Poems for the Pandemic (4)

Clearing, by Martha Postlethwaite

I am on a mini sabbatical at the moment, taking a ‘Sabbath’ break from the usual rhythm of life. It wasn’t met with encouragement from all quarters: “Is that a fancy name for a holiday?” quipped one, “Gosh, you have it easy!” quipped another.

It seems that what earns respect is nose-to-the-grindstone – until that nose is worn down to the bone! – and don’t reach beyond the culturally accepted few weeks’ holiday a year. There’s little or no encouragement to take leisurely, extended time out just for reflection and rest.

How can we know what Life is inviting if we don’t, on occasion, slow down enough to experience a contrasting rhythm, contrasting delights, to listen to the ‘still small voice’?

Enter this poem, which beautifully advocates for a Sabbath approach:

“Do not try to serve
the whole world
or do anything grandiose.
Instead, create
a clearing
in the dense forest
of your life
and wait there patiently,
until the song
that is yours alone to sing
falls into your open cupped hands
and you recognize and greet it.
Only then will you know
how to give yourself
to the world
so worthy of rescue.”

~ Martha Postlethwaite

Reading this, something in me relaxes, my shoulders drop, I come into stillness. I am reading it each day as a ‘touchstone’ to check against whatever thoughts and plans I have for my day. The photo is of a space I have been going to in this time, sitting under a giant London Plane, leaning into her wisdom, her stillness, her ‘okayness’.

I recently read Water Bruggeman’s ‘Sabbath As Resistance’, which I highly recommend (and did recommend to a number of my directees before embarking on this break). He paints a vivid contrast between the ‘system of Pharaoh’ characterised by relentless productivity, restlessness and anxiety, and the ‘system of covenant’ offered to the Israelites in the desert after their escape from Egypt. At the heart of the covenantal invitation is the commandment regarding the Sabbath, an invitation to restfulness, non-anxiety and neighbourliness.

This book, together with the on-going COVID crisis, and the reading I have done around the approaching climate (and subsequent social) collapse has convinced me I need to seek a deeper connection with these qualities, to live as much as I can in resistance to the relentless and endemic values of consumerism, constant productivity and busyness that plague our culture. Only small inroads so far, and I haven’t converted yet to being vegetarian or vegan, but I am eating less meat, taking a year off buying any clothes (and if you know me, that’s a BIG deal!), growing potatoes, and using my bath water to flush the toilet (!). On this Sabbath break I am also playing piano more, cycling, sitting under trees, making art, spending time with dear friends …. and writing! I hope to build on these small beginnings.

I’d be interested to hear your response to all this, what the idea of Sabbath plants in you, and how you are responding to the God who invites you into a ‘clearing in the dense forest of your life’, into restfulness, non-anxiety and neighbourliness.

God bless, Annette

Woody Bay … wanderings/wonderings

Woody Bay … a rocky way

Ah, Woody Bay! A slice of heaven on the north Devon coast, a well kept secret awaiting you after a 20 minute wander from the main road on a winding steep path through ancient, dense Sessile Oak woods. I’ve been making a kind of regular pilgrimage there for the last few years and I never tire of its beauty and the Presence I find amidst her woods, cliffs and rocks.

These boulders (much larger than the photo makes them appear) don’t look inviting in terms of a ‘beach experience’ but in fact my favourite thing to do is arrive just ahead of low tide, and boulder-hop down the length of the bay (past a waterfall and a Victorian tidal swimming pool) to a sandy patch at the far end and a wild swim in the ocean. I did this last week with my partner and his teenage daughter and it lived up to the magic. We set off along the rocks, each taking a slightly different route. I stayed high, enjoying (cautiously) leaping from the top of one boulder to the next, with no forward planning, trusting each boulder to lead me on. The teenager stayed low, peering into rock pools in wonder at the treasures found there. Julian, my partner, aware, in his advanced years (!) of his bones’ vulnerability, did a bit of both. We came together at points, but mostly found our own ways of getting to the far end, having separate mini adventures on the way. Once there, tired and hot, we revived in the waves and cold ocean water.

