Prayers for a new term – from Prayers and Verses

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September.

This year, it’s rich, and green, and everything is starting to grow again, like a second spring.  It feels like a new beginning, which is appropriate as it’s the beginning of a new academic year.  And, like all new beginnings, even for those who are almost looking forward to it, it can be a little daunting, and make us feel a little anxious.

For others, it’s the beginning of a new adventure, or a welcome return to time spent with old friends in a safe, familiar space.

Whatever it is for you, may you be blessed in the weeks to come.

 

Here is an extract from my book, Prayers and Verses.

A new school

Do not imitate what is bad, but imitate what is good.
3 John 11

Goodbye, dear old school,
Hello, bright new start.
May God guide our lives,
Head and hand and heart.

Dear God,
Help us as we learn new things.
If we learn quickly and easily,
may we help others to understand.
If we make mistakes,
may we understand what went wrong.
help us never to be afraid of new things,
but to see them as an adventure.

 

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Poem: Weaving – Unweaving

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This is another poem from the  “They toil not” workshop -poems of spinning and weaving.  The first, you can read here.

At the end of the afternoon, Beth Soule gave us some ideas for doing and making, including this little loom and baskets of threads.

For several days, I’d had some words of Coleridge’s going round in my mind – I’m trying to find them.  I read them in Adam Nicolson’s wonderful “The Making of Poetry”, and they refer to Nature, like Penelope in the Odyssey, making and unmaking, weaving and unweaving.  So, there was an image in my mind of Nature, and Penelope, at her loom, weaving the shroud which she would then unweave at night, as nature makes and unmakes and makes again.

It’s a big theme for a small, playful piece, and maybe I shall return to it, especially if I can find the source.

For now, the woven poem is above, in the picture, hard to read, so here it is set out on a page.

 

 

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Attic red-figure skyphos: Side A, Penelope seated before her loom, and Telemachus standing (both named). Attributed to the Penelope Painter, ca. 450–400 BCE. Chiusi, Museo Archeologico Nazionale, 63.564. Drawing by Valerie Woelfel.

Woven unwoven

The mother gathers her threads,
green, and blue,
blue, and green,
earth, and sky,
field, and stream,
and weaves all day as the sun shines.

Then, at night, with darkness,
and with silver,
she unravels the threads
and drops them
into the deep.

 

 

 

I went to the workshop with my friend, Tracy Watson-Brown.  You can read her poems
Spinning Song

and

Bugs and blossom

on her blog.

 

 

Poem- Spider

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Photo – Matthew Ling

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Yesterday, I took part in a Poetry Workshop led by Beth Soule of the Suffolk Poetry Society

It was held in the Bank Arts Centre, Eye, which really used to be a bank.  I loved the solid mahogany, looking prosperous and dependable, hung with colourful pictures and full of new life.  The food we had was delicious, and the company stimulating as ever.  There is something very special about writing companionably with others, supporting each other.  It was good to be reminded of that!

The theme of the day was “They toil not” – spinning and weaving – and Beth gave us such a rich feast of material that, as we read our work to each other, we saw what ideas had been stimulated and encouraged.
My mind was turning over a poem by Walt Whitman as I came to write this:

 

Spider

Growing in a hidden place,
until the day those long, many jointed
legs begin to flex, and stretch,
and take you out
into the autumn light,
where gnats wail,
and flies buzz slowly

Until, balancing on the end
of the brown buttons of hollyhocks
you throw out your lines.
Where will they land?
You throw again across cool air,
beyond sight of your many eyes,
throw again until something

catches, some connection
holds fast, at last,
and you go into your unknown
along a trail
you have already laid for
yourself to follow,
familiar under your delicate feet.

 

It’s not the first time spiders have caught my attention.

Spiders – September

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Another poem from the workshop can be found here

I went to the workshop with my friend Tracy Watson-Brown, and her poem is here: Spider

Walking after Edward Fitzgerald.

So, we’ve been been on our feet quite a lot as part of my husband’s walking project.  We thought we would stay local last weekend, and as we’d been talking about the poet Edward Fitzgerald recently, we thought we’d explore some of the places where he lived and worked and saw his friends.  My husband has just finished reading a book he gave me some time ago, The Artist’s daughter written by the late Sally Kibble.

