I wonder how many conversations you have been engaged in today? How much eye contact, argument, celebration, compassion, healing, helping, hoping, learning, listening, mourning, speaking, tenderness, touch, understanding, writing?
And I wonder how much distance has been lessened by all of the above? How connected we’re able to feel with our fellow pilgrim-explorers on the face of this beautiful and extraordinary – but complex and sometimes tragic – earth?
To my surprise, I’ve had to revisit my count for the day – there’s been far more connection than I at first recalled when my question arose; and the types and variety of connections have been wide – all covering, so to speak, a lot of ground.
This often astonishing array of worldwide connection is the daily stuff of my life – of our lives. And in each connected dew-drop shimmering in the web there are untold depths and reach of reflection and of prospect. Alone but accompanied, I come to the close of another day aware of many levels of gratefulness – and of love.
I’ve been meditating on the juxtaposition of two words in my mind today: bitter and beautiful.
Bitter – because this afternoon’s cold recognises no barrier in five layers of clothing and a felt hat. I am chilled right through to my very bones.
Beautiful – because this is Holyrood, Edinburgh, a place where both natural and humanly-fabricated elements of the city appear to revel in their own illuminated loveliness. A bit like the light in some of Rembrandt’s glorious portraits, one witnesses something of a warm glow, from the inside out. Soul-shining.
It’s an odd and delightful sort of thing, isn’t it, that the two can co-exist in the same moment? – the extreme discomfort of bitter cold, coloured and warmed by awestruck appreciation of the bared beautiful. It’s only a little while since these trees were dressed in all their best finery, peaceably overlooking the delights of garden parties in the great Palace of Holyroodhouse. Today the bitter cold has nipped the last of the leaves at their stems. Fallen and blown, they will now nourish the ground of future’s green glory. Limbs are bared as they face the months of winter, just as our human frame and spirit is bared – and ultimately nourished and grown – by assorted forms of all that we describe and experience as bitter.
All life has deep roots – temporal and eternal. We, with cities and trees, learn that bitter and beautiful work together. And those of us who have learned, and are learning this well, will wait quietly for Spring. Patient, and shining, from the inside out.
Poets, too, are crazed by light, How to capture its changes, How to be accurate in seizing What has been caught by the eye In an instant’s flash – Light through a petal, Iridescence of clouds before sunrise. They, too, are haunted by the need To hold the fleeting still In a design – That vermilion under the haystack, Struck at sunset, Melting into the golden air Yet perfectly defined, An illuminated transience.
Today my house is lost in milk, The milky veils of a blizzard. The trees have turned pale. There are no shadows, That is the problem – no shadows At all.
It is harder to see what one sees Than anyone knows. Monet knew, spent a lifetime Trying to undazzle the light And pin it down.
May Sarton Letters from Maine: New Poems, 1984
They, too, are haunted by the need / To hold the fleeting still / In a design
We cannot hold the fleeting still. That’s why, for us, time so often appears, inexplicably, to fly. And time between the 3rd November 2022 and tonight, the 19th November 2022, appears to me to have passed in the blink of an eye. Of course, I have flashing memories of a flu jab, dental treatment, a Covid vaccine booster, poems read, accounts enumerated, letters written and received, some loving conversations – about life, and about death, about love, and about grief: yes, of course. Yet still there’s a degree of unknowing, an inability to grasp time’s flight, and probably a need to step out, sometimes, for a while, from the paths of routine, simply to breathe ‘illuminated transience.’ Yes: there are times and spaces when It is harder to see what one sees / Than anyone knows.
This blog remains a steady friend to me – sometimes in daily conversations and at others, in much the same way as happens in many other relationships, by way of catch-up. Revisiting. Re-membering. Undazzling the light. This blog reminds me – encourages me – to recognise profound beauty in the daily journey, not just in the destination. This blog slows me down within the continuum, the quiet voice at my shoulder inviting me to love and to life. And with every blink of my eyes, with every breath breathed in and out, with every attempt to catch a fleeting thought, or to let a thought take flight, the view changes. Focus zooms in and out … harder to see what one sees / Than anyone knows …
But – Light through a petal – it’s OK to be moved only ever so slightly in the breeze: to stay awhile, to let all that is, within and beyond, tell us quietly what ungraspable time and life and love are really all about.
Sometimes I’m surprised by the most vivid memories of people, places, thoughts and treasures – and I’m so thankful for the wonders of the reflective human brain, albeit that as a young schoolboy I was convinced that mine was duller than everyone else’s!
These images, captured in Edinburgh a year ago, make me glad to be alive – and hugely looking forward to my forthcoming return there. I am one of life’s ‘returners.’ I love to retrace my steps in the times and spaces that have brought the joy in the centre of me most fully to life – even whilst occupied, too, with the new.
I am so lost for words when I think of Ukraine today that I hardly dare speak of it at all. But being ‘lost’ is no excuse for forgetting – and I am in awe of the courage, hope and kindness that we’ve seen coming to the fore in many a news bulletin – in the face of truly unspeakable events.
Perhaps we all love to retrace at least some of our steps? Perhaps our human ability to ‘relive’ joy is one of our chief sources of fuel for life – and even for facing up to the reality of (our own) death; for courage in times of darkness, for compassion when we hear another’s crying, for hope when everything we hold dear appears threatened?
This beautiful photograph reminds me very much of one I stopped to capture (below) while visiting San Sebastián de la Gomera in January this year. I’ve been wondering what caught the eye of two photographers, in different places, each looking at weathered boards through a lens? And of course I can only speak for one of us!
What I think beautiful in these images is, precisely, the weathering seen in them. Once upon an unidentified time a painter stood before these shutters and they were beautified and made to look like new with shiny coats of paint. But as surely as the new exists in this world so too does ageing – and I contend that the beauty of the history brought to bear on these shutters – sunshine, wind, rain, heat and cold is shining today.
And further, that’s how it is for us. The rosy cheeked beauty of our human infancy is subject to the weathering of our days, and we must learn to recognise the ageing beauty in our unique stories. My friend Lori and I were conversing about the late, great poet John O’Donohue recently. Apparently, John was fond of posing the question ‘what would some of your unlived lives say to each other?’ We agreed that this would be a super discussion starter for a small group of close friends. Perhaps another question, for the same group of friends, might be ‘what would the lives you have lived say to each other?’
There’s history in these shutters, reaching all the way back to the rootedness of trees in the earth, and to the skills of glaziers, joiners and painters. And there’s history, rootedness, the works of craftspeople, and weathered beauty in each of us, too. Were the shutters to be flung open wide, what of life and love might be celebrated, contemplated, learned from, mourned, or otherwise reflected upon, inside?