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

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The banks of the Deben, high tide

As I was coming to the end of writing the Lockdown Poems, a couple of things were tugging at my attention.  One was the thought of doing a series of poems on the I Am sayings, revisiting some of the prose and prayer from my book.  The other was the huge sweep of the cry for justice that is circling the world – the cry for racial, environmental, and economic justice.  One of the things the coronavirus crisis has done has been, as we’ve said before, to reveal painful things – to draw back the veil and show aspects of society that many of us have been fortunate enough to be able to overlook.

As I was looking at the origins of the I Am sayings – Moses’ experience with the burning bush – I was deeply struck by the relevance of the Exodus story  to our current world situation.  I would encourage you to read Exodus Chapters 1-3 to start with, if you can, and see what strikes you.  Many things opened up for me, and I intend to explore them imaginatively and prayerfully, inhabiting the story, and asking for wisdom. I hope I’ll return to the I Ams again, but for now, these matters seem too pressing to ignore.

We can see how the story of Exodus progresses.  It begins with forgetfulness.  Forgetfulness of the way Joseph, ex-slave, ex-prisoner, had saved the country from famine with his vision and good management, forgetfulness of how we are all interconnected, and bring gifts to our situation.  The Egyptians forgot, and were afraid.  Their enslavement of the Hebrew people is told as an act of weakness, not strength.  How that fear led to justifying the terrible law for the slaughter of baby boys – there are echoes of the Gospel here, where the baby boys of Bethlehem were killed, and Jesus’ family escaped to Egypt.  At the time of Exodus this was the known world’s richest and most powerful empire, and the process of unravelling that power and wealth seems to be begun within that unjust law. So contrary to all that is good and right in human relations was it, that it carried the seeds of its own undoing. And maybe that sheltering of the infant Jesus was, knowingly or unknowingly done, a kind of restitution.

In this story of Exodus, I’m powerfully struck how the action of one young woman changed nations. Her compassion was the point of turning. That is not to say that we measure our small acts of kindness by their global impact, or only do them if we feel there will be some kind of payback, but that this story reveals the hidden power of compassion, and can offer encouragement to us to not think better of our moments of better feeling, but to act on them – to reach out and help, offer what we can.  What those feelings and acts accomplish is, in many ways, not our business. We can offer them, release them, and what happens happens.  If we praying people, we can simply offer them to God, with no thought of future benefipayback. They can cease to be our own. Of course, we can try to be mindful of unintened negative consequences, but we seek to act from love and goodness independent of outcome for ourselves. For Pharoah’s daughter, if she survived to the time of the plagues and freedom for the slaves, this mercy to Moses may not have seemed such a good act after all.

The other thing which struck me forcibly was the fact that she acted from a place of safety, and privilege.   She did something that would have brought swift punishment if someone else had done it.  She seems to have used her safety almost without thought of the consequences, to help this one child.  We don’t know any surrounding information – what her attitude to her father’s law was before, or after.  All we know is this one thing about her. This one act.  Maybe it can encourage us to listen to one another, in different circumstances, to speak of our difficulties when we experience them, and to speak and act for others when they cannot do so for themselves.
And here is another thing our current crisis has revealed – deep wells of compassion and community, the capacity of people to act to help and support people they know, and don’t know.  The veil drawn back has shown us good, too. There is hope in this deeper reality.

The ending of this poem carries an echo of William Blake’s The Divine Image, which is incredibly apt for our current situation. It was published in 1789, and carries its message of equality in language of the time.  It’s a powerful read.

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There are major shifts happening in the world right now, and I am attempting to listen, to keep my mind open, to pray, and to understand, and to act.

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Taken from Exodus Chapter 2

 

Pharaoh’s Daughter, and the child.  Exodus poems 1

You named him Moses,
drew him out of
that small ark,
a precious cargo.
Out of the Nile-reeds,
where crocodiles wait,
out of the flood and the snakes
and the hum of mosquitoes,
out of the sentence of death
your father had passed.
In that moment, your heart responded,
the moment when you heard him cry
hungry, closed in the dark
and the silence
of his pitch-black basket,
in a moment, you reached out your hand,
and touched – not a slave-child,
but simply a hungry one, alone.

