Rites of Passage: A mother’s grief

High above the village of Eyam, overlooking the hills, valleys and rock edges of Derbyshire, is a walled enclosure. It is a beautiful spot and well worth the walk along the leafy lane for the magnificent views of the landscape. But this is Eyam and these are the Riley Graves… and their weathered stones tell the saddest of stories.

It was the summer of 1666 and exceptionally warm. The bubonic plague was at its height in Eyam, the village that had chosen to quarantine itself rather than risk the spread of disease to the neighbouring town and villages. There were no public gatherings, except in Cucklett Delph on the outskirts of the settlement; people stayed away from each other as much as possible in the hope of escaping infection and the churchyard was no longer used for burials, with each family burying their own dead.

The Hancock family had a small farmstead on the edge of the village at Riley Top, close to the home of the Talbot family. Talbot was a blacksmith and had a smithy close to the road, as well as working the land. Having already survived a year of the plague in the village, perhaps the two families had hope that their isolated position and the fruits of their land might keep them and their children safe.

On the fifth of July, 1666, Briget and Mary, daughters of Richard and Catherine Talbot, fell victim to the plague and their father buried them beside their home. In the days that followed, Richard buried two more of his children, Ann and Robert, and his wife, Catherine, before he too succumbed to infection. Only one child remained, and when he too died, on the thirtieth of July, there were none but the Hancock family to bury him.

That final act of charity was to prove fatal. Just days later, on the third of August, two of the Hancock children, John and Elisabeth, sickened and died.  With her husband already ailing, the grieving  mother buried her children, digging shallow graves with her own hands and dragging their bodies to a spot close to their home, with a towel wrapped around their feet to avoid, as much as possible, the risk of carrying infection back to the rest of her family.

I cannot begin to imagine how that felt for the grieving mother. When someone we love passes over, regardless of our spiritual beliefs, we want to see their bodies treated with care and respect… it is a final act of love. In my mind, I see a woman not only grieving for her lost child, but the horror and despair she must have felt, seeing and feeling the small body bounce and scrape over the earth. Necessity may give us the strength to act in a manner far beyond that of which we would normally be capable, but it does not take away the horror or the pain.

Elizabeth’s son, Oner, died during the night of the sixth of August, followed a few minutes later by his father, John, and, before dawn, young William also died. Once more, Elizabeth faced the appalling task of digging their graves and dragging the bodies of her loved ones across the rough field to bury them.

Only two daughters now remained with Elizabeth. Alice died on the ninth of August and Ann on the tenth. For the last time, Elizabeth dug graves for her children, laying them beneath the earth of home with her own hands, watched, from a neighbouring hilltop by the villages of Stoney Middleton.

It is almost impossible to imagine what she must have felt. The grief for the loss of her husband and, almost certainly, the loss of her home and livelihood on land she could not farm alone. The searing grief that any mother feels when a life begun within her own body, nurtured beneath and within her heart, is extinguished, must have been multiplied not by six, but a thousand times.

When a child is ill or in pain, all a parent wants to do take that pain away. To watch one child suffer, knowing there is nothing you can do to ease that suffering, and no way to prevent them dying a horrible and painful death… to watch their fear and pain as the disease progresses… will  feel like a knife twisting in a parent’s heart. To have to watch as first your friends, then all of your children, and your partner too, fall victim to such a dreadful predator as the plague, is unimaginable.

With no-one to whom she could turn to for comfort, no shoulder upon which she could weep…and the inevitable guilt and dreadful questions that must have plagued her about why she alone had survived, Elizabeth had to find a way to live. Eventually, she left her home to spend the rest of her days with her surviving son, who had been away from the village serving an apprenticeship. It was this son who later erected the memorial stones to his father, brothers and sisters. Around his father’s tomb are carved the words Orate Vigilate Nescitis Horam, which roughly means, ‘watch and pray, you know not the hour’. Upon the top of the tomb, is inscribed:

Remember man

As thou goest by,

As thou art now,

Even once was I;

As I doe now

So must thou lie,

Remember man

That thou must die.

