At start of spring I open a trench
in the ground. I put into it
the winter’s accumulation of paper,
pages I do not want to read
again, useless words, fragments,
errors. And I put into it
the contents of the outhouse:
light of the sun, growth of the ground,
finished with one of their journeys.
To the sky, to the wind, then,
and to the faithful trees, I confess
my sins: that I have not been happy
enough, considering my good luck;
have listened to too much noise;
have been inattentive to wonders;
have lusted after praise.
And then upon the gathered refuse
of mind and body, I close the trench,
folding shut again the dark,
the deathless earth. Beneath that seal
the old escapes into the new.
New Collected Poems, page 233
I’ve just written a note to a friend about appreciation of the year’s seasons and in the act of doing so came to wonder if others have experienced the way a particular book within a bookcase can suddenly catch the light and call one to open its pages? Like synapses in the brain and the corridors of the mind lead us to re-collection, of stored information, and to our senses. So, for me, tonight.
And what a sane man the farming poet Wendell Berry appears always to me to be – one who understands seasons, and planting, and metaphor, and actions, each having purpose and proper place. We all gather material we “do not want to read again”. How great a grace it is that warms us “at start of Spring”, encouraging examen, inner consideration of our place within the outer world, and the willing handing over to the earthy processes of death and resurrection that enable our continued becoming: metamorphosis – “the old escapes into the new”.
Gardens like ours that are primarily flower gardens in the summer months are a bit drab and grey and empty during winter months. A covering of frost or snow is a rather hoped-for event – a bit of temporary, if monochrome, colour! And that’s why we want to wax lyrical about the earliest of the daffodils as I did yesterday – they’re signal that the full-colour days are on their way again.
But a quietly modest 15th/16th century Indian mystic, poet and weaver speaks to me today – in words I know to be authentic and true – of a garden “inside your body” …
Don’t go outside your house to see flowers.
My friend, don’t bother with that excursion.
Inside your body there are flowers.
One flower has a thousand petals.
That will do for a place to sit.
Sitting there you will have a glimpse of beauty
inside the body and out of it,
before gardens and after gardens.
translated from the Hindi by Robert Bly
And I meditate.
Wow, it’s blowing a gale here today. From time to time the roof of this old house creaks and invisible power lifts heavy slate and rafter as though the whole place were yawning and stretching – awakening perhaps, in imagination at least, to the brightness and promise of Spring. Birdsong rises above the sound of the wind – in fact everything, everywhere seems to be singing.
For actually the sky is bright and blue and clear – though “more grey”, says the Met Office, “for later”. Our first two brave daffodils are laughing in the current we can’t see – so imagination isn’t necessary, but flourishing anyway, so that one is almost certainly hearing these yellow harbingers calling out to the others, still furled and cautious, to hurry up and join the festival!
Walking out from the gym into morning sunlight earlier we noticed that grey had been swapped for blue and gold by an efficiently unseen mover and shaker. Yesterday the shoppers grumbled. Today they strode purposefully – with a gleam in the eye that suggested “blow the diet. Let’s have sticky toffee pudding” – throwing aforementioned caution, as they say, to the wind. Ha!
A flock of Canada Geese didn’t appear in the least-bit put out about being thrown off course. Collared doves and rooks are perhaps a little more anxious as they find it difficult enough already trying to get a grip on the sparrows’ suet feeder. My fastidiously brushed hair is roughly tousled by an out of sight tease. The affrontery of this gale! – but it absolutely makes me smile, despite myself.
Dank air around everything’s having been continuously flooded, soaked or frozen for weeks on end is blown elsewhere, somewhere, and the cosmic dryer disperses surface puddles and temporary field-lakeland. Forest deadwood falls to the floor, continuing its designed cycle of being and becoming, making way for new shoots, twigs, leaves and branches. Other-plane-power from beyond.
Resurrection. Warming. Wind-lift.