How boring it would have been to have simply followed in each other’s footsteps, or even worse, if someone before us had plotted a prescribed (health & safety) route! As I stood at some point, atop a high boulder and gazed along the landscape of rocks, I felt such gratitude for the beauty and the fun, and for my body that still allows me to have this experience. I felt joy watching my companions each make their separate ways. Surely the Presence that I sense in that place also felt pleasure in/as us as we wended/played/experimented our way across the rocks.

As in Woody Bay, so in life. Can we trust and rejoice in our own and each other’s journeys? We prescribe and proscribe directions, whether socially, culturally or religiously, at our, and others’, peril. While it might keep them ‘safe’, and ourselves safe in our preferred beliefs and identities, it shuts down the joy and adventure and becomes … well … boring!

By all means, encourage others to take the journey. Sing the praises of the adventure and the destination (and the wild ocean swim!). But let them find their own way. Trust each person’s preferences for the route they take, as well as the diversions and mishaps.

Appreciate the differences, how some travel slowly, or contemplatively, while others enjoy the challenge of great leaps of faith, or ‘riskier’ choices. (We saw two young men leap into the water with surfboards and paddle out of sight into the wild waves. I felt a motherly anxiety for them, Julian was more able to trust them to their own adventure – I still have much to learn!). Some travel with maps and compasses, others go free-style. Some like company, others prefer solitude.

Go your own way, and let others go theirs. (There is no bogey-man waiting to pounce!)

Enjoy the times you meet together on the way. Gather round a fire, a rock pool, an altar, to recount your adventures.

Offer support and direction only if requested!

Trust that there are many ways of reaching the sandy, welcoming shore. The ocean and her delights await us all.

At the far end … sand, surf and swim!

Poems for the Pandemic (3)

Sometimes a Wild God by Tom Hirons

This poem found me at the beginning of lockdown (although it was written some years ago). It’s a mad poem that for me gives perfect expression to the wildness, the terribleness and the beauty of these lockdown times. Some things can’t be understood, they can only be experienced, viscerally and mysteriously, just like the times we are living in. Covid-19 turned up unannounced (although not entirely unexpected) and has thrust us into previously unimagined turmoil, both communally and personally. It invites us to reassess all that we took for granted, or depended on. It shows us our world – the planet and its population – in a new light. It shows us both the best and the worst of ourselves.

As well as giving expression to our pandemic experience, the poem also expresses , for me, something of the thing we call God. This is the wild God, the God of Jacob’s wrestling, the God who spoke to Job ‘out of the storm’, the God who comes to disturb, unsettle and bless us in the twists and turns of our lives. The God who sometimes doesn’t feel safe, but is ultimately the safest place we can put our trust, where we discover the life in death.

Once again, here’s an audio version. I really enjoyed reading this one! I’d love to hear what you think of it.

Sometimes a Wild God by Tom Hirons

Sometimes a Wild God

Sometimes a wild god comes to the table.
He is awkward and does not know the ways
Of porcelain, of fork and mustard and silver.
His voice makes vinegar from wine.

When the wild god arrives at the door,
You will probably fear him.
He reminds you of something dark
That you might have dreamt,
Or the secret you do not wish to be shared.

He will not ring the doorbell;
Instead he scrapes with his fingers
Leaving blood on the paintwork,
Though primroses grow
In circles round his feet.

You do not want to let him in.
You are very busy.
It is late, or early, and besides…
You cannot look at him straight
Because he makes you want to cry.

The dog barks.
The wild god smiles,
Holds out his hand.
The dog licks his wounds
And leads him inside.

The wild god stands in your kitchen.
Ivy is taking over your sideboard;
Mistletoe has moved into the lampshades
And wrens have begun to sing
An old song in the mouth of your kettle.

‘I haven’t much,’ you say
And give him the worst of your food.
He sits at the table, bleeding.
He coughs up foxes.
There are otters in his eyes.

When your wife calls down,
You close the door and
Tell her it’s fine.
You will not let her see
The strange guest at your table.

The wild god asks for whiskey
And you pour a glass for him,
Then a glass for yourself.
Three snakes are beginning to nest
In your voicebox. You cough.

