Poem: Gaia at Ely Cathedral

As we are beginning to venture out a little more, we thought we would pay a visit to Ely, and the vast indoor space of its ancient cathedral. They often have contemporary art there, which helps the old stones continue to sing, giving a new perspective on ancient truths. We knew that Gaia, an installation by Luke Jerram, was going to be there in July, and so we went and saw this beautiful, astonishing sight. The comparative emptiness of the cathedral space made it all the more powerful as it floated above us.

And as the space is vast, and it takes time to walk up to, around and beyond the piece, you do have time and space in which to allow the work to speak to you, to stir up responses, and to pray. I am sure that one of the intentions is to give us all an opportunity to experience something like “earthrise”, when the astronauts first saw the whole of the Earth from space, and how that shifted their perspective, and began to change the way all of us are able to see our home. The staggering, indescribable beauty of the whole called out my sense of awe, which sat uncomfortably alongside my awareness of the damage we are doing to our precious, unique home.

In the setting of the cathedral, as Gaia hangs in the nave under the painted ceiling which tells the long stretch of the Bible’s story, I found the language of repentance surprisingly, and helpfully, came to mind. Repentance both in our more familiar understanding of sorrow for wrongdoing, and desire to amend, and in the possibly more ancient meanings carried in the old texts, of returning home, and of undergoing a profound change of mind – a paradigm shift in the way you see.

Much of my writing celebrates the beauty of the natural world, how lovely, precious, and vulnerable it is. But sometimes, that love spills over into grief. So the old stones, and the old story, seemed illuminated by our current crisis, and, in turn, those ancient words seemed to express something necessary, and powerful, and, in the end, with the potential for hope.

You can listen to the poem here.

Gaia at Ely Cathedral

She seems to float, lit up with her own light,
slowly turning, blue and blooming with clouds
as we walk up, look up, small before her.

While above our steps,
the familiar painted roof
rolls on, telling its painted story,
from the tree, and the garden,
on towards this

fathomless shining beauty,
the ‘all’ that was so very good
in that beginning.
Now as she turns
we see how she hangs
below the story’s last scenes –
the gift of a beloved child
held on his mother’s lap,
held forward towards us,
loved and given and giving,
and the wounded golden king,
who gives still.

And below, below hangs the whole shining Earth,
dazzling, vast with sea,
turning and flowering with clouds
from the southern ice-shine,
melting although we do not see her weep,

And the land, those small green swathes
and swags, are dressed in white too,
a veil of vapour,
while the deserts spread brown
and red above our eyes.

The lands are small, countries
seem tales we tell.
What is certain is this one great
flow – ocean and ice and cloud –
and the unseen winds that bear them
through our blue, breathing air.

And the people stand beneath her,
lit by ice, and hold up their hands
as if to carry her, or hold her,
or save her from falling.

How beautiful it is.
How strange and wondrous
that we should be creatures
who live within so much living perfection.

And as she turns slowly
under the child and the king,
I wonder, what do those
familiar words mean now,
‘the sins of the world’,
as the stain of our reckless harm
seeps through the blue and green,
through all this living glory,

And is there any hope in our
waking up to beauty with grief
and loss, even as dust and ashes
float across the sky,
across us all, late as we are
in our repenting?


And is there hope,
hope that we might be granted
this grace – time
for amendment of life,
to tend the garden
with its leaves and fruit,
shining and greening,
to take part in the work
of loving and healing,
of restoration,
of making all things new.

Looking at Gaia from behind the communion table brought to mind the words of repentance from that service, and I was aware of my sense of what “the sins of the world” might mean was creaking open a little wider.

Poem: The apple tree, having grown in shadow

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. Even when 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.

Poem: Inside, Outside. Lockdown III

This new lockdown, I am writing in my notebooks again, letting what emerges, emerge. You can read about the Lockdown Poems here – their immediacy, their rootedness in my place.

