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: 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.

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.

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Comma

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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.

Poem: Midsummer evening

I have been trying to share with you poems soon after they appear in my notebook, keeping a kind of record of the times.  Going back a few pages, I came across some jottings I’d overlooked while working up some other pieces. So, although we are a little past midsummer, the world still has that midsummer feel, of short nights, and abundant life, and I thought I’d share it with you now.

There are a few East Anglian dialect words for some of the large flying insects we have at this time of year in the poem, I do love those words.

I don’t have garden evening photos for you, but here are a few from the footpaths nearby, taken by my husband, Peter Skevington, which are full of the beauty of a summer evening.

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Midsummer evening

Ten o’clock, there is
a glow of light in the sky.
The honeysuckle is sweet,
and the lawn, a pale round
glade in the darkness.

Around that glade, bats
fly, rapid, light, and silent –
at least to me,
around and around,
threading back, and forth,
through the feast of gnats.

Against the deep turquoise
of the low sky, smaller
dark shapes drone
heavily, slowly, on,
rising improbably
over the old barn.

Billywitches,
cockerchafes,
precarious stag beetles,
wings unfurled,
weighted.

Night is short,
and full of life.
Night turns slowly
on this pale circle,
Earth turns slowly,
too, a moment
of almost stillness,
before it begins again,
when the deer comes,
and the night birds
start their callings,
as I turn my back,
turn away to sleep.

Hush, hush now,
these are creatures
not of the human world.
Creatures of their own
quiet, and their own time.
I leave them the gathering night.

Poem: Waldringfield salt marshes – seal

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These beautiful photos are by Pete Skevington, with thanks.

We haven’t been far from home, since Lockdown started.  It’s been astonishing how that restraint has made us more inventive, seeking out places we haven’t been to, or haven’t been to for years.

We have a very loose walking project of seeing how far along our local river, the Deben, we can go. How much of it is walkable, and accessible by footpath. The river is an estury downstream from us, an unstable and changing and hazardous landscape.  At times, the public right of way marked on the map crosses open water.

We hadn’t attempted to walk this particular route for a very long time ideed.  My memory of it, my first experience of this kind of landscape, was nearly losing my boot in sinking, sucking mud, and being unable to pull myself free.  Now, being more accustomed to the great outdoors, we tried again, knowing the route would be completely different.  How far could we get?

Having got as far as we could, we paused where the marsh-creek joined the river, surrounded by mud and flowing water.  I ate some of the salty samphire that was growing there.  And then, we saw the head of a large seal in the creek, very close by.  The whole experience of being out on those marshes was full of awe, transcendent and earthy at the same time – a deep, lively peace, a beauty and a rightness.  Being met by a seal at the furthest reach of our footsteps was such a gift.

I’ve tried to catch some of that in the words of this poem.  I hope you enjoy an excursion over saltmarsh.

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Waldringfield saltmarshes – seal

This thin strip of solid ground
turns away from the shore,
snaking through saltmash –
sea lavender, sea purslane,
samphire glowing
in the fading light,
the saltsmell of algae –
until we are far from
ploughed earth,
far out on this wide,
flat, dizzying
land-water-scape.

Pools of infinite grey mud,
the hiss of water receding,
we walk just as the tide
turns to ebb,
this winding path our
thin line of safety,
draped with a strand-
crust of drying weed,
studded with hundreds
of tiny white crab-shells,
oysters, mussels.
How fragile I feel myself
to be.  How quick to be lost.

After many turns further,
and further out,
we come to the place
the path stops.
On the other bank,
we can see the woods
where great white egrets nest.
At my feet, the red of a
spent cartridge hurts
my eyes
as I hear oystercatchers,
and sweet skylarks,
and water,
and wind scuffing the water.

There, at the end,
the limit of where we could go,
we saw, in the water,
the seal –
a low flat head,
intelligent eyes,
sleek and fat,
as grey and rounded
as the mudbanks –
swimming.
We crouched, concealing
our profiles from the
luminous sky,
we held our breath,
and watched its dive,
and breath, dive,
and breath.

And as it swam upstream,
we turned to go back,
retracing our steps exactly,
watching its joy,
its contentment,
as we grew closer to solid
ground, the smell of ripe
barley after rain,
and mallows,
and sweet chamomile
carried on the breeze,
welcoming us.
But the taste of the saltmash
sustained us,
sustains us,
the peace of the seal
stayed with us,
stays with us.
And the cry of the curlew
remains.