Oh, limitless space.
Oh, eternal mystery.
Oh, endless cycles of death and birth.
Oh, miracle of life.
Oh, the wondrous dance of it all.

You cough again,
Expectorate the snakes and
Water down the whiskey,
Wondering how you got so old
And where your passion went.

The wild god reaches into a bag
Made of moles and nightingale-skin.
He pulls out a two-reeded pipe,
Raises an eyebrow
And all the birds begin to sing.

The fox leaps into your eyes.
Otters rush from the darkness.
The snakes pour through your body.
Your dog howls and upstairs
Your wife both exults and weeps at once.

The wild god dances with your dog.
You dance with the sparrows.
A white stag pulls up a stool
And bellows hymns to enchantments.
A pelican leaps from chair to chair.

In the distance, warriors pour from their tombs.
Ancient gold grows like grass in the fields.
Everyone dreams the words to long-forgotten songs.
The hills echo and the grey stones ring
With laughter and madness and pain.

In the middle of the dance,
The house takes off from the ground.
Clouds climb through the windows;
Lightning pounds its fists on the table.
The moon leans in through the window.

The wild god points to your side.
You are bleeding heavily.
You have been bleeding for a long time,
Possibly since you were born.
There is a bear in the wound.

‘Why did you leave me to die?’
Asks the wild god and you say:
‘I was busy surviving.
The shops were all closed;
I didn’t know how. I’m sorry.’

Listen to them:

The fox in your neck and
The snakes in your arms and
The wren and the sparrow and the deer…
The great un-nameable beasts
In your liver and your kidneys and your heart…

There is a symphony of howling.
A cacophony of dissent.
The wild god nods his head and
You wake on the floor holding a knife,
A bottle and a handful of black fur.

Your dog is asleep on the table.
Your wife is stirring, far above.
Your cheeks are wet with tears;
Your mouth aches from laughter or shouting.
A black bear is sitting by the fire.

Sometimes a wild god comes to the table.
He is awkward and does not know the ways
Of porcelain, of fork and mustard and silver.
His voice makes vinegar from wine
And brings the dead to life.

Tom Hirons

Poems for the Pandemic (2)

Poems I’ve felt accompanied by during these strange times. Today, it’s Breathing Underwater by Carol Bieleck.

I came across this poem years ago and it took my breath away. At the time life felt overwhelming, as though I was drowning with no resources for making sense of or surviving what was happening. The poem found me at just the right time, bringing a message about surrendering to events, not as a victim, but with a kind of contemplative, curious acceptance. I won’t pretend that was or continues to be a smooth process! I still rail against events and people that I feel flooded by, but this poem serves as a gentle reminder that there is life, and indeed castles beneath the waters. I hope you find it has something to say to you in these watery times.

I recently read it out loud to a friend going through her own ‘underwater’ experience, and she encouraged me to record myself, so I’m including an audio version for you to listen to if you fancy.

Breathing Underwater by Carol Bieleck

Breathing Underwater by Carol Bieleck

I built my house by the sea.
Not on the sands, mind you,
not on the shifting sand.
And I built it of rock.
A strong house
by a strong sea.
And we got well acquainted, the sea and I.
Good neighbors.
Not that we spoke much.
We met in silences,
respectful, keeping our distance
but looking our thoughts across the fence of sand.
Always the fence of sand our barrier,
always the sand between.

And then one day
(and I still don’t know how it happened)
The sea came.
Without warning.

Without welcome even.
Not sudden and swift, but a shifting across the sand like wine,
less like the flow of water than the flow of blood.
Slow, but flowing like an open wound.
And I thought of flight, and I thought of drowning, and I thought of death.
But while I thought, the sea crept higher till it reached my door.
And I knew that there was neither flight nor death nor drowning.
That when the sea comes calling you stop being good neighbors,
Well acquainted, friendly from a distance neighbors.
And you give your house for a coral castle
And you learn to breathe under water.