Once again, I have begun writing what I see, and what is before me in this moment. Whereas the earlier poems, starting in March, are largely written outside, this one is about looking out. Beginning to write is a revealing thing. As I proceeded, I felt that what I was exploring was that sensation of being stuck inside – looking out, but not with longing. I am looking out at a world that is far from inviting. Cold, wet, and darkening as it is. Once again, that small moment, that everyday feeling of watching the rain, seemed to unfold and reveal a wider and deeper difficulty. Not so much of being stuck inside, but of not wanting to venture out into a world that seems alarming, potentially dangerous, as we face the terrible acceleration of the pandemic’s spread. It is truly terrible, the grief that is echoing around our closed rooms, the potential for harm in each interaction.

But venture out I will – the natural world still offers its hospitality and welcome, however cold and dark it seems. The garden and area around still see me tramping about for exercise and refreshment. I had a new waterproof coat for Christmas, which is making all the difference to how I feel about being outside just now – at least from the point of view of the weather. The pandemic is a different matter. My venturing is limited now, circumscribed and circumspect. I notice an increasing tendency to some anxiety at the thought of “out”. That anxiety is well founded. I am listening to it, and taking what precautions I can. As we all are.

It will not always be so, though. We will emerge. For now, the balance and relationship between inside and outside has shifted, profoundly connected to the natural world as we are. We can feel cut off from the winter, we are certainly cut off from each other. But even now, there are tiny wonders to be seen out there, small hopes and shifts, if we can raise our eyes and look.

Inside. Outside   Lockdown III

Inside, looking out,
through golden light
to cold grey,
through glass
and warm air
and stillness,
to where the
cold wind shudders the trees.


Outside, the curved seedpods
of the tree peony
drip with ice rain,
glittering

While candlelight
and lamplight
are reflected in the glass,
and glow orange in
the darkening grey garden.

And a tumble of birds
comes, and goes,
comes, and goes,
chattering endlessly
on the feeders
that sway in the sharp wind

And if I hold my nerve,
and hold the gardener’s gaze,
even from here I can see
that fuzz of green
on the ice-furzed soil –
Herb Robert, violets,
the tissue-paper yellow
of wet primroses,
and the soft spears
of bulbs just beginning.
Bluebells.  Cerise gladioli.

Outside seems far away.
A different air.
A different light.
But soon my boots
will be on my feet,
and my coat wrapped about me,
and I will feel that frost,
and the cold wind,
and I will feel
the ice rain again.

To keep our spirits up, a reminder of what is to come.

Poem: November Trees – twilight

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

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

November trees – twilight

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

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

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

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

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


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

Poem: One and Many

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

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

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

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

One and many

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

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

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

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

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

Taken from Wise Sayings of the Celts

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

And a quote from today’s notes….

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

Poem: Wings – Boyton salt-marshes, Autumn Equinox

Boyton foot ferry

Yesterday was the Autumn Equinox, and now, today, there is more dark than light. Yesterday, too, in the UK, there were announcements from politicians about measures to slow the spread of the virus. We are still experiencing pandemic, and six months to the day the first lockdown began. Many will be feeling anxious about the thought of the winter ahead. It feels as if the world grows smaller again.

I’ve been exploring some aspects of our crisis in my meditations on Exodus. You can read the latest poem in that series here. In those reflections, I’ve had at the back of my mind how we hold on to hope in difficult times, and I’ve been thinking of hope as an act of defiance, a radical act. Today’s poem looks at joy in a similar way. As well as looking at the difficulties we face, I am seeking to cultivate joy too as an act of defiance, a radical posture that looks deeper than circumstance, real and pressing though that may be. Of course, it is not always possible. Sometimes, we sit with our sorrows, or our sorrows sit with us, and are reluctant to leave.

Often, though, we can take this stance. Maybe, we can receive both the gift and the grace of joy when it comes, and maybe we can also work to cultivate it as a habit, a practice, a spiritual discipline, a work.

Can we do that? Can we, at least some of the time, choose to take joy where we find it? And even cultivate it, and treasure it?

When that is too hard, perhaps even such beauty as this poem seeks to share will be some help.

On related themes, you might like to read two other poems:
Moment/Joy
Sorrows

Boyton marshes. Both photos by Peter Skevington

Wings

Boyton salt-marshes, Autumn Equinox

The hot lane is full of wings,
rising over the sand-blown tar,
spiralling together
with the urgency of life.