From your place, at your father’s side,
standing in his love for you,
you saved one small life
from his fearful stony heart’s rage,
from the might of law and empire.

Marvellous princess, you did more.
You paid a slavewoman wages,
you acted with justice and mercy,
you saw a child, and not an enemy.

And so you are remembered,
you are thanked by generations
yet unborn
For an act of kinship with one
from a feared race,
as golden Nile-waters
swirled and eddied and
rippled outwards, outwards
from the place where you stood,
shining in the light of dawn.
Mercy bore, in you,
the beauty of a human face.

Poem: Grandiflora – Lockdown 35

When I wrote this next poem, as the volume of traffic increases, as the number of people we encounter while out walking near our home increases, I felt that it was the last one.  The last one named and numbered for lockdown.  This series had come to a resting place, I felt.  The lockdown was ending, possibly disintegrating.

And there are all the mixed emotions that go with everything to do with the covid crisis.  Of course, it is such good news that fewer people are afflicted with this terrible disease.  I am glad my little local shops are beginning to trade again, and people in my community are able to support their families.  I worry that this is a lull, and not an end.  I worry that we are missing an opportunity to make things better in our scramble to make things normal.

But also, I have really enjoyed this method of writing, and then sharing with you.  Thank you for your company.  I hope these poems have given moments of peace, or thoughtfulness, or connection, or beauty – as they are, and as you need.  I will continue writing like this, and also seeing what else calls to be written.  I think there are new things.  So, there are 35 of these, in this series.  I also wrote seven poems for Good Friday.
That’s quite productive for me, and some recharging of my creative batteries, some reading and thinking and seeing, is required.  Having said that, I may miss doing this so much there’ll be something tomorrow!

This last poem seems to say some things that had been rising up in me for a while.  I am finding, in my response to the multiple crises that are unfolding, that I am trying to understand what is going on, rather than value my own opinion so much.  There is a letting go for me here, which is the first step of learning.  It’s seeking to adopt a beginners mind, or seeking to become like a little child.  There is a reference to the wonderful piece of Medieval mysticism, The Cloud of Unkowing, in the poem, and you can read a bit more about that here.

Thank you again for your time, for sharing your time and virtual comany with me, and for your attention, and bless you.

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Grandiflora  Lockdown 35

I am tired of argument,
although curious,
and seeking understanding.
I am done with the
certainty of knowing.

There is so much more
to be explored in unknowing,
so much awaits
in that soft mist
that rests on the skin.

These magnolia leaves,
rattling in the breeze,
some yellow, and falling,
some green, and shining,
do they know the flowers
will begin to open soon?

The flowers will open,
known or not,
releasing their
creamysweet
scent above me –
joining with
the honeysuckle,
with the rose –
revealing their strange
strong hearts.

Each day,
a new flower
will open.
Each day,
I will receive
their beauty,
and, in turn,
pour out tea leaves
for their dark roots.
I am finding
it is enough.
It is enough.

 

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Retold: Mary visits Elizabeth

For those who have joined this blog following the Lockdown Poems, here’s a small taste of something else.  Another occasional series here is Sunday Retold, drawing on my retelling of the Bible.  This – although not on a Sunday – is part of that series.

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We often hear this story – of how, in the early part of her pregnancy, Mary visits her older, also unexpectedly pregnant relation – as part of the cycle of stories in the run up to Christmas. It is part of the preparation for the birth of Jesus.  But traditionally, now is the time it is remembered and celebrated, in keeping with the months.

It seems very appropriate that we should read of these two women supporting each other, and being moved by the power of the Spirit to speak, just at the time of Pentecost.  The Spirit is indeed being poured out on all, young and old, men and women.  These two are obscure, unimportant to those in power, on the edges of things, and we see, yet again, that is where God is at work.  Mary sees that too.  Her words are a real challenge, upending power, pride and privilege.  Regrettably, we need those words of challenge now just as much as we ever did.  Inequalities of race, gender and wealth are still a potent source of injustice.  Mary sees justice coming, though.  The Kingdom promised is one of justice, and hope.  We can work for that, as we pray for it in the Lord’s Prayer.