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Poem: Holy Ground, barefoot. Exodus poems 3

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Cockle spit near the Chapel of St Peter-on-the-Wall, Essex

We come to the third poem I’ve written drawing on the early chapters of Exodus, the Bible’s second book. I intend to go back and write more – in particular about the burning bush – and I’m amending this post to tell you I have done so, and you can read that new poem here.  However this exploration proceeds, I’ll make sure numbers on the poems work with the story in Exodus, so they can be read together.

I was drawn to write from this foundational story as it begins at a mighty civilisation’s turning point – a time of divided peoples, of injustice, inequality, and exploitation.  The world we are in right now seems to be at a turning point, where things cannot go on as they have been.  I’ve been seeing echoes, and warnings, and hope, in this story from long ago.

For this poem, I have continued the theme of God saw, and God knew, from the previous poem, which you can read here.  I have progressed the story to when Moses stood before the burning bush, and took off his sandals, for the ground is holy.

You can read more from the Exodus text here.

Some things struck me, in addition to the themes I’ve explored before.  The first is, the matter of holy places, and temples.  For those of us who have a practice of corporate worship, most gather in a set-aside space.  Not all – there are many gatherings in homes and coffee shops and dance studios and woods where people, together, are open to the divine.  Now, we cannot gather, and our relationship with these places is changed, as well as our relationship with our worshiping communities.  Although I know, as the poem explores, that God has no need of temples, I find that maybe I do.  I include two photos here from the ancient chapel of St Peter-on-the-wall, founded in the seventh century.  And the wall of its name, the wall it is on, is Roman, so its history is very long. There is real peace in that space.  I find my spirit soothed by such places.  And I am finding, as the poems on this blog show, that I connect deeply with the divine in nature, too.  I am increasingly barefoot, on holy ground.  This seems a very deep and helpful truth, especially now.  It gives me hope.

A little tentatively, I have been thinking about gods and idols as I’ve been reading Exodus, and wondering what our equivalents might be. As I’ve been mulling over our economy, the systems that drive our lives that seem bigger than any of us, I have reached for the ancient language of idol.  I have found the word Mammon comes to mind, and it says something significant for our times.  I’ve mentioned it briefly before, in my blog post on The company of bees. As a modern person, I’m aware I’m dipping my toes into something that may stir up ideas of superstition, and that I don’t really understand what these concepts of idol and god meant to those whose culture they belong to.  But I do know that now, as ever, there are forces bigger than us, which we don’t seem to control, in our daily lives.  We call them economics, or big corporations, or debt, or. The ancient stories suggest they have feet of clay, and can fall.  They are human constructs, agreements and stories we hold in common about how the world works and what matters, they may become more…. but they are not laws of physics, and we can, through collective effort, change them.

I wonder what that might look like in our current world, where these systems, or machines, or idols, seem to be demanding the sacrifice of life to their ends.  We can see that in some places with the response to coronavirus.  We can definitely see it in how we contine to destroy ecosystems and drive creatures to extinction.  Are these things really more important than life? Can we decide to do better?

Here, in this poem, I look at how the enslaved Hebrew people were forced to build temples to gods who didn’t hear them, or help them.  I wonder how many people, in today’s economies, might feel they are doing something similar, as they are made to serve the demands for more, and faster, and cheaper.

This poem, though, only touches on these things.  It turns to something more hopeful, a promise of the deep reality of the glory of God in all things,  and carries echoes Isaiah 11, and our deep hope – of the dream of God, of the kingdom we pray will come. It circles back to the beginning, to considering a holy place, where we are safe, and heard. Even when there are no places of worship available to us, these things are true.

We can be grounded in the earth, in the depth of our connection to God, and to all.

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Inside the chapel (660-662 AD), looking out.

 

Holy Ground, barefoot.   Exodus poems 3

This people had no temple,
no worship-place.
This people built temples
for others,
for gods they dreaded,
rising in terrible power
over them, having
no regard for
their misery.

They prayed under
the weight of their burdens.
They cried out in
the unprayer of pain,
and God, having no need
of temples, heard,
as God always hears.
And God, leaning to the
brokenhearted, saw,
as God always sees.

For the very earth is holy.
The ground under our feet.
Take off your shoes and feel it,
feel the dry-ground-powder
and the sharp stones,
the infinite tiny beings
that call the earth home.
Take off your shoes.
Know you are part of
all this, part of the
the glory that fills
all things, as the waters
fill the seas.
You will be heard,
wherever you are.
You can listen,
wherever you are.
You are home.

Poem: Snake, not in the grass

Since my series of Lockdown Poems came to an end, my new notebook is filling up with different things…. I’ll share more with you another day, when I’ve worked up something more shareable, perhaps more complex.

