
The memory of good things past,
the faintest trace of hope for
good things to come.
For good things may come.
And so, I carry this armful of sticks,
ready to throw – ready to give away –
Much has happened this week. Today, Remembrance Day in the UK, I am acutely aware of the importance of keeping peace between the nations, of reconciliation and forgiveness between us, of acceptance and inclusion for all. Reconciliation, and an acknowledgement of the sacred worth of each individual human, seem further away now than they did.
This poem is a personal one, expressing something of an attempt to keep perspective among sorrows. I know that for many, and for all of us from time to time, any such attempt can be impossible. I wrote to try and express what can feel like the constant task of not being overwhelmed, and to remind myself that when I can, it is worth the attempt.
I hope it also contains a gleam of hopeful truth. Not a truth that ignores the darker realities, but that is prepared to see the possibility of light coming in the darkness. Both are real, but I find that if I can stay with the hope of dawn, even the darkness can take on a different quality. Actions that lead to hope seem more possible, more achievable. It is worth living for hope, not because the things we hope for will necessarily come, but at least in part because if we set our eyes on a kind and generous future, we are more likely to live in a kind and generous way now. At least, I find that to be the case.
To all of you who are feeling a weight of sorrow, I hope this helps. May dawn come soon.
I carry stones in my arms.
They are grey,
and powder me
with dry dust.
They have sharp edges
my fingers find like
a tongue with a tooth.
When I notice,
I put them down,
stand up straight
Look, the sky is full of blue,
of high white clouds,
the trees chime with
and a buzzard soars,
weightless, with its thin cry.
Look, there is one last flower
growing in the cracks,
and one last bee.
Who would have thought that losses
could be so heavy?
I find them lying on my eyes
in the dark, heavy and hot,
and on my heart and stomach,
heavy and cold.
I put them down.
Seventy times seven.
The work of Sisyphus.
Look, there are stars in the darkness,
a whole Milky Way of them,
there is the softness of dawn light
Photographs are from the woods above Selworthy Green, Exmoor, and the coast at Watchet.
The reference seventy times seven is to something Jesus said when asked how often we need to forgive. I used it here for any work where painful memory or thought keeps on surfacing, and we keep laying it down. Sisyphus refers to the Greek myth of one who repeatedly rolls a boulder up a hill, only watch it roll down again.