Poems for the Pandemic (1)

IMG_0961It’s a gift to come across poems that, when you read them, sound familiar, in a ‘I-know-this-experience-I-just-haven’t-had-words-for-it’ sort of way. I’ve been living with a few of these during our pandemic times, and they make sense of things to me in ways all the commentators and news broadcasts fail to do. Here’s one that describes both my nighttime fears, and the consolation I then experience walking in my local park:

The Peace of Wild Things

When despair for the world grows in me

and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,

I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.

I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.

And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

IMG_0947

A neuroscientist, and perhaps a physiologist too, could explain why it is we find it soothing and consoling to walk in, and attend to, nature. Something about our neural pathways and nervous systems, no doubt. Indeed we are learning more all the time about the science of what poets and prayerful people have known for millennia: that our bodies are ultra sensitive to our environments and the different experiences we are subjected to … and that it does us good to live close to the earth. Mother Earth is a good mother. When we allow her to hold us close, when we allow ourselves to walk barefoot on her grass, to swim in her sea, to honour and wonder at the diversity she nurtures, we are soothed and nourished, and our souls find rest. As another, ancient, poet put it: “You lay me down in green pastures, you lead me beside the still waters, you restore my soul” (Psalm 23).

A Severe Mercy*

Kintsugi: beauty through brokenness

Ten years ago I was diagnosed with breast cancer. It arrived hard on the heels of a painful divorce and many subsequent losses: my home, friendships, church community. An excruciating disintegration of much of who I thought I was. 

I was on the less serious end of things, never in fear for my life, yet it was still disruptive, unwelcome, at times scary, exhausting, and lonely (socially isolating!). It was also physically challenging, with trauma to my breasts and the loss of my hair , both of which I had always felt confident about! In short, I wasn’t in the market for another Big Life Experience. My vanity was severely bruised, as well as my self image as a healthy, resilient person, and I mostly wanted things (i.e. my body) to go back to how they were. I didn’t want to be changed!

But change me it did, in ways I feel grateful for now. In some sense divorce had broken me (cancer almost certainly arrived as my body’s response to the stress of that), and cancer put me back together, arriving as an uninvited Dark Guest, bringing moments of great grace and gift, a sense of being on a long, ironically healing, retreat. All in all, a severe mercy.

All this has come to mind as we adjust to this lockdown, this sudden disruption of our lives and world. I have been recalling some of the things that in amidst the chaos and uncertainty, helped and consoled me during that 8-month (re)treatment:

  • A very early, initial (pre-diagnosis) curiosity about what this experience (actually, this lump) had come to teach me, and wanting to be awake and open to that. I wobbled hugely on this as the months progressed, but it has always seemed to me to be a trustworthy ‘touchstone’ that I have often recalled.
  • My connection with friends and family. Ten years ago, it was by email with an eventual list of 90 people (small fry in these Instagram days!). These contacts, and people’s kindness, were a lifeline and a needed reminder that in my desolating circumstances I was loved.
  • Writing: I loved writing and crafting my record of what was happening, a ‘breast cancer log’ sent out to those friends and family. I’ve recently re-read it and it made me laugh and cry, and reminded me of how helpful it was for me to write it all down.
  • Reading: I had little energy or concentration for high literature, but two books stand out: Victor Frankl’s ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’, the essential thesis of which is that you have a much greater chance of coming through difficult experiences (in his case Auschwitz), well and with resilience, if you can find meaning in them. A bit like my curiosity about what my cancer had come to teach me, and my on-going search for ‘God in all things’. Also Sara Maitland’s ‘A Book of Silence’ that introduced me to, and gave me a hunger for, the gifts of solitude and silence.
  • A contraction of life, a gratitude for small things: the tree in blossom outside my bathroom window; a short walk in the park; tea with friends.
  • A connection with whatever it is we call God – something more, something both beyond myself and deeply within myself. I had a general sense of something Tender accompanying me through it all, and in addition I was given one moment of something more numinous: lying alone in a hospital treatment room awaiting my initial biopsy, feeling scared and lonely, I suddenly felt a quiet but certain sense of a loving Presence with me, an ‘all shall be well’ assurance. It came unannounced and unexpected, and felt entirely trustworthy – another ‘touchstone’ that sustained me.