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It’s a lovely book, a fictionalised memoir of Ellen Churchyard, daughter of Thomas.  It shows the group of friends, The Woodbridge Wits, who took great pleasure in, and inspiration from, each other’s company and cast of mind.  EFG was part of this group. There are accounts of their meals and walks and conversations.  The book is full of the lovely soft pictures of Churchyard, and some of these were of locations that you can still trace, and recognise, today.  Personally, I would have liked a bit more of the poetry of EFG and Bernard Barton, but I’m trying to fill those gaps with my own reading.

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View of the River Deben, Thomas Churchyard.  Painted near the railway bridge – you can see the steam train bending away towards the station.

We  planned a walk which was just shy of ten miles in the end, quite ambitious for me, but it took in many of the places where EFG lived in and around Woodbridge, Suffolk.  The first place on the itinerary is also, probably, my favourite.

The Quaker poet Bernard Barton’s tiny crooked cottage was the place where they often met – these Woodbridge Wits – to eat cheese on toast.  For that was all they could cook over the fire, the only means of cooking.  It seems to have been one of their favourite places, too.  Bernard and his daughter Lucy were clearly good company and warm hearted hosts.  Their simplicity and equality of life appealed to EFG.   The artist and lawyer Thomas Churchyard lived up the road, and it’s lovely to think of them together, talking in the firelight with the smell of toasted cheese.  These two poets were also friends with other writers – Tennyson, Charles Lamb, Robert Southey and Anne Knight among them.   I am trying to track down some more of Barton’s poems, and you do occasionally find his lyrics in an old hymn book, such as these, which seems apporpriate for a walk.

Despite Edward Fitzgerald’s privileged background – his family lived nearby in Boulge Hall – he preferred simpler settings. He had rooms above a shop on the Market Hill, and you can see a stone plaque marking the spot – very like the one on his rooms in King’s Parade, Cambridge – just up the hill from Barton’s cottage, and even nearer the Bull Inn where Tennyson stayed when visiting him. From here, after buying eccles cakes from The Cake Shop to sustain us, we meandered around past other places where he had associations, on the way to Boulge Hall, with the church next to it.

Boulge Church, the main focus of our walk, has been snagging at my mind.  It is where he is buried.  I had been before, on another walk, with a friend, but my husband had not.
I remembered it was hard to find, that there was no lane to it, and that the paths did not seem to follow the OS map – not even when we used the one on the phone rather than our battered paper one that was giving way on the creases.  And so it proved to be this time.  We saw one sign from the road – at the site of the lodge cottage where EFG had lived in preference to the Hall – which said “No access to church” but there was no sign telling us which way to go.  After much meandering,  a walk along what looked like a long-gone drive between trees, and a short dash along the private-no-right-of-way lane, we found the church.

Perhaps it had been the private church of the estate at some point,  it didn’t feel like a public space.  But it was open, and clearly used, with hymn books and information and welcome. The congregation must be adventurous, and dedicated. There were instructions as to how to turn on the lights – it was an old church with small windows,very dark despite the sunshine. So we turned the lights on, and sat and rested in the peace.  Sitting there, I saw in a side chapel some plaques up with the Fitzgerald name on them, but they were not for Edward.  There wasn’t any of his poetry about.  I was wondering if there might be some kind of memorial, or stone with verse, or a card, but I couldn’t see one.  It was almost as if the long-ago family tension was still exerting an influence.

Outside, in the graveyard, is an elaborate family vault, with a simple granite slab next door for Edward.  There is a rose planted at the head. The rose is a descendant of that on the tomb of Omar Khayyam, whose great poem EFG translated.  There is another rose at the foot.  It seems that it was his request not to be buried in the family tomb.  As he had lived at the gatehouse on the edge of the grounds of the hall, reading and writing and having his friends for simple meals, so he was buried outside the vault.

He loved simplicity, friendship of the mind,  and left behind an astonishing piece of work, in his translation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.  Maybe some in the family disapproved of this work, from a Persian mathematician and astronomer.  It only came to be generally respected after his death.