A special friend wrote to me very movingly a few days ago about a process of “packing and purging” currently going on in her life. These are the “fire” moments in all our lives aren’t they? – the searing moments – and we’re none of us overly keen to think about them too much, though, deep down, we have memories of many a fiery occasion that turned out to be a quite out-of-the-ordinary grace. We absolutely can’t help but ask “Why?” – and we’ve all said heaven-only-knows-how-many-times: “I don’t ask for it. It just happens …”
Anyway, all my musing and pondering about purging, and searing, and life’s moving we-know-not-quite-where, reminded me of a Psalm Down-Under written, rather hopefully, by someone called Joy! –
The Burning Bush
I am a very small tree in a desert
and I am touched by the breath of God.
I don’t ask for it. It just happens,
a suddenness inside me and then a presence
of wind and flame, burning, burning,
and I cover my eyes with my fears,
knowing that I am too small and too frail
to bear this firestorm of love.
I cry out, ‘God, God, what are you doing?
I have always needed your Sunday warmth
but I can’t cope with this searing
which feels like both heaven and hell.
You leave no part of me untouched.
That’s not what I planned.
Please go away!’
There is no answer in the wind and flower,
but little by little, the blindness of my fear
is dissolved and I see with clear eyes
that the desert round me is no longer a desert.
It has been lit by the strong flame of love,
every bush, every tree transformed beyond itself.
I am not alone in this. I never was.
Every living thing has been summoned
to be on fire with the love of God
and to turn all barren places
into sacred ground.
Yesterday I wrote of American poet Edgar Allan Poe and the subject of beauty, and of English poet Ted Hughes suggesting to children that poems may lend a measure of permanence to a thing – something, at least, that might have a life beyond that of the poet. And – as so often – one thing leads to another; that’s how it is with poetry, the great galleries and the little sitting rooms of our remembering and articulation, that’s how it is within the libraries of heart and mind and bookcase. Today I’ve come across thought not dissimilar to that of either of the above. Art critic John Berger wrote:
All the languages of art have been developed as an
attempt to transform the instantaneous into the
permanent. Art supposes that beauty is not an exception
– is not, in despite of – but is the basis for an order …
Art is an organised response to what nature allows us to
glimpse occasionally … The transcendental face of art
is always a form of prayer.
The White Bird, writings edited by Lloyd Spencer, page 9
Perhaps the host of art forms, the “poetry” we make in our own lives – in our homes, in our various arts, creativity and employment, in partnership, family life and friendship, in the communities in which we live, and in our wider shared experiences – are our attempts to co-create something inwardly portable, like treasured keepsakes, of life-elements in this world that are essentially transient. The Creator of all that is, including all we have loved, all who have loved us, all that we have helped to create – invites us, beautifully, (to pinch a line from a gorgeous, if not entirely related, Chris de Burgh song – YouTube here) to
Carry Me, (Like A Fire In Your Heart)
even as we ourselves are carried …
Beauty of whatever kind, in its supreme development,
invariably excites the sensitive soul to tears. Melancholy
is thus the most legitimate of all the poetical tones.
Edgar Allan Poe, 1809-1849
in the Essay The Philosophy of Composition
(Tales, Sketches and Selected Criticism here)
I rather want to protest “the most legitimate …” – though one hardly dares, given the tragedies the poet endured – but, anyway, a bit of reflection sees truth here, too. It is often, indeed, in moments of melancholy that I’m most keenly attuned to beauty’s being beauty because, by whatever hand or means, it has, precisely, undergone “supreme development” – and yes, sight, scent, hearing, touch or taste of that kind of creation does move me to tears. And I’m always – afterwards if not immediately – profoundly grateful for that.
The English poet Ted Hughes, writing for children, in Poetry in the Making, about his The Thought-Fox, said:
And I suppose that long after I am gone, as long
as a copy of the poem exists, every time anyone
reads it the fox will get up somewhere out in
the darkness and come walking towards them.
So, you see, in some ways my fox is better than an
ordinary fox. It will live forever, it will never
suffer from hunger or hounds. I have it with me
wherever I go. And I made it. And all through
imagining it clearly enough and finding the living
I wonder what any of us, in moments of melancholy, moved to tears, might find ourselves “imagining … clearly enough and finding the living words” for? The “Divine Word”, the poets, and – yes – melancholy sometimes, are calling us to co-creation: to “supreme development”. Life’s about getting down to it!