It is a good reminder that the stories we tell and see played out upon the pages of history are our own. It is all too easy to look at events from which we are separated by time, culture or distance as if we were looking at a television screen. We can look and yet maintain our personal space, deflect the emotional impact, almost pretend that those involved are not ‘real’ people. We do not do so deliberately, it is probably a defence mechanism, especially in today’s world, where we are constantly bombarded by so many images of violence and tragedy that, were we to take each one to heart as if it were our own, we would founder beneath the weight of grief and despair.

Sometimes, our protective barriers are torn down and we are as one with the victims of tragedy. How many, for example, who watched the Twin Towers fall, will ever forget or be unmoved?  Even those of us who were half a world away. Sometimes a story touches us and we open ourselves to it. It becomes personal. The separations wrought by time and distance mean nothing as we share, for a moment, the life of another human soul.

Not one of us would wish to face such a nightmare scenario and none can know how we would cope or how we would act in such circumstances. But we can recognise a parent’s love for their children and hope that even while fear might drive us to reaction, love would call up a deeper strength that would allow us to act from the heart.

As we outlined the story of the Riley Graves for our companions, both empathy and sympathy blossomed as Elizabeth’s story touched our hearts. We could stand in her shoes, just for a moment, protected by the passage of time, and feel an echo of her fear, loss and grief. Her home is now gone, its stones long-since removed and absorbed into the walls that criss-cross the landscape. But, although the graves of her family, within their enclosure, still seem an open wound upon the green of the field, for most of us, the overwhelming impression with which we were left was one of love.

Rites of Passage: Light and shade

We walked through the village, watching the changing expressions of visitors as the full horror of the plague story hit home. From the mildly curious to the stark shock of those who aligned themselves with the  story for a moment, it was interesting to observe those who merely skimmed the history from an emotional distance and those for whom empathy made it personal. It is difficult to keep the story at bay if you open yourself to what people experienced, rather than seeing them just as characters on the page of history.

Central to the story of the villagers’ response to the plague in 1665 was the church, even though all services were soon moved to a nearby field to try and prevent the spread of the disease, and it was there that we were heading.

There has been a church in Eyam since before the records of its incumbents began. Its first recorded rector served here in 1250, though its story goes back much further.  In the churchyard stands an intricately carved ‘Celtic’ cross of Mercian design, dating back to the eighth century, preserving that mix of Pagan and Christian symbolism that typifies the style. The top part of the shaft is missing, broken long ago for use in domestic building, and we cannot help wondering what artwork and symbolism was lost.

Within the churchyard is the tomb of Catherine Mompesson, the Rector’s wife, who had stayed in the village when others left, to support her husband and his congregation. Her husband had wanted her to leave when they sent their children to Yorkshire for safety during the early days of the plague, but she had refused to go. Catherine was amongst the last to die during the outbreak, having contracted the disease whilst nursing those infected. You can only imagine how she and her husband must have felt as they faced these decisions. Catherine is buried close to her husband’s church. She was just twenty seven years old.

The current church of St Lawrence is a mainly fourteenth century building, yet traces of its earlier history are easy to find.

In this small church there is a feeling of living history, the continuity is caught and held here somewhere between the ancient burial urn, interred on the moor three and a half thousand years ago and the Saxon font that has seen the baptism of villagers for over a thousand years.

The font stands in St Helen’s chapel and close by a medieval grave slab bearing St Helen’s Cross is set into the wall.

All in all, it is one of those old churches that seems, on the face of it, to have everything we get excited about. It is obviously loved by its parishioners, is well cared-for and, from the children’s corner to the village notices around the church, still very much part of the community today. And yet, there is an oppressive atmosphere, felt by most of us, as if the ghost of sickness still clings to the place, not helped by the story of the plague displayed in the side chapel and the book listing the names of those who died; a place designed for spiritual inspiration given over to the memory of old death.

Wall paintings show the twelve tribes of Israel and a Memento Mori of grinning skeletons. But there are a number of beautiful stained glass windows, one of which commemorates Mompesson and his congregation, with vignettes telling their story, from the outbreak of the plague to the tragedy of Emmot Sydall and Rowland Torre, lovers who lived either side of the quarantine boundary.

Emmot, a young woman in her early twenties, lived in Eyam. Rowland lived in Stoney Middleton, a neighbouring village just a short walk away. They would meet every day, as young lovers do, and when the quarantine was imposed, their meetings continued, though they could only shout to each other from a distance.