This, though, was what happened yesterday, and I wanted to share it with you now.  If anything, it’s an unlockdown poem, reflecting the impact that increased traffic has had on one creature.  Once again, I feel pulled in different directions.  I am glad our local businesses are cautiously open again, but I miss the quiet roads and the space for nature.  I wonder how many creatures had become used to safely crossing, and have lost the habit of caution.

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The road earlier in the Spring, quiet in lockdown.

I am not particularly keen on snakes.  I don’t recall seeing a grass snake in this area before, and certainly I’ve never seen one in or so close to the garden..  That the first one I have a chance to look at closely should be dead saddens me.  It has troubled me, and I still can’t shake the image from my eyes. We can hold more than one impression – I am a little afraid of this snake, but I see its beauty, and feel its loss.

Our garden continues to be full of life.  The newts are back sheltering under the red watering can, and there are small frogs among the strawberries – I hope they are growing larger on the slugs.  Maybe this snake was on its way to our small sanctuary, and didn’t make the crossing.  Maybe I’ve run over things myself, and not even noticed – I must have done.

This one dead creature seems to be weighty with significance, so, as ever, I have explored that with words.

 

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Grass snake from Animalia on Pinterest

 

 

Snake, not in the grass

There’s a coil of something
long, with a faint gleam,
on the road by our drive.

A prickle crosses my neck.
The heat rising from tar
brushes my legs as
I take a slow step nearer.
Silver underside, dark stripes.
Snake.

Its tail is flat,
its pale interior exposed
to this drying sun,
It doesn’t move.

Its shape is burned
in my mind.
I can’t forget it,
can’t settle.
Such beauty,
such strangeness,
dead.

The road must not be
its resting place,
unnatural with the
hardness of cars
and the smell of tar.
Its long fluid form,
its pale green and grey,
the strip of yellow brightness
by its intelligent head,
these things call for
softness, and respect.

I do what I can do.
Not enough.
Scoop it as tenderly
as I can with my
cautious spade,
and lay it in the long grass
where I try to grow wildflowers.

 

I am so sorry this was your end,
beautiful creature,
beneath wheels,
you, the first snake seen here,
in this place.
It’s a strange welcome,
but welcome you are.
May you rest in this pale
dry grass,
be part of this land,
thank you for your life,
your part in the life
of this place.
We are the poorer
for your loss.

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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Poem: The company of bees – Lockdown 34

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This is the last but one of the Lockdown Poems. Something will continue on after, but whatever it is, it’s not quite this.  Whatever strange time we are in now, it’s not quite lockdown, although I know that many are still keeping at home, and we are all missing those we love and haven’t seen for months.  Thank you for your time and company as we’ve been watching this season unfold.

At times during this strange spring, I think we’ve had some painful space in which to consider the ways we live, and the injustices and destruction we have thought were inevitable.  In seeing those injustices and destructive forces stripped bare, and also in seeing the great machine of Mammon halted briefly, we’ve had a glimpse of the hope that lies at the bottom of the well of all that is not hopeful.  Nadia Bolz-Weber’s sermon to prisoners this week speaks so powerfully into the nature of hope, it’s short, and so well worth listening to. I think what we are beginning to see is the struggle of a vision of a more beautiful world, the birthpangs of something more whole and holy, that are real and painful and require effort and will.

So, this next poem started off as a morning contemplation of what was before me, and moved to a brief touching on the tragedy, or tragedies, we are facing and facing up to at present.  There is a folklore that you should tell the bees the news of those who have died, and that seems a hard task right now.

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I had a problem with the memory card in my camera, and by the time I sorted it out, the bees had gone deeper into the bush, and I couldn’t catch them.  Here are the tiny flowers they love. In the winter, the birds will eat the white berries.

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The company of bees  Lockdown 34

I will quieten my spirit
in the company of bees –
so many.
Honeybees to my right,
filling the snowberry bush with
their eager hum,
the tiny flowers constantly
visited, endlessly
searched.

Bumbles – white tailed, and red,
carder, and buff –
to my left,
climbing up the steep
slope of the gladioli flowers.

You should tell the bees
news, they say,
tell them the news
of who has died.
There are so many,
so many now.
We must speak
our sorrows,
even though such
speaking is beyond us.
These lives
must be more than
numbers –
loves and hopes
and the seemingly
endless tide of
breath, ended.
So much had been
lost.

And what do the bees
do with our sorrows?
can they carry those
heavy loads away?
And those bees,
when do they speak
of their own loss,
the meadows stripped bare,
the poison they
bring back to
their hives,
their place of
safety and plenty
dying too?

This small place
of nectar and
kindness, it’s
all I can offer,
for both.

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A mown path through the wild flowers – it’ll be full of yellow when the sun comes round.  What sort of path do we wish to walk, what sort of path do we wish to make? Maybe there is a choice before us.  Can we choose life?