Fire is a good companion for the mind; Here in this room, mellowed by sunlight, kind After yesterday’s thrall of rain and dark, I watch the fire and feel some warm thoughts spark …
May Sarton Collected Poems
A good walk on a cool grey afternoon, coupled with thoughts of some more baked apples for supper, have resulted in the lighting of my wood stove and plans for that most lovely of autumnal occupations: hot coffee, buttered scones and books beside the fire. Sometime yesterday I was speaking with a friend about the power of evocation. Oh so very much is evoked and re-membered by a warm ash-burning hearth of red and gold. And ‘warm thoughts spark …’
Writing is a journey of discovery that takes me places that I never expected …
… a friend wrote to me today. And – in the way of such things – I have been taken thereby to places that I never expected, wondering all day about the extraordinary gift of languages in words, and in music, which can sometimes transport our words so exquisitely.
When I was first moved by Les Miserables in the 1990s I remember being sure in my mind that Marius’ grieving in Herbert Kretzmer’s Empty Chairs and Empty Tables was not for one revolution alone, but for every reflection and reconsideration of past, present and potential. A Universal Song.
Hearts are breaking all over the world for innumerable reasons today. Too many empty chairs and empty tables. I find myself awed by the purity of young Cormac Thompson’s rendition here – a clarity that carries an invitation to reflect straight to human hearts.
May our words be quiet, kind and clear; may our music sometimes be hope-filled silence – so that we really hear both, allowing ourselves to be reshaped, that we may the better transform our world. A quiet revolution. Thus may we be taken to unexpected, perhaps joy-filled and hopeful places.
Sad though I am to be missing our second bothy weekend, I have to admit that temporary grounding in house and garden by Covid-19 is not without its joys.
Gardens, and nature generally, inspire my soul and enhance my perspective. I’m drawn to remember, and to reflect upon, the extraordinary diversity and variety in all things living – near and far, tiny and gigantic, colour, complexity, scent, size, shape, textures, life span and so on.
Peaceful today, and moved only a little by a mild breeze, beautiful life-forms in my garden appear simply to revel in their being-ness. As do the galaxies shown in glorious, mysterious technicolour by the world’s latest most advanced James Webb Space Telescope. I’m moved to be still for a while – to look at my own being-ness – in wonder.
The journals of our lives (like this one) are filled with very ‘ordinary’ chapters aren’t they? – accounts of daily life that quite often – very often – feel a tad mundane, on the surface at any rate. And yet somehow, in many of us, there’s still an impulse to record some of our experience of the hours – aide memoire – a tool for later reflection and remembering. And it’s often the ‘ordinary’ stuff that comes most readily to mind.
Walking home, at nearly 10pm on a balmy Edinburgh summer evening that feels like early afternoon – peaceful, happily aware of surroundings that make me feel good, conscious of other walkers headed home, slightly out of breath after the uphill stride to the bus stop. Thinking of contact with a number of family and friends during the course of the day. And of flowers and gardens. And the Poetry Library. Noting the bright Italian restaurant for future possibilities. Grateful for the interested friendliness of the lady bus driver on the 113 for Pencaitland, and the many familiar repetitions of the ‘Stop’ bell and the phrase ‘Thanks. ‘night …’ And from somewhere unseen come strains of ABBA –
I’m nothing special, in fact I’m a bit of a bore
If I tell a joke, you’ve probably heard it before
🎶 (Thank you for the music …)
– and I smile, recognising the sentiment. Yet blood and energy is coursing through my veins. I’ve been engaged in non-verbal connection with other ‘ordinary’ humans for a couple of hours. There’s nothing mundane about the dancing class, nothing boring about a hall full of people glowing and gliding and laughing and smiling and seeing and hearing and feeling their hearts beating in their chests like drums. Hearing car tyres on the cobbles outside – because the windows are open – I’m reminded in this dancing of the ‘ordinary’ dance of life, and my experience of that ordinariness is lifted here. Transformed. This journal, this record, this reflection, remind me that if I move myself, if I’m engaging with others in all the myriad ways I and they might choose to engage – then I’m alive! And aware of that, grateful. Profoundly, warmly thankful.
An Underground Rail Strike led to pandemonium in London this drizzly morning. Major bus delays and absolute lock-jam for cars meant that I missed my booked train home to Edinburgh, and – shrugging my shoulders – surrendered to having to buy a new ticket for a later train – which delivered me, four and a half hours after boarding, to sunny Scotland.
But the inconvenience en-route isn’t really the point of my story. That would be Khadija, a young Somalian woman, the driver of my mini-cab-going-nowhere, who is so full of joy-filled sunshine we might have been reliving yesterday’s ABBA Concert. ‘Hellooo,’ she exclaimed several times in the course of a 50 minute crawl, ‘Hellooo: we’re alive! I woke up today and I thought ‘hey! – I’m still here.’’
And I came to learn about Khadija’s family, and about how Covid lockdowns had on the one hand rendered her unable to work (mini-cab driving) and on the other hand, immeasurable joy: she’d volunteered to support neighbours who struggled to shop, or with loneliness. She brought them food and – I don’t doubt for a second – entire summers’ worth of sunshine. But all this was nothing, Khadija told me, compared to the joy that those ‘helped’ gave, and continued to give, her.