John Sydall, Emmot’s father, lived with his family opposite the cottage where the plague had broken out. He and four of his children were amongst the first to die. In the spring of 1666, Emmot failed to come to the rendezvous with Rowland. He returned every day to the appointed spot, until the quarantine ended some months later. At the first opportunity, he walked into Eyam to seek for his love, only to be told that she had fallen ill and died in April. One sad story amongst so many…

The Mompesson window also contains a ring of roses, in reference to the nursery rhyme, long thought to be associated with the story of the plague. In some ways, it is ironic that the beauty and fragrance of roses should be forever joined in the folk record with such a horrific episode in human history. In others, regardless of the historicity of the attribution, it is a good reminder that apparent beauty may hide its thorns and its petals strew a path to despair, and yet, when we face the horror of our darkest fears, our choices may lift us to the Light.

In spite of its beauty, no-one felt like lingering in the church. There were still two more places we wanted to take our companions that afternoon… and, as we walked out into the sunshine, we were acutely aware that the next story we had to share could be harrowing…

Rites of Passage: The weight of history

It was a beautiful day, and our first port of call on the weekend workshop was the picturesque Derbyshire village of Eyam which nestles within the shelter or moorland hills. With its mellow stone, quaint cottages spanning centuries of architecture, a medieval church and the riotous colour of its cottage gardens, it should be the perfect place to spend a pleasant afternoon… but we had other ideas and Eyam is a village with a long history and a story to tell.

On the moors above Eyam are a number of barrows and ruined stone circles, almost lost beneath the heather and bracken, attesting to a living presence in this area since before recorded history. With views across to Higger Tor and Carl Wark, which we had visted on a previous workshop, there is little doubt that these sites were linked to the wider landscape, both mundane and sacred.

The Romans mined lead beneath the spot that grew into a village and many caverns and mines are still being explored by cavers… with names like Merlin Mine and Carlwark Cavern adding to the sense of mystery.

The village of Eyam, though, was founded by the Anglo-Saxons, who called it Aium, which comes from the Old English word for ‘island’. It was to become a prophetic name, as Eyam is best known for its role and reaction to the outbreak of bubonic plague that struck the village in 1665.

Bales of flea-infested cloth are thought to have brought the disease to the village; the tailor, Alexander Hadfield, had ordered materials from plague-ridden London, where, by August of that year, ten thousand people a week were dying of the plague, according to the St Paul’s Broadsheet…which also contained adverts for astrologers, coffins and dubious remedies.

A previous outbreak of bubonic plague during the fourteenth century, known as the Black Death, is estimated to have killed around a hundred million people worldwide. The disease, untreatable in the days before antibiotics, was justly feared and almost all who caught it died a swift and painful death.

Extract from St Paul’s Broadsheet, August 1665

The bale of cloth from London was opened by Hadfield’s assistant, George Viccars, who took ill and quickly died, followed by his stepsons and Hadfield himself. The disease spread rapidly, claiming seventy-eight lives in one month alone. Figures vary widely, but it is certain that between a third and three quarters of the villagers died. To a village of just a few hundred souls, this was a shocking loss.

Not all who came into close contact with the disease contracted it. This may be due to a genetic anomaly, still present in villagers today, that renders them immune to the plague. Helen Jones, who was with us on the weekend, pointed us in the direction of new research that suggests the mutant gene, known as Delta 32, increases the body’s immune system and may yet prove to be effective against AIDS and other virulent diseases.

But back in 1665, such glimmers of hope were few and far between. Measures were taken to try and limit the spread of the plague and it is these measures that have earned the village a place in history. Villagers buried their own dead. All church services and gatherings were moved to a field, Cucklett Delph, so that no-one needed to come into close contact with each other, yet the life of the community could continue, at some level at least.

The village, at the urging of Rev. William Mompesson and his predecessor, the Rev. Thomas Stanley, then placed itself under strict quarantine to contain the infection. The Earl of Devonshire, lord of Chatsworth, along with other local notables, ensured the village was supplied with the necessities of survival. Goods were left at the boundary stones and wells, some of which still survive, and still have the depressions that were filled with vinegar to sterilise coins left in payment.