As we sat on the bench in the churchyard, eating our snack, I wished I had brought the book with me.  My copy is hardbacked, and quite heavy, but a quick look on my phone brought up the following lines.  They seemed appropriate for reading under the tree where we were.  They celebrated something very profound, a kind of communion.
A simple meal of bread and wine, and companionship, these are riches indeed.

Here with a Loaf of Bread beneath the Bough,
A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse—and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness—
And Wilderness is Paradise enow.
I thought these words were in keeping with the spot.

We carried on walking, taking in some more places where EFG had lived. The pattern of roads and lanes and paths has been the same for so many generations.  So many other people, remarkable in their way and in their time, have walked here.  It felt good to remember and honour them, the ones who thought of themselves as ordinary, the ones who have been forgotten, and know that our steps succeed theirs, and in turn will be succeeded by those who come after us.

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Churchyard – a windy day near Melton

Norfolk coast path – a poem about the bus.

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This year is a year of walking.

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Peter, my husband, is doing the Country Walking 1000 miles  challenge. He’s well ahead of schedule, and it’s a brilliant project, doing him much good. I don’t tend to sign up for things that have quite such a big commitment to exertion, but I seem to be covering a great many miles, even so!  I just reserve the right not to, for instance now, when evening walking leaves me too hot to sleep….

We thought we might give the Norfolk Coast Path a go – Hunstanton to Cromer, as it’s not too far away, and flat, and beautiful, and dotted with lovely B and Bs and tea shops and pubs for rest stops….

And we did!  Before the weather got to be quite as hot as it is now, we walked the distance, with breezes and the cool brown North Sea to keep us going.  Taking on such a, for me, long walk was made all the sweeter by the memory of illness recovered from, health restored.  How good to feel the strength of your body, to rejoice in its ability to just keep on going.  How good to let your feet take you over sand, and marsh, and boardwalk, and lane. It felt good to rejoice in being upright, and in seeing such beauty.

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I’m hoping to write up some more of what filled my notebooks as we went, but, for now, I’m just dipping my toes back in with a poem about a key part of the walk, the coast bus, which made it possible.  You can walk one way and get the bus back, or to wherever you need to be that night.  It’s a bus well used by the locals, who are happy to tell you about good shops, and places to see marsh harriers, and other useful things.  It’s cheerful and kindly as community services often are.

One day, we were done as the schools closed, and it was so good to share a few miles with kids who were clearly happy to be on their way home again.  It prompted another small poem, which I share with you now.

 

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Sitting on the coast bus after
the wild open walking,
the huge sky,
the oyster-catchers,
The saltmarsh, and the reeds,
my legs stick to plastic seats,
the sun strikes hot through glass,

But as I breathe and cool, I hear the
young voices all around me,
laughing, wrestling with
musical instruments,
sports kit,
bags of files,
the weight of
home-from-school.

And when anyone reaches their stop,
one boy, near the front,
says goodbye to them,
each in turn,
and the partings ripple
back down the bus –
he, young as he is,
sets the tone.

You see the web
woven between them,
hot in nylon blazers,
and feel the life of them,
the kindness of them,
despite their loads.

For these few miles
I feel I am in community,
connected,
as I take off my straw hat,
and loosen the damp hair
from my head,
as the sound of voices
surrounds me
as the bonds of friendship
surround me,
I am restored.

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A Poem for the road – Returning

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As we enter into Lent, I have been thinking about pilgrimage, journeys, wandering in a wilderness, being unsure of the way and the destination.  I have been reading Malcolm Guite’s wonderful Word in the Wilderness anthology of poetry, and I turned back to this poem of mine, and looked at it through the eyes of the wanderer in the desert.

The poem was written a few years ago for the Alive Festival, which used to run here in Suffolk, UK.  We were looking for something for our Sunday morning gathering, something which spoke of our sense of longing for home. Something that would help with the journey.  As I was searching, these words began to circle in my mind  They would not leave me alone.  I had to walk them out, pacing restlessly until the poem below took its form.