Dragonflies, dozens –
red, blue-green, yellow,
joined or unjoined,
flying with rainbows
caught in their light, clear wings –
I have never seen so many.

And large white butterflies
dancing, spiralling,
looking like great white
poppies caught in the breeze,
seeking each other, dazzling
in the dazzling light.

How it lifts you to see them,
how it lifts you to feel the
warmth of the sun
on your skin
as it turns
on its balance point towards
sleep, and coldness.

And then, down past
the foot ferry and
the wild swimmers
it all opens up –
the great windy
marsh-weave
of river and saltwater,
island and marshland,
blue of the sky
rippling in water,
shining mud,
and the hiss of rushes
in the north wind

Which carries other wings.
Long skeins and lines
of loud geese,
endlessly joined by
threads of sound –
the strong echoing call,
the beat of thousands of wings
that bring dark with them
on their dark flight feathers,
racing with cold at their backs.


And we know how winter comes,
we know the night lengthens
with its endless stars,
we know our days
grow short

Even as this joy rises,
even as it rises up,
bears you up like
wings that beat
with such effort of heart,
with effort of voice
to cry out,
cry out like this –
look, look
how good it is,
how good.

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.

IMG_0985

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: Strawberries

IMG_1877

 

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.

IMG_1034

 

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

IMG_1874

The meadow flowers close up, a few weeks ago.

IMG_1898

IMG_1899

 

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.

IMG_1903

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.

IMG_1901

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.

Poem: Butterfly Path

This next poem is another written following a walk by our river, the Deben, as we make our way down towards the sea.

You can read the first, Waldringfield Salt Marshes, Seal, by following the link.

This poem is about a diversion.  We could not pick up the walk where we left off, by the seal, on the other side of the water.  The footpath was closed, there were diggers and warning signs as the flood defences were being shored up.  We took another route, and were rewarded by butterflies.  I am seeking to learn the names of the many wondrous plants and animals I see, to name them and honour their names.

Some of you may have come across the beautiful book, The Lost Words, written and painted in response to the Oxford English Dictionary’s decision to lose nature words from its children’s edition.  It’s a beautiful, elegaic work – incantations of the names that are nearly, but not quite, lost.  Musicians too have responded, and I have been listening to The Lost Words Blessing, as I seek to do the work of honouring the natural world, and learning its names. It’s a fine piece of music, from Folk by the Oak. I find the lyrics very moving, and resonant.  They express what I hope to do in many of these poems, so coming across the piece was like finding someone who shares a way of seeing the world. Each verse begins with a variation on this refrain:

“Enter the wild with care, my love
And speak the things you see
Let new names take and root and thrive and grow”

it ends..

“Even as the hour grows bleaker, be the singer and the speaker
And in city and in forest, let the larks become your chorus
And when every hope is gone, let the raven call you home”

You can read them all under the video, reached through the link above.

I didn’t take any pictures of the butterflies, unfortunately, but here are some from the Butterfly Conservation website.

7705686416-comma-polygonia-c-album

Comma

35649599806_95802fa593_oringlet

Ringlet

 

 

Butterfly path

Evening.  High summer.
To our right the open grass
ripples in the breeze.
And a kestrel hovers,
tail splayed, intent on
what is beneath

the surface of this
silvergreen
watery rippling,
while we walk
down the path
by its side.

Less a path, more a strip of
wildness, of wood and scrub.
Rich with nettles and pink
flowered brambles
and tumbles of flowers
under the shade of thorns
and oaks and hornbeams,
and before us, and around us
on our bright sandy path,
are butterflies.

Ringlet and meadow brown,
the showier admirals,
tortoiseshells and commas,
gatekeeper, small copper –
I am learning these names,

saying these names
for a beauty
I hardly ever see.
Years ago, they say,
butterflies rose in clouds
about you as you walked.

We did not intend to take this path.
Our planned way,
by the river,
was closed.
And so, I receive this shimmer
of beauty as a gift,
in a harmony
of grassland and field edge,
and scrub and wood –
We walk amongst plenty,
amongst what could yet be,
again, cradled in lightness,
and sadness for
what we have lost.
We walk quietly among
many wings,
eyes open,
wide open.