In the early days of the infection, before the quarantine was self-imposed, many who had the means to do so had left the village. Rev. Mompesson and his wife, Catherine, chose to stay, offering what comfort, succour and guidance they could. Catherine was amongst the last to die during the outbreak and is buried outside the church.

The decisions taken by the villagers saved many neighbouring villages from the horror of the plague but we wanted to explore how they must have felt as they cut themselves off from the outside world and watched their loved ones sicken and die, one after the other, never knowing who would be next.

Even today, with the tourist focus on Eyam’s history, a heavy pall of darkness seems to cling to the village. As is so often the case with human tragedy, the outer appearance masks a deeper pain. Walking the pretty street towards the church, we all felt the weight of sorrow… a kind of psychic uncleanliness that modern interest is helping to perpetuate as so many hearts and minds relive the horror felt by parents who watched their children die a horrible death, couples who imagine the death of a partner and children the loss of their parents.

It does no good to bury your head in the sand when disaster strikes, nor does it help to deny or ignore tragedies of the past… such things are part of who we are and will become. But to dwell upon them, constantly reliving them and reanimating the associated emotions, keeps the past all too present.

Such grief, fear and hopelessness … and yet, somehow, when the plague had struck, the villagers of Eyam had found a way to turn from their own despair and had chosen to serve a greater good, protecting the people of their land from the horror that was to decimate their own village. Perhaps this tragic episode in history had something to teach about how we could transmute our own fears?

 

Rites of Passage: Changes…

On the morning of the workshop, long before our companions were due to arrive, two small figures faced a mass of stone and a fair degree of uncertainty. Having scaled the rocky heights, we were agreed… we would have to change the plan. We could not impose that climb on anyone else; we needed to find another way.

It was not that we didn’t know the landscape; we know it well, but fear can cloud judgement and blur lines that should be clear. So, in our usual fashion, unsuitably shod and… in my case at least… with flowing skirts tucked childlike into waistbands, we had gone out early to check over the ground… and, having done so, descended to seek another site. As always, the land provided.

There are some things you just cannot leave to chance… and double or triple checking the lay of the land is an important part of any workshop.

Rites of Passage: Seeing beyond Fear was never going to be an easy workshop, even without any miscalculations on our part; ‘fear’ is not something many people would want to spend a weekend exploring, at least, not beyond the safe confines of a staged murder mystery or a popcorn-fuelled marathon of horror movies. We prefer more intimate groups, though, where we can spend time with those who attend, sharing ideas. These weekend workshops attract people from many paths and there is always something to learn from each other and discover together.

For this particular workshop, we were going to take the group through a number of landscapes, each with their own story, from one of collective horror to a light-hearted custom whose origins date back beyond living memory.

Our first visit would plunge the group into the shadow of a nightmare scenario, from which threads of light would have to be teased.  Over the next two days, we would walk through prehistoric burial grounds, visit stone circles and approach the core of many human fears.

In the Tarot, the one card guaranteed to get a reaction when it appears is Death. Most packs show a skeleton, often wielding sickle or scythe, reaping life and limb from crowned head to common folk. While it can represent a physical death, in most readings it signifies no more than change… another common fear, especially when that change is unlooked-for and unwelcome.

In an esoteric reading, though, there is another interpretation of the Death card… that of spiritual transformation and increased awareness. From time immemorial, initiation rituals have contained a symbolic ‘death’, bringing the candidate face to face with their own mortality, that they might learn to value the finite nature of physical existence and see beyond it to a greater reality.

There is a case to be made that the apparent death of Lazarus in the biblical tale was an initiatory rite. Even today, the investiture of a knight is made with the touch of a sword and the rites of baptism and initiation alike signify a rebirth into a new life.

But the journey through our darkest fears need not be walked alone. There may be companions on the way with whom we can share experience, or those who have passed that way before to guide us and sometimes, the gift of seeing a wider landscape than our own fears… and a way to make them serve a greater purpose.

As the church bells of Tideswell chimed, we made our way to our first rendezvous….

Lurkers…

Before any time away from work, there are preparations to be made so that my son, his home and his fish can manage during my absence. Amongst other jobs, the fridge and freezer must be filled with home-cooked meals and snacks, the house needs to be cleaned, prepared and stocked with strategically placed supplies, the pond pumps and filter need to be maintained… and all elusive resident spiders caught and evicted from every room in my spider-fearing son’s home.