We pick up the story just as the angel Gabriel has told Mary what is to be, and how Elizabeth, from her own family, is with child despite her age….

Then Mary thought of Elizabeth. “The angel knew all about her – I must go to her.”  She got ready, and set off quickly for Elizabeth’s home in Judea to the south, near Jerusalem.

As soon as she arrived at the house, she hurried to Elizabeth and took her hands.  At the sound of Mary’s voice, the baby leaped inside Elizabeth, and the Holy Spirit filled her.  She understood at once what had happened to Mary.
“You are blessed among all women, and blessed is your unborn child!” she said.  “Why have I been so honoured? Why should the mother of my Lord God come to visit me?” Elizabeh laughed, and put Mary’s hand on her belly. “You see how my child leaps for joy at the sound of your voice?”

At last, Mary could say all that was on her heart.

“I’m so full of joy my spirit is dancing
before God, my Lord, my Saviour.
God did not turn away from me
becase I am poor, and now
I will be called blessed by
all the generations yet to come.
God, the great, the holy,
has done so much for me.
God brings down the powerful,
but lifts up the weak.
The well fed are empty,
and the table of the hungry
is piled high with good things.

“God looks at us with kindness,
giving hope to the hopeless,
caring for those who trust him,
remembering his promises to our people.”

From The Bible Retold

You can read the story in context in the first chapter of Luke’s gospel.

Mary’s song, the Magnificat, makes a powerful basis for prayer. Going through each part, holding it before God, allowing it to search you and being open to the possibility of being moved to change and to act, is a worthwhile and humbling way to pray.

It is widely said and sung in Christian worship.  There are many versions you can find online.  This one is Arvo Part’s setting.

As we think of those two women supporting each other, it’s good for us to think of ways we can continue to be present for one another, and listen and share lives, even when separated at this time. It’s good, too, to remember the slow growth of a child, how much patience is needed, as we wait and work and pray for the coming of the Kingdom.

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Poem: Yoga under the sycamore – Lockdown 21

The pigeons who come to our garden, and stay, and raise their young, are slightly comical characters.  At least, I usually find them so.  Sometimes, though, I feel a deeper connection with them – like the time I accidentally exposed a nest, which you can read about here.

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I’m afraid I don’t know who took this picture of a pair of pigeons.

Once again, in this next lockdown poem, I am recording the moment, what arises as I seek to receive the gift of the moment before me. This moment came from my morning yoga practice.  I often find movement helps move me to a place of stillness and prayer more than sitting still.  I often find it settles my mind, and helps me come to a place of deep connection. Although I seek to return to prayer, I notice  when things catch my attention, and wonder if they have significance.

Once again, I begin writing in my notebook, not knowing why something has caught my attention, until it emerges from my pencil.  This poem explores the growing feeling of mutuality I have with my place – that I am sharing it with other creatures, and that we take care of each other.

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Yoga under the sycamore   Lockdown 21

We have come to an
accommodation,
that pigeon and I.
I know it waits on these
branches above my head
on its way to the nest –
just there, in the hedge,

and so I lay down my yoga mat
carefully, further back,
not directly underneath,
but still where the morning sun
can reach me.

I do not wish to disturb
the brooding and feeding
in the nest, so I move
with as much
slowness, and control,
and something like flow,
as I can.

I rise up, on a deep inhale,
and as I look up to the tree,
with opening leaves,
I see the pigeon’s soft underside –
pale grey, and pink, downy,
ready to warm eggs,
ready to nurture young,
and somehow,
I feel nurtured too,
to be here, included
in its care,
in the softness of
pigeon down.

