We were sitting on the M6 motorway. The car was stationary, as it had been for the previous thirty minutes. Ahead of us was the next junction, within sight, but closed off. Beyond that there was a wall of standing traffic. The motorway was closed but we – the stranded – were still on it.
The fourth ambulance came screaming up the thankfully empty lane next to the central reservation. It had been closed for resurfacing; a miracle, really, given the likely mayhem that lay ahead of the wall of silent cars in front of us.
More for something to say than any real content, we began to talk about how it had been ‘one of those days’ and how we were always unlucky in trying to pick the fastest queue for checkout at CostCo, the place from which we had just come, only minutes before hitting the brakes at the sight of the wall of cars and trucks going nowhere.
We do a lot of our monthly shopping there. Like most warehouses, it’s not pretty, but it is functional, and allows us to buy in bulk, rather than shopping every weekend. The collie and her need for lots of exercise usually dictates the nature of our days. We’re probably a lot healthier than we would be without her. We’d rather spend our time dog-walking and writing than shopping. So CostCo serves us well.
Our chosen queue, moving efficiently when we switched to it, had proved the very opposite in the few minutes afterwards. I knew how sensitive the northern M6 would be to peak traffic, and we were about to enter that period of almost exponential build-up. I had muttered under my breath; eager to be checked out and on our way back to Cumbria.
Now, sitting on the vast tarmac strip that is a modern motorway, we could see movement. Two of the traffic policemen were removing the barriers to the exit road – an escape that would at least allow us to find another route home. In less than a minute, we were moving and driving up the ramp, from where we could see the carnage that had been just around the shallow bend of the carriageway.
And then the revelation struck me. At 70 miles per hour we would have been at what had become the crash scene a few seconds ahead of where we were. In other words, we would have been in the middle of it…
Switching queues, with our usual dismal result, might not have been so bad, after all. The wrong queue had, quite possibly, saved our lives.
There are good days and bad ones, and some that are just plain odd. Waking this morning in a cosy bed, emerging from dreams of light and beauty, I lay there in the pre-dawn softness feeling that today was going to be good. Images forming in my mind of the painting to be done, the colours already occupying the table downstairs… all ready for an early start. Time to stretch and get moving. And I’ll finally get my car back today, all fixed from the garage.
I open my eyes… well, that was the general idea. Only nothing much happened.
Any lingering visions of beauty from my dreams faded in front of the bathroom mirror as I contemplated a reflection I was none too keen on. Dripping icy water, the eyes opened just enough to show me it wasn’t a good idea to look. Vanity was not happy with the sight. They were swollen shut. And my hands were as bad. Novel, though. I sort of look as if I’ve done ten rounds in a prizefighter and lost.
Cold compresses for the next hour, anti-inflammatories and antihistamines to be on the safe side, and I could just about switch the computer on, if not actually see it much. By eight, the eyes were open a bit and the hands moveable. The head and neck aches made their presence felt and a call to the doctor was in order. So I await yet more results. Why am I surprised….?
So painting has gone out of the window so far today and writing is a bit of a struggle… but I can’t just sit and twiddle my thumbs and the mind doesn’t switch off regardless. So I await two phone calls… one from the doctor and another from the garage where my little car is in for repair.
I was thinking about the current physical hiccups, all more annoying than anything else, much like the car. She drives like a dream and is my pride and joy, elderly and shabby as she is. The repairs are just down to age and wear. I saw the comparison of course and got to wondering what the purpose might be, what I am supposed to learn and take away from this passage. Quite apart, of course, from the simple realisation that I will not get any younger, even if my mind appears to.
One thing, of course, that stands out in sharp relief is the contrast between my body and I. It is not ‘me’. I am full of energy, raring to go, bursting at the seams with ideas and feel younger and more vibrant than I have for a very long time. This past year seems to have vivified me in some indefinable way and I feel alive and full of laughter, a sort of beaming smile of the soul. The body, however, seems more inclined to indulge in a wry and mocking grin. That it is merely the vehicle in which I move through the world seems patently obvious as I look at the discrepancy and wait for the repair guys to fix it.