Food and other necessities having been organised, the pond was the last major task. I had already spent the previous two days lugging flagstones and great granite boulders to construct a waterfall. The first attempt, a joint effort with the builder, looked great but too heavy for where it was and I had to dismantle it the next day and begin to rebuild it. As I worked, ,I jumped at the unexpected frog beneath my palm that used my bare arm as a springboard, cringed at the lurkers on the wet granite and the wriggling things clinging to the fountain spout… but I persevered by pretending I could not see them.

But then the pumps needed cleaning…and it is a job I dread for several reasons. Not only do the heavy pumps have to be dragged from the depths, I also have to face a deep-seated fear… getting up close and personal with wet worms. Or, in this case, thousands of writhing leeches, huddling together in great squirming, glistening clusters.

I am not afraid of worms or even leeches…though heaven help the medical profession if they ever try to put one on my skin. It is an old problem that dates back, I believe, to my childhood. I don’t mind earthworms in earth. I even played with them and kept my own wormery when I was younger. But, around half a century ago, there was a morning after torrential rain, when the path to school was so completely covered in washed-out, pallid bodies that I could not take a step without squashing worms. Since then, I have a real phobia of wet worms…or anything that looks like one.

You learn to deal with it, in normal circumstances. The odd wet worm can be expunged from awareness. You can look the other way… pretend it isn’t there, or that you have not seen it. You cope. With the pond, at the moment, you are not looking at normal circumstances.

The first time I encountered wet, writhing bodies while cleaning the sump, I had to call in the cavalry in the shape of my younger son. I simply couldn’t do it. But that was never going to be a long-term solution; my younger son works long hours and my elder son was physically unable to help. I had to find a way.

Gradually, working on the principle of desensitisation, I learned to ride out the panic so that I could get the job done. It was never easy… the horror was always there, but, because it needed to be done, I did it… and was pretty sure I had, if not conquered the terror, at least brought it under control.

The pond flourished, becoming a rich and healthy ecosystem. The trouble is that the leeches have flourished too and, at this point in the year…at least, I hope it is only temporary… a dark, writhing, wriggling mass of tiny bodies covers every single surface of the pumps, their wires and hoses, both inside and out…and there is no way to avoid them at all. They get on your gloved hands, wash onto your feet, all over the path… and all you can see is squirming clumps.

The only other time I had ever had a full-blown panic attack was in the acute stage of PTSD, following the attack that left my son in a coma.  But, as I drew up the cord with which the pump is pulled from the water, hundreds of slimy bodies were being squished beneath my fingers. The pump went back in the water, I retreated, stripping off the leech-infested gloves, squealing, cringing and sobbing… and admitted defeat.

My son, who had never seen me like that before, realised that there is a vast difference between, say, a dislike of living with spiders and a phobia. He put on big gauntlets and rose to the occasion. When he drew out the pump and saw the extent of the leech infestation, he banished me to the other end of the garden and dealt with the task himself.

There was, I thought as I watched, feeling guilty at my inability to help and from a distance my eyes could not cross, a certain irony to the situation. We were readying the garden for my trip north to a Silent Eye workshop that was to start on Friday the thirteenth. Fear was to be a major theme of the weekend and one of the things we were to look at was how fear, generally seen as a negative reaction, can call us to serve a greater good.

I have been overcoming my reaction to the wet worms in the pumps, every week or two, for eight years now. There was no other practical choice; my son could not physically do the job alone, but both the health of his fish and Nick’s peace of mind depend upon it being done. I managed to find a way to go beyond my fear and do it to serve that need.

I could have done it this time too. Somehow. I would have found the courage…or bloody-minded stubbornness… to do the job, even if I’d done it in tears, squealing, heart pounding and panicking. ‘Can’t’ is often a lie we tell ourselves when what we really mean is that something is going to be so terribly hard that we really don’t want to attempt it.

I didn’t have to, because Nick faced his own fears…including the fact that he would fail and be unable to manage alone because his body does not work as it should; a far bigger fear to live with every day than my occasional terror of wet worms. But he did it for me and for the fish, taking over two hours to do a job that would normally take me a quarter of the time. He did it, in spite of the ‘can’t’ that often hovers around the edges of a life changed by injury.