I don’t often think to write about sleep. But I’m pleasantly tired tonight, quietly reflective, not up to writing about anything very cerebral, and thus the more grateful for what must surely be one of life’s chief miracles – 8 or so hours in every 24 given naturally to mental, physical and spiritual regeneration. Astonishing – and all of it happening quietly!
It’s not going to cost anything, I don’t have to go out anywhere for it, it takes little or no effort on my part, it’ll be warm and safe and comfortable, as likely as not peaceful, and I have the reasonable hope that I’ll wake up refreshed and glad to see a new day. Really, after all these years, it’s a priceless daily gift that I should probably be more thankfully conscious of.
Sleep well …
Thinking again today of John Davidson’s Imagination, I remembered a hymn I loved in my childhood – probably brought to mind because the word “mart” appears in both: in the former, “The mart of power, the fount of will”, and in the latter, “Thine is the loom, the forge, the mart …” (How the mind likes to make connections!)
I realise that my love for poetry dates back to early appreciation of psalms and hymnal. “… met within thy holy place / To rest awhile …” spoke to me long ago of the grace and gift of imagination, my own, that of humanity generally, and that of the immortal, invisible Creator of all.
John Ellerton reminds me to enter inwards – through “little space” – to the Eternal in Whom everything that is, in the heavens and upon the earth, are forever united – now.
Behold us, Lord, a little space
From daily tasks set free,
And met within thy holy place
To rest awhile with thee.
Around us rolls the ceaseless tide
Of business, toil, and care;
And scarcely can we turn aside
For one brief hour of prayer.
Yet these are not the only walls
Wherein thou mayst be sought:
On homeliest work thy blessing falls,
In truth and patience wrought.
Thine is the loom, the forge, the mart,
The wealth of land and sea;
The worlds of science and of art,
Revealed and ruled by thee.
Then let us prove our heavenly birth
In all we do and know;
And claim the kingdom of the earth
For thee, and not thy foe.
Work shall be prayer, if all be wrought
As thou wouldst have it done;
And prayer, by thee inspired and taught,
Itself with work be one.
John Ellerton, 1826-93
There is a dish to hold the sea,
A brazier to contain the sun,
A compass for the galaxy,
A voice to wake the dead and done!
That minister of ministers,
Imagination, gathers up
The undiscovered Universe,
Like jewels in a jasper cup.
Its flame can mingle north and south;
Its accent with the thunder strive;
The ruddy sentence of its mouth
Can make the ancient dead alive.
The mart of power, the fount of will,
The form and mould of every star,
The source and bound of good and ill,
The key of all the things that are,
Imagination, new and strange
In every age, can turn the year;
Can shift the poles and lightly change
The mood of men, the world’s career.
John Davidson, 1857-1909
I’ve settled upon a Just Play Pad page to “gather up” some of my scribbles and squiggles. A lovely pen and wash tutor encouraged me to “just play” with colour, line and sketch – freely as, at other times, one might with words. The lady knew a thing or two about giving scope to imagination, like the Scottish poet John Davidson, of whose poetry no less than W B Yeats spoke as finding “new subject matter, new emotions”.
Imagination – inner life – “can turn the year; / Can shift the poles and lightly change / the mood of men, the world’s career”.
Very moved this evening by The Danish Girl, the story, based on a real life, of married artist Einar Wegener (Lili Elbe) – played by Eddie Redmayne – who underwent one of the first sex-change operations in the 1930s.
Redmayne and co-star Alicia Vikander are mesmerising – as is the stunning photography in Copenhagen, Dresden and Paris. Bravery, grief, extra-ordinary sacrificial love, joy, a sense of the tragic and of turmoil all tumble into the mix. The empathy and the pioneering spirit of the surgeon paved pathways of hope for the future.
Not an easy film or one I feel a need to watch again in a hurry. But I’m left with such a deep sense of thankfulness for pioneers and that things have moved on – coupled with a recognition that there’s still a lot more changing, growing and understanding remaining to be done.