So as we settle in for who knows how long, I want to slow down and make choices that nourish me: creativity, good reading, connection (now with Zoom) with friends and family around the world; connection with nature, and silence – and connection with God in all those things. I want to let this time change me, teach me, soften me (my heart, not my middle!). Whether or not we ever know the great meaning of this, each day I can make meaningful choices.

Alongside that, I continue the work these experiences prepared me for, as a spiritual director and therapist, offering space for people to share their vulnerabilities, fears and joys as they navigate these strange days. Some of the people I talk with are more at the ‘coal face’ of this situation, and I can only imagine what that is like. My contribution is small, but it’s one I feel privileged to be able to provide.

*A Severe Mercy is the title of a book by Sheldon Vanauken that I read 30 years ago and the phrase has stayed with me.

Forgiveness: the (im)possibility thereof

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(the treacherous black rocks of un-forgiveness)

I’ve been pondering forgiveness, and what feels like, in some circumstances, the utter impossibility of it, every bone in my body resistant to the ‘should’ often attached to it. Desmond Tutu’s book helped, suggesting forgiving others is the best thing we can do for ourselves, to set ourselves free from the corrosive impact of un-forgiveness ….. and like all sorts of other things I know to be good for me (eating healthily, exercise, prayer), still it feels impossible!

I’ve discovered another wonderful author who offers wisdom for this rocky road: Rabbi Rami Shapiro. With humour, humaneness, and generosity he suggests in his book ‘Forgiveness‘ that this challenging quality is not an action, but an attitude, a whole-of-life stance towards the messy world of people.

Just how do we live in this attitude? By recognising that, for the most part, we humans are only trying to be happy; and that, as we stumble about in understandable pursuit of said happiness, we tread on each other’s toes, or worse (we may sometimes do this deliberately, but mostly, not).

In addition to that first lens, the Rabbi suggests, it helps to recognise that in any unhappy encounter or relational dynamic, we are each complicit, even if we are the ‘victim’.  (This is not to condone any version of abuse or mistreatment, or to disregard the complex layers of our relationships and choices, but to understand that it takes ‘two to tango’, and that as long as we stay in an unhealthy dynamic, we are contributing to its existence.)

With these two insights, we can face the situations that have hurt us, and see that at their heart, they are usually about each party crashing about in search of happiness, in the process breaking trust, breaking promises, breaking hearts.

This is pertinent to my own life; I also spend my working week listening to a wide variety of stories of hurt, brokenness, hope, and desire, and I think the Rabbi’s suggestion bears out. We are all fragile and vulnerable, subject to so many insidious messages about how to be happy, that we end up inadvertently contributing to the ocean of unhappiness in the world – hurting others and hurting ourselves. The answer is not to beat up the other person(s), or ourselves, but to look on both with eyes of compassion for that which is within and without that conspires to make us act in these ways.

So I’m going to practice living in an attitude of forgiveness towards others, and towards myself. As I sit feeling into this possibility, it feels inviting, and very different to the tense ‘should’ of attempting ‘to forgive’.

I wonder also, if this kindlier disposition towards the fragility and vulnerability of our human condition might make those other ‘good for me’ things (eating healthily, exercise, prayer) a little easier too!

As ever, a poet says it better, so here’s my rather blissful, and challenging, poem of the week:

when the violin, by Hafiz

translated by daniel ladinsky

When
The violin
Can forgive the past

It starts singing.

When the violin can stop worrying
About the future

You will become
Such a drunk laughing nuisance

That God
Will then lean down
And start combing you into
His
Hair.

When the violin can forgive
Every wound caused by
Others

The heart starts
Singing.

PS: I’ve also read the Rabbi’s ‘The Sacred Art of Lovingkindness‘ of which I’d like to keep a pile next to my ‘spiritual director’s chair’ and hand one out to each of my directees, saying ‘it’s all in here, what you’re searching for’!

PPS: There are countless seemingly diabolical acts of cruelty, abuse and injustice in the world that would appear not to fit into these suggestions. But perhaps even then, when we peel back the layers, we’ll find that the same holds true there, just as in our apparently less toxic choices.