It struck me that fear had served us both, albeit inadvertently. It was fear for the fish and Nick’s peace of mind that had made me address a greater fear and learn to cope with wet worms for so many years. Normally, I can do that. On this occasion, I was a quivering wreck… and my fear spurred Nick on to face his own, out of concern for me. It left him with the knowledge that he can do this if the need arises… which is a real reassurance.  And, if he can do this, what other can’ts may become cans?

Fear wears many faces… and can be debilitating whether we fear something physical or tenuous. While fear itself may always be a negative reaction, it can be put to good use. It not only preserves us from harm and teaches caution, but it can be the thrust-block that allows us to take a step beyond ourselves, to reach beyond fear or to serve or care for something other than ourselves.

As a prelude to the workshop, the day could hardly have been more apt…

Adapts to fit…

                                 Image source: giphy

The laboriously written sentence looked as if it had been scrawled by a five year old making their first attempt at joined up writing… or a centenarian making their last. The lines of the script were uncertain and badly formed, the flow stuttered and trembled across the page. Visions of drunken spiders crawling through spilled ink on the page…and my first teacher shaking her head and sighing. Writing left-handed really isn’t easy when your right hand is dominant.

It had been an experiment. I, who write longhand every day, who wield both pen and brush with confidence and for whom the written word is a delight… had felt completely at a loss the moment the pen was in the ‘wrong’ hand. It did not feel right… I didn’t even know how to hold the thing to make a mark on the paper. The spatial orientation felt all wrong. The visibility of the forming words was different. I was convinced that I wouldn’t be able to write anything with my left hand. There was no pressure… nothing was hanging on my ability to do so. Even so, the physical ‘wrongness’ of the attempt induced a feeling of panic. The unfamiliarity of the action of hand and pen demanded all my concentration and the single phrase, that had taken seconds with my right hand, took over a minute to write.

I was, therefore, surprised by the result….it was at least legible. All the letters were there, if a bit on the wonky side. It wasn’t anywhere near as bad as I had expected, drunken spiders aside, though it had none of the confidence of my usual script. Even so, it just proved that the panic had been unfounded and that you can learn new skills at any age if you have to or choose to. From left handed writing, I went on to carpentry, via cookery, plumbing and sewing that day… and then got the paint out for some cosmetic decorating. I’m far from being a handywoman, but you do what needs to be done and if you don’t know the right way, you find a way.

Human beings are incredibly adaptable. Which is probably just as well.

Flexibility and adaptability rank high on the preferred list of attributes sought by employers. When you consider the breadth of skills required these days in any form of employment, you can understand why. The incredible array of tasks and technologies we handle every day is simply mid-boggling when you look a little more closely than usual. The complex sequences of actions we have learned in order to do what seem to be the simplest tasks run into thousands. We accept new technologies, adopting them and bringing them into our lives almost without thought. Within half a lifetime, even our household appliances have gone from being powered by flame and elbow grease to the automation of electricity and electronic circuitry. People who remember the first televisions now communicate via a global network of computers, enjoying video calls across the world while our voices are bounced around space as radio waves almost instantaneously as we talk on our mobile phones. And we don’t bat the proverbial eyelid.

Right from the start we are teaching our children to use the vast potential at their disposal. Through play, with bricks and shapes, songs and silly games, babies are learning to problem-solve, observe, think and create. We teach our children to read and write, perform complex mathematical operations and speak foreign languages… as well as to engage their creative imagination, opening the world for them to explore.

Our capacity to create and embrace change is truly amazing.We seem to take little note of it, simply accepting each forward step as another part of the way we work. Maybe we should pause to take stock every so often and realise what an unbelievably brilliant vehicle we have been given in our body, brain and mind.

Instead, as soon as we are faced with a new challenge like picking up a pen in the other hand, or facing a change in direction, there is that frisson of fear, wondering if we can do it.

Maybe we need that fear… maybe the adrenaline fuels our attempts at that ‘something new’. Does it aid our concentration or does it serve to pull our attention right into the moment so that we can achieve what is needed, by bringing the body, mind and emotions into a sharp and collaborative focus?