We’re just back from overnighting with a special friend who’d cooked an old favourite supper, baked buns and altogether spoiled us rotten – the evening morphing into one of those entirely relaxed catch-ups – as ABBA would have it – “The Way Old Friends Do”. Heartfelt thanks!
Thanks too to our dentist: poet, philosopher and all-round good fellow whose good dentistry is matched by good conversation, shared passion for books and the sheer privilege of being alive in the twenty-first century, and whose team make all-comers feel like members of their family.
And thanks for friends in Australia, the US (keep warm over there on the East Coast!), and the UK whose abiding encouragement, giftedness and many kindnesses are treasures I’m conscious of each and every day. And there’s been a special kind of magic, too, this week for a grandson who’s newly 4 and a granddaughter who has just found her feet!
Connection. What it means – and what a grace – to be human.
The English Lakeland Fells are always a glorious sight, but driving South today the whole of the southern range had been transformed – snow white, standing brilliantly outlined and proud for miles against the dome of a deep blue sky – and our hearts soared.
The truth is that startlingly beautiful transformations are taking place before and behind our eyes, indoors and outdoors, and in both our outer and inner lives, every moment of every day. Faced with today’s especially mountainous majesty – which couldn’t be missed if one tried – I realise though that I do miss so many miracles around me simply because I don’t pay attention. A sort of adult-dullard-by-accident!
So I’m going to make a conscious effort to look out for life’s multiple transformations, and to take note of them. It’s something beyond all telling that entire mountain ranges can be “painted” by zillions of tiny flakes of ice, themselves works of breathtakingly beautiful art, design, order and symmetry. Gifts to be on the lookout for, moment by moment, and so many of them incalculably good for our souls.
I brushed some snow from a garden bench this afternoon and my bare fingertips instantly felt the sharp bite of ice so that I was much less inclined to sweep it from the chairs! But as a thaw progresses and snowdrop shoots appear fresher, greener, stronger and taller than they did before, it occurs to me that the same snow that nipped my fingers has apparently blanketed and protected them.
Nature’s a never-ending source of wonder!
I’ve been thankful today for the loving good karma that a dear friend takes such good care to communicate to the world. And I’ve been thinking about her a lot because, with her husband, she’s packing up their long-loved home and preparing to move to pastures new and largely unknown. And that ain’t easy – even when one could write a thousand paragraphs about why it’s a good idea. So I find myself wanting to abide for a moment with some words I heard thirty+ years ago – a snippet from a show-song in a youth-club production:
Home is where your heart is. It’s your resting place …
Not for a moment do I presume to make light of the pain involved in any saying farewell to the old and moving bravely onwards into the new. I only want to say to this particular friend, by way of the good karma that reaches across oceans, that the big-heartedness that built the present home – the loving effects of which reach far, far beyond its walls, and immeasurably further than just her immediate family and friends, will be going with her!
It’s the same big-heartedness that years ago touched many lives – even without her knowing – through the role of camp counselor, and has gone on to touch countless other lives in innumerable staging posts since. This big-heartedness – which is such a blessing precisely because it is happy and sad, brave and fearful, giving and honest and thankful – is going to fill a new home. And the days will come, ‘ere long, when the new has grown familiar whilst there’s deep and thankful recognition that the old heart came along too – having left traces of its presence wheresoever it has thus-far travelled along life’s way.
Friends are thinking of you, Big-Heart, even miles and miles away …
I drove by a very elderly couple, clinging on to each other for dear life, on a snow covered pavement today. Even from behind I could see they were laughing. The fleeting glance as I passed them revealed faces creased with that laughter, and tender, and warm-wrapped in colourful woollen gloves and scarves. The tenderness made me think of William Stafford’s
Remind me again – together we
trace our strange journey, find
each other, come on laughing.
Some time we’ll cross where life
ends. We’ll both look back
as far as forever, that first day.
I’ll touch you – a new world then.
Stars will move in a different way.
We’ll both end. We’ll both begin.
Remind me again.
The Way It Is – New and Selected Poems