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Poem: Alpine strawberries – Lockdown 15

Welcome to the next in this series of Lockdown Poems.  Although things are growing busier, and there is far more traffic on the road, many of us are still at home.   Some are islolating.  It is an unsettling, and a frightening time, this time of venturing out a little. And for those who are braving going back to work, maybe a glimpse of green growing things will help too.

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As I was looking at the unfolding of the strawberry flowers, I was thinking of all that was hidden, folded within the bud, waiting.  The beauty of the flower, and the prospect of fruit.  Same with the apple blossom, and, perhaps, same with the moments and days themselves.  I thought of how time changed within the deep moments of prayer, too, when we find we are in an enfolded moment, upheld in love.

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Alpine Strawberries – Lockdown poems 15

The white flowers of the
alpine strawberries are
opening, everywhere,
under the hum of insects,
under their faint perfume,
groundcover where
newts hide,
and slugs, no doubt.

Each day lengthens,
each day seeming
to hold an infinity
folded within itself,
opening out,
nonetheless, endless,
as the patterns
run on –

Wind and sun,
sun and wind,
playing against each other
as the new apple tree shakes,
holding its new blossom.
Life bending before
time – supple, resilient,
turning to sun –
hopeful, relentless.

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Poem: Peonies – Lockdown Poem 13

Here is the next in the Lockdown Poems series.  Simple fragments, often, and pretty much as they emerge, shared with you here.  I am seeking to pay attention, to be grounded in my place and in the moment, to notice.  It’s one of the outcomes of my continuing attempts at silent prayer.  Things catch my attention, and I do return to them after, and seek to listen.

Tonight, Friday 15th May, one of these poems is having an outing to The Verb on Radio 3, 10 pm BST. You can read more about that here.  It hardly seems real, and I am rather excited!  To get to participate in something so good! I’m intrigued to know what else is on the programme this week, how they are sharing people’s response to the lockdown, and how, indeed, other people are responding to the lockdown.

But that is for later, after dark.  For now, another moment to sit on the bench, and pay attention to the Spring.

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Peonies  Lockdown 13

Today, the tree peony is transformed.
Its strange yellow sputniks of buds
have split, and are unfurling
their hard shells into
yellow cups of light,
turning towards the sun,
filling up, and up,
radiant,
and white sheets blow in the wind,
and everywhere, things are uncurling.

On the lawn, the dandelions welcome
their butterflies,
and the butterflies, in turn,
welcome the sweet yellow of the dandelions.

The taller trees, outside the garden,
shake their open hands in the breeze.
Rest, and motion. Motion, and rest,
all giving, all receiving
– the light, the air,
the earth, the water,
all saying Yes, and Yes.

Poem: The Wood – Lockdown poems 6

Welcome back to the garden for the next in this series of Lockdown Poems.  These strange lengthening days are bringing us new experiences – some are very unwelcome, but others have something to show us, something that might help us navigate our way to a better world after….
I hope you are finding moments of tranquility.  You are welcome to come and sit on this bench in your imagination, and hear the sounds of spring.

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What has struck me, like so many others, is the birdsong we can hear as our human hubub has quietened.  Although we live very near a small wood, I haven’t heard the birdsong from it before – not from the back of the garden, well past dawn.  Sometimes, in May, you can hear the dawn chorus before the traffic begins, but now there is very little traffic, and the wood’s loudness is astonishing.

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I hope you can hear birdsong where you are.  Here’s a link to a recording of the dawn chorus in the UK if you’d like to listen

So, here’s another poem which emerged from my practice of trying to deepen into contemplative prayer, but being open to the sounds of the natural world as they speak.

The wood – lockdown 6

This April morning,
not even particularly early,
I sat on this bench,
allowing my breath to deepen,
and settling into presence,
and into Presence,

I heard, for the first time,
the sound of the wood –
not too far away,
across the grey snake
of the road.

I heard it like a distant choir,
together and rejoicing,
or an orchestra playing jazz –
wild, improvised,
I heard it as the sound of life,
reaching me even here,
across the silent road,
unquenchable,
green through the blue air,
calling the trees awake,
calling the bluebells – up, up,
and flowing round
the fragile white anemones
as they bow their many heads.