Like the points of a triangle, each equidistant from the centre and of equal importance, these three facets of ourselves must be brought to bear on anything we do, with each taking precedence as required. There is a fourth point though, removed from these three, yet intimately linked… and that is the hub that retains its stillness at the centre; a point of balance at the heart of being.

That kernel of stillness is always there, the source and centre of all we do and all we are, whether we are aware of it or not. If we could learn to consciously act from that point of inner balance, what could we achieve, both as individuals and as a species?

Starting early…

It is no time to be up, not when it is not necessary. Even Ani has got the general idea that just because I am up doesn’t mean it is time for her to wake these days but I love the quiet hours of the morning. There is something in that silence when you know you will not be disturbed, when the world around you sleeps and it seems as if even the pressure of the busy thoughts of others is withdrawn in slumber. Dreams linger, inspiration creeps in through the crack in the door and, for the only hours of the day, the soggy tennis ball is not on my lap. It is the best time of day to write.

You wouldn’t think it would matter. The small dog and I write and work most of the day and evening. Emails still come in night and day from across the world, student journals can just as easily arrive before dawn as at teatime, texts start before the alarm clock and social media never sleeps. Not that I am complaining… it is wonderful to be able to communicate instantly across the world, regardless of time zones.

However, it is true that in terms of technology the diurnal rhythm has gone right out of the window. Where our forefathers rose and slept with the sun for purely practical reasons, electric lighting and entertainment have lengthened our days, the rule of ‘nine to five’ defines them, even though so many now work unsociable hours. The seventh day, the day of rest when thoughts were turned to the sacred has been drowned out by the pressure of seven day working and the need to catch up. Even pleasure has been slotted neatly into the time frame. Although many do enjoy their jobs, it has ceased to be a prerequisite and most work simply to earn a living, seeing those who love their work and get paid for it as ‘lucky’.

Though it is easy to dream, given a realistic choice most of us would not go back to a simpler time. We like our gadgets and those luxuries we have come to accept as mere conveniences… like an inside toilet, heating system and hot water on tap. When I was first married, the little back to back terraced house we took was due for demolition within a couple of years. The shared toilet was in an outhouse at the end of the street, there was neither heating, except from the coal fire, cleaned and built fresh daily, nor hot water unless you boiled it. It was not all that long ago either…the houses were out-dated even then. But coming from the north, I didn’t meet central heating in a home till I was in my twenties. We adapted… I would again if I had to… but I do like warmth!

One thing I would change though is the lack of communion with the world around us. Communication we have. We rely on it, are almost defined by it these days. Smartphones and tablets, things that were, in my childhood, the stuff of science fiction, have now become the necessary adjuncts of modern life and I love the possibilities opened by these modern marvels of technology. We can see so much of the world from the comfort of our living rooms. But that is not the same as communion. Being aware of the time because of the quality of light, waking to the sun, seeing the world fresh each morning with eyes childlike in wonder at the miracles of life around us… these things cost nothing, take no time and yet the rewards are far richer than the remuneration for the jobs which occupy our attention in the struggle to make ends meet, for they are paid in joy and beauty.

Simply taking the time, albeit a few minutes with that morning coffee, to stand at the door, look out of the window and feel the world, feel yourself part of it… here… now. To see the painted skies of morning or watch roiling clouds race, to hear a blackbird’s song. To see the resilience of a flower pushing through concrete, the miniature forest in a clump of moss or watch the turning seasons in a tree. Those few moments reconnect us with something that is a simpler world. Not something lost and outmoded, but a rhythm that sings in our bodies, a shifting tide that moves with the music of being. Taking a few minutes from the busy day to look out from a house to the place that is truly home and just being aware of beauty, even in the most unlikely places.

Hidden Avebury: Seeking the Unseen

Almost everyone knows of Avebury, the great stone circle within which a village was built. A World Heritage site and one of the most incredible sacred complexes of prehistory, it is justly famous for its beauty and mystery. The site attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors every year but while most simply walk in awe amongst the majestic standing stones of the Circle and Avenue, there is far more to discover for those who will walk the paths less travelled.

Join us in June, 2020, as we explore some of the hidden corners of this amazing landscape, ranging beyond the boundaries of the Circle to seek a deeper understanding of what our ancestors hoped to touch by building this earthly temple to the stars.