I remembered a picture I had seen somewhere a while ago, an example of Kintsugi, the Japanese art of mending broken vessels. The broken pot is fixed together with a lacquer that looks like pure gold, rendering the object even more lovely and precious than before. Almost celebrating the breaking as, it is said, the damage means the vessel has a history and survived to grow in beauty. Someone cared enough too, to undertake the delicate work.
It is not quite that simple but is analogous, perhaps, to the human condition. In order to grow in beauty through any kind of suffering, we have to pick up the pieces and be prepared to fashion them into something new, taking a little time and care, holding the cracks together with the gold of joy, hope and purpose.
It may be an odd day today, but it is still a good one, even though my plans have changed and I will probably not paint. However, I do need to go and bring my little car home…. And that is a joy in itself.
This may be the final post that I get chance to write for the Silent Eye… that decision has been taken out of my hands. I spent much of last week in hospital, having, as many of you know, been diagnosed with incurable small cell lung cancer last September. It has been an interesting and informative journey on so many levels as familiar things have been stripped away and a gift of love left in its place… rather like the tooth fairy leaving something of real value in place of a discarded incisor.
First to go was the illusion of near-immortality that gets us through life, one way or another. We know there is a certain inevitability about life leading to death, but we tend not to apply it to ourselves until we are forced to pay attention. Dealing with the situation that made me sit up and listen meant that the body came under attack. As its fitness levels diminished, my job went… and so did my face and figure. All core things with which I have identified myself over the years.
Well, you would, wouldn’t you? Even language conditions you to that… ‘my face’, ‘my body’… ‘my life’, forgetting that we borrow the raw materials of our physical existence from Mother Nature and that they will, one day, have to be returned.
Bit by bit, the human version of one’s identity is stripped away. You are too weak now to dance, couldn’t climb a slope, let alone a hill, if you tried and are going to have to be pushed in a wheelchair… the way you have done for your son all these years, in a complete role reversal. Except that he is still stuck in the wheelchair and you can’t even trade places to make it a good deal. Because there are no ‘deals’ at the end of life.
So, eventually you accept that you won’t make it to retirement. Your voice changes, disappearing every so often. Then, an eye goes… and not in some fixable way. So you can no longer drive the thousands of miles that have been your joy. Or see to paint or write with ease, or even watch the birds on the feeder. And while you are given lots of hope about the outcome while they wait for test results, it is not a surprise when you are told that the cancer that had started in your lungs has now set up multiple homes in your brain.
Or that the ‘months’ you had been given have now been reduced to ‘days to weeks… if you are lucky’.
If you haven’t started to let go of the identification of yourself by what you have done, the definitions of ‘self’ imposed by language, role and label, then having them forcibly torn away is really going to hurt. The human personality is programmed for survival, and the possibility of extinction… like a candle flame forever snuffed out… is anathema to the ego.
The ego… the personality we wear like a protective shell as we walk through the world… wants to have mattered, to be remembered, to have made a difference. Sometimes it has… and may learn before life ends that it did. And that is a joy, although it comes with a certain regret. How would life have been different had you always known that you were so loved and made a difference? Yet each one of us, every one of us, does so…simply by being present in the world, we change it indelibly. By reaching out to a friend, by comforting a child, by simply being human, sharing life and love and laughter… and tears… we each make the world a different place, moment by moment. We may never see the ripples of what we do or say, or know how far we can shape a day or a person by our actions. We each have that power… and responsibility.
But if we had known how much we mattered in the world, or how much love might be out there waiting for us to let it in, would we have tried to become better at being human? A better vessel for the spirit that animates Mother Nature’s gift of form? Who can say? But I suspect that complacency could be a real danger.
And then you reach the real goodbyes, realising that letting go of the illusions of identity which have, inevitably, helped get you through life, was just a step towards learning how to look at someone you love and say goodbye for the last time. We say goodbyes all the time… it shouldn’t be so hard. But that ‘last time’ seems awfully final. You look at the spring flowers and know you will not see the heather bloom again, or look up at a full moon and know, with a fair amount of certainty, that it will be your last. That ‘tomorrow’ is now an uncertainty.
There is grief at