I never regret going to the park

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I have a mantra: “Annette, you will never regret going to the park” that comes in handy on days when I think I’d rather stay on the sofa. It proves to be true every time.

Today I went for a very slow run through the park. I’ve had a busy and physically tiring few days, so I felt very weary as I set off. But the park worked its usual magic and as I stumbled along I thanked her and all her occupants for being my teacher, parent and friend.

e.e.cummings says it so much better than I do:

i thank you God for most this amazing by E. E. Cummings

i thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday; this is the birth
day of life and love and wings: and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any-lifted from the no
of all nothing-human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

Storage/You can’t take it with you, so you may as well enjoy not having it now!

Over the past few weeks I’ve been sending a poem every Monday to a dear friend who was in need of support. Other people offered to do her laundry or cleaning …. I sent her poems! She has been gracious enough to say they were much appreciated, and I do want to believe poetry and other carefully considered writing can bring consolation and comfort.

The weeks have passed, my friend still needs support and lots of loving, but I thought I would now post them here and on Facebook to widen the reach and share things that comfort and also challenge me.

Here’s one I find very challenging! I love my ‘things’, they tell stories, have memories embedded in them, make my house beautiful and give the illusion of identity and safety.

But they also weigh me down and limit my freedom and give me a false sense of who I really am.

I would like to enjoy ‘living lighter’ while I’m still here, and relieve my daughters of the task of getting rid of it all when I’m gone. But I am early to this thought, so it’s a work in progress! In the meantime, here’s the poem. Let me know your responses:

Storage, by Mary Oliver

When I moved from one house to another

there were many things I had no room

for. What does one do? I rented a storage

space. And filled it. Years passed.

Occasionally I went there and looked in,

but nothing happened, not a single

twinge of the heart.

As I grew older the things I cared

about grew fewer, but were more

important. So one day I undid the lock

and called the trash man. He took

everything.

I felt like the donkey when

his burden is finally lifted. Things!

Burn them, burn them! Make a beautiful

fire! More room in your heart for love,

for the trees! For the birds who own

nothing—the reason they can fly.

 The Burning Bush 

Last weekend I visited Wakehurst Place in Sussex, hoping to catch the autumn colours. Glorious at any time, in fact most of the leaves had dropped and I had to be content with kicking my way through their crunchy carpet of colour. Then, serendipitously, I rounded a corner and encountered this Japanese maple – small, elegant, and flaming red. And it stopped me in my tracks.

I lingered awhile, then moved on. But the flaming red stayed with me. Earlier that day, I had talked with friends who argued for the ‘absoluteness’ of how God is presented in scripture, whereas I argued for more mystery & uncertainty, more allowance for each of us to wrestle, explore, experiment, listen, and play, so that a personal story & relationship ‘unfurl’. I just don’t believe, any more, in a faith that nails down its certainty, that believes it fully understands what God is or what God intends. This sense is supported by conversations I have with people I accompany, watching them move from simply accepting the so-called truths told them about the ‘God out there’, and come more and more into an experience with the ‘God within’.

Back to the burning bush, that red, miraculous shining. I was having my own ‘Moses experience’, on holy ground (although refrained from taking my shoes off on that wet and cold day), and I heard this small tree, in its autumn glory, announce that all creation is aflame with God, and that we are each invited to stop, listen, bow, and play our part in the dance, the colour, and the song of love and suffering in the world.

What if Scripture, rather than being an absolute to be taken on board literally, contains pointers to the nature of God, and how God is revealed in the world. What if it is an invitation for each of us to find God for ourselves, in our own encounters. This is how scripture (those ancient accounts from a culture and language so distant from our own), and the world, comes alive! I want to keep my eyes, my ears, and my heart open to burning bushes that stop me in my tracks, draw me, invite me to remove my shoes and bow to the mysterious, alluring, unknowable God.

PS: Gerard Manley Hopkins says it much better than I in his glorious poem God’s Grandeur:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
    It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
    It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
    And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
    And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
    There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
    Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
    World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.