 

Poem: Yes – Lockdown Poems 4. For Earth Day

This is the next lockdown poem to emerge – today, here, is clear blue, but we had some stunning clouds a few days ago, and it was good to take a few moments to watch them.

It’s Earth Day, when we look to our place as part of the wonderful whole that is our home, the Earth, and look also to our responsibility to tend it.  One of the things I am experiencing in this time at home is a greater sense of connection, of love, for all that makes up the place, the ground that I’m part of here. I feel this love and connection are deeply significant.  I wonder if they are the necessary roots of a better way of living, one that acknowledges our dependence on the living Earth, and works to heal our environmental crisis, the crisis the living Earth is facing, including us.  These deep connections, this gratitude and love are, I am coming to think, more important than we know. I touched on these themes in a talk I gave at Girton College Chapel, and if you’d like to, you can read more about that here.

I hope there are ways, however small, that you can find connection with the natural world where you are.  Whether you can or not, you are welcome to join me here in your imagination, and sit in the sun.

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Yes, thank you – lockdown 4

The white clouds are coming now,
sails spread, a fanciful armada
on a soft southerly wind.
My skin feels the heat of the sun,
surprising. And I say thank you, and yes
to the blue and white of the sky,
to these various dark bees
among the comfrey,
heads dusted with pollen –
yes, drink your fill,
yes, thank you

To the peacock butterflies waiting
open-winged on the grass,
until another flies by,
and they rise and dance
as perfect as silent larks.
yes, and thank you

To the bright leaved hazel,
to the dark flowered fritillary lilies,
the yellow dandelions and their
white butterflies,
All, yes, thank you.

Poem: Red Leaves – Lockdown Poems 3

I’ve been spending time with my notebook, while we’ve been in lockdown.  Usually, the words come from what’s going on around me, grounding myself in my ground.  I am aware how fortunate I am to have sight of new leaves, as here, but I hope these small verses give you a place where your imagination can connect with the spring, wherever you are.

They are just moments as they come.

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The subject of this poem springs from the story of Moses and the Burning Bush, which you can read about here.

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A moment in the garden, shared with you.

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Red leaves   lockdown 3
Oh, the sun through those red leaves,
shiny and shining,
And here, too, the smokebush,
just kindling to red flame,
before the leaf-smoke thickens,
as the sun’s light strengthens.
You can almost feel them growing,
as you bask in their cold fire.

It’s all holy.
All this good earth.
As my knees feel the
softness of grass,
and the air smells so of green,
and of the damp warming soil,
and grass, and primroses.

Yes.  This place.
Yes.  This time, even this.

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Poem: Easter 2020 Lockdown poems 9

I have been writing this lockdown, and am sharing this poem with you first, although it is not the first I have written.  I am sharing it while we are still in the season of Easter – a strange, isolated Easter it’s been.

I wonder, though, if it is more like the first Easter than our usual celebrations, in many ways.  I wonder how it will seem, when we look back at it.

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Easter 2020  Lockdown 9

It wasn’t loud, or triumphant,
that first Easter.
The worship places were not full
of people shouting, together,
Alleluia.

I wonder if it was,
strangely, more like this.
Strange.  Shut away
for fear, for love,
behind closed doors,

quiet, while the world
fell apart, while dreams
lay cast aside, a coat
for a long-gone season.

And you came like a gardener,
maybe smelling of soil, with
sap-stains on your un-white,
un-shining clothes.  You brought
earth and growth with you

to Mary, who could not touch you,
to others, behind those doors
closed against the world. You
met them in their shut away places.

Maybe you will meet us too,
in our scattered homes, afraid,
untouched,  and working in shops,
and bending in fields, that we may
all eat in this wilderness,

maybe exhausted by
the work of healing,
and still holding the hands of those
who are passing into the darkness
of the tomb,
speaking softly in their ear.
Maybe these are the places you
are to be found, this year,
every year.