Based in the landscape around Avebury and beyond, this weekend will entail some relatively easy walking. There will be time during the weekend to explore Avebury and its stones.

The weekend runs from Friday afternoon to early Sunday afternoon, and costs £75 per person. Meals and accommodation are not included in the price and should be booked separately by all attendees. Meals are often taken together at a local pub or café. For those arriving by public  transport, we are able to offer a limited number of places in shared vehicles; please let us know if this would be required.

Hidden Avebury: Seeking the Unseen

Avebury, Wiltshire

12th – 14th June, 2020

Click below to
Download our Events Booking Form – pdf

For further details or to reserve your place: rivingtide@gmail.com

First impressions…

I met a woman outside the village shop. We had the vaguest of acquaintance to begin with, a greeting over her garden fence, but enough, apparently, for her to decide she had reason to enquire after my entire family and circle of friends before starting to dig up anything she could about my past. It was done with eager curiosity, a toothless smile and no malice whatsoever. The lady is elderly and lives alone; she may simply have wanted the company, or someone to talk to… and possibly something to talk about when she next met her friends.

Walking home, I had to think about that. I had barely arrived when a knock on the door heralded the arrival of a couple of fresh-faced evangelists. Their interest was solely in my religious bias, not even the state of my soul. They did not seem intent on my salvation as much as coercing my cooperation. Brandishing the Bible under my nose they instructed me to pray in a particular manner for Government on Earth by God. Their perception of God, of course, not mine; they had no interest in that. They quoted Bible verses as if I knew nothing, assuming that I would know nothing, and seemed most disconcerted when I could quote them too. They had no interest whatsoever in listening to my view, or even my responses to their questions, only in promulgating their own.

The little old lady was sweet and made me smile, even though her questioning approached the third degree. I parried her curiosity as best I could and listened to her ailments. Although I had a lot to do, I was in no hurry to escape her. The evangelists looked earnest and tired. I can imagine that they had not been well received by the majority of doors upon which they had knocked. They were pleasant enough people, but the blinkers of their fervour placed a barrier between us through which no personality was allowed to shine. I might as well have been speaking with automata.

When we meet someone it is natural for us to be curious, I think. We like to know who it is that we are talking to, like to know something about the person behind the face, the clothes or the front door. Yet our assessment of whether or not we like someone seems to be made almost instantaneously, based not upon a detailed background knowledge of their life story, but simply on the ‘feel’ of them. Body language, a look in the eye, a smile… the ‘vibe’ we pick up from them. And perhaps what they reflect back at us of ourselves.

There is no need to give the third degree and question the past of a friend, their life’s journey is their own and those who become friends will share what they choose, when they choose, as the moment invites. Much is shared simply by them being who they are, without need for detail and history; their lives and choices, good, bad and indifferent; their stories, trials, successes and fears have shaped and made them who they are and it is who they are that we care about. Not who they have been, who they might have been or who they may yet become. Who they are right now, in this moment that they are spending with you, that is what matters.

There is not one of us who has not made mistakes, triumphed over something, suffered embarrassment, given joy or caused hurt to someone somehow. No-one goes through life without writing a story on the pages of time, and all stories call upon the gamut of human behaviour and emotion. Our relationships with people are seldom begun with a knowledge of that story, we simply reach out and ‘touch’ whether a person feels right or not in that first split-second of meeting and our smile or greeting will be warm, absent or polite in response to that feeling… and we are usually right.

And if that first impression is enough, why do we need the inquisition? I have known and loved friends others have disliked; it doesn’t matter at all who was wrong and who was right in their assessment of a character, what matters is whether the friendship was true. We look beyond the surface with a deeper understanding than facts and reason when we exchange that first smile of friendship. We ‘know’ that person in a way we cannot explain and which may bear little relation to the facts of their life or ours.

My little old lady and I will now exchange smiles and talk when we see each other again. The evangelists, their own human warmth closed and curtailed by their mission, I would probably not recognise in the street if I saw them. It felt as if they had not seen me as a person nor had they opened themselves for me to see. I found that sad, an opportunity missed. It seemed as if in opening my door, a door had closed between us. Perhaps they are so used to dismissal or antagonism that their personal shields are up. Or perhaps they had simply looked and not liked what they found. Those first impressions work both ways.