Khadija is raising small children – and the well-being of her neighbourhood. ‘Other people reflect back to us all that we decide to be ourselves, each and every day. Smile and be happy then. And what you get back will have you sayin’ ‘Hellooo: we’re alive!’’
Missed trains and traffic jams, like clouds, have silver linings. I’ll long remember the ABBA concert and a lovely dinner in Paddington with my brother, his wife, and an old friend. But I won’t be forgetting conversation with Khadija anytime soon either: ‘you know what’s really great about my job? You get to see, every day, that the world is FULL of really beautiful people.’
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?
Each season bears unique joys to us. There’s a mellowness about late summer / early autumn here that I’m always grateful for. A softening of the light. A softening succession of reflection at both morning and evening. A softening awareness of the importance of home – wheresoever ‘home’ may be for us at any given time.
Wildflowers have attracted hundreds of bees and butterflies so that the garden is full of the hum of satisfied pollen-seekers quietly going about their business. I’ve revelled for half an hour this morning in recalling a lovely Instagram photo I saw recently – of two replete bees, sleeping in the soft petals of a poppy, two of them together, because apparently they like to hold each other’s knees and feet while they sleep! Who knew? And the butterflies speak silently of the complex metamorphosing journeys they’ve been on. And so do I.
The red squirrels are stocking up supplies and I feel close to them as I stack the log store with sweet smelling kiln-dried ash for the stove. Occasionally split logs are reunited – or at least seen close to each other again – and their rings speak of their story too, and I wonder where the engineered oak boards of my little sitting room once flourished elsewhere, and from whence came this ash, knowing how well it will scent and warm home until it becomes whatever comes next.
The slant of the early sunlight illuminates the promises of the morning – and asks to be remembered should tomorrow be a grey day. And the colours of the garden flowers prompt thoughts of harvest – and especially, this morning, somehow, of the warm scent of harvest bread from a distance, far away …
Evening meals begin to move away from salad-stuffs, turning towards the more substantial – buttered and minted potatoes, greens and steak pie.
And after brisk walks, lungs full of fresh air, and daily reacquaintance with the long backbone of the Pennine Ridge and the Ullswater Fells – sometimes under mist and sometimes mirage, autumnal movement towards books and the piano again. The gentle, slow clip-clopping of horse and rider passing my window suggest that they, too, are inclined less to rush today and more to a quieter, calmer contemplation.
I know these gifts are important, and reasons enough for profound thankfulness in a world which is also beset with fear and wonder, a sense of separateness – between one human and another, and between humankind and other life forms too. I ask myself in late summer to make time to be aware of others – near and far, in peace or fear. I seek to be more aware of the gift of the breath in my body, and in every body. I wonder in awe at the sleeping holding of the bees’ knees, and the instinct that directs a red squirrel’s calendar. I celebrate the ‘I see!’ miracles that unfold into sunlight from the incomprehensible depths of wildflower seeds, and the life-story record written in the rings in trees.
And you and I contemplate the cyclical dying, and the rising of the light … 🌻🍂☀️
Such a lot of reflection and celebration of the gift of life happens in the wee small hours.
Here, images of the things that matter most to me pass before my eyes – nature, including the still, rooted knowing of plant-life; and the sources, shapes, sounds and touch of warmth, colour, scent, light, shadow, love, nourishment, restoration and rest.
In the wee small hours Edinburgh is largely quiet, and thankfully, and reflectively, so am I …
Edinburgh is a city with whom I am engaged in perpetual discussion! – with architecture, with colour and line, with suddenly come upon and breathtakingly startling vistas, with bookshops, with birdsong, with history (mine and the city’s), with music (I’ll walk a quartermile out of my way to trace the source of the sound of the Pipes), with poetry, wind, hills, coastline – and anticipated conversations with others who are haunted and delighted and vivified by it as well.
Engaged too with the reflection that settles in one’s soul’s having been calmed, and drawn, and enchanted by her colours and her reflections. Edinburgh may certainly be spoken to, but there’s immeasurable benefit to be celebrated in deeply listening to her too. Hers is a hard won, long won, weft and wisdom. And in such slow contemplation there’s a seeing sunrise, sunlight, sunset, moon and starlit spaces behind – whilst simultaneously seeing sunrise, sunlight, sunset, moon and starlit spaces ahead.
Windows into the soul are so important. Here we find ourselves sustained by what’s behind us, and by what is – here in this city, in this ‘window’, right now, and by the light that calls us forward. All this, so often seen in one and the same windowpane. In a bookshop, or a stationers, or our own home, or our own dreams, or – most beautiful among the firmament of the windows of the soul – the eyes of family or friend or beloved.
All this discussion, contemplation and reflection steadily leads us inexorably to metamorphosis – gives wings to ‘The Extraordinary Life,’ to ‘The Boy (or Girl) Who Loved,’ to what ‘Bunheads’ might think of as the Dance of Life. And a certain being at home with oneself, be the days warm or cold, happy or sad: all the while growing …