It draws from many of the stories in the Bible which help us make sense of our life’s journey.  They filled my mind as I paced.  Imagery from Genesis 3 which many churches read together as we prepare for Easter, seemed the starting point.  I moved on to homesickness and exile, which are threads that run through much of the Hebrew scriptures, and also of the discomfort of wilderness, which seems very good to remember now, as we think of Jesus in the wilderness.   But I did not stay there.  My imagination circled round to images drawn from the very end of the book of Revelation  All these images flowed together, as part of a larger, arching story.

I read this poem that morning at the Alive festival, set to  astonishingly beautiful music – Arvo Paart’s Spiegel im Spiegel , played then by Andrew Lord and Jonathan Evans.  The music still moves me to tears.

I hope this poem helps you today, as you walk, whether the way seems hard, or gentle.  May you come to a place of home.

 

Returning

We left the garden long ago,
Do you remember, though,
still, the trees heavy with fruit,
and how sweet it was?
To stretch out your hand was to be blessed.
Do you remember the cool waters of that deep river
silver with fish, alive and shining in the splashing sun?
And the flowers, bending and bending with the
weight of bees, the low hum of the land
that flowed with milk and honey?
He walked with us then, in the garden.

We have been wanderers for so long
in strange lands, wanderers looking
for a place of shelter, a place to lay down
the heavy loads we gathered at the gate,
when we left the garden. The pain we bear
so hard to bear for it is borne alone.

Our songs dried on our lips, the echoes of the
garden growing distant, and small:
the rhymes of the children playing in the apple tree,
the laughter and the ease of love,
hope’s courage    failing as the long dry road
wound through high and rocky passes
where nothing grows.

The path home is long, but that it what it is,
the path home to the garden,
to return to that place so distant
it has become the place of dreams.
And the gate stands before us,
terrible and splashed with blood,
the gate love made to bring us home.
And the gate is always open,
and beyond, beyond the Tree grows strong,
its green leaves fresh and full of light,
And the river flows deep and wide,
Deep, and wide, and always.
And you know the voice,
you have heard the voice say
Come, all you who have been thirsty for so long,
Come and lay your burdens down,
rest, and drink from these bright waters.
I am your home, your refuge, your song.

You can listen to the poem here.

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Poem: Aldeburgh Beach, January

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Photos taken at Dunwich Heath beach, a little along the coast, by Peter Skevington

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I love the North Sea in winter – its wild brown, its keen winds.  The coast is unstable here, lumps of WWII concrete, of building materials, and old fragments of glass  are thrown onto the shore.  The pebbles hiss in the breaking waves.  The waves in turn sound like a vast heartbeat.

The wind blows you alive, if you wrap up warm!

The photos above were taken this Christmas holiday, with my husband and son, as we stood on the beach and let the waves chase us.  We were not far, here at Dunwich, from Aldeburgh, where I went with a dear friend for a walk on a different day.

I am so grateful for my friends, and my family.  It is so good to be able to spend time with people you can be real and true with.  I feel very blessed to be able to count quite a few people as those whose company is as free as solitude, but enriched by their unique ways of seeing and being and insight.  The poem below attempts to capture something of my walk with one of these dear people, and I hope it can also say something bigger about the power of friendship.

I have been reading Bandersnatch, a Christmas gift from my son, which explores the relationships which formed the basis for the Inklings group, including Lewis and Tolkien, and it has clarified for me how much I need the encouragement and shared thinking and being a close group of friends can provide.  Our differences can give new vision and perspective, our mutual support can get us through difficulties that are too much for us alone.

Thank you to all my friends, and may you, reading this, have such sources of goodness in your life.

Aldeburgh Beach – January

We stood there, friends, on the beach,
facing into the east wind,
being blown full of cold,
icy and alive,
by a wind strong enough to lean on.

We stood on a cliff of pebbles
new thrown up by storms,
near the edge,
where stones rattled down,

while the sea, high and brown,
roared and crashed,
mist and foam flung
with the generosity of joy,
into our faces.
Our lips were salt with it.

In the sound of the wind we brought
our heads close enough to speak –
of the breath of God, alive,
breathing into us,
the glory of God in the brown shining.
The power of each small thing,
each small thing,
as the spray and the pebbles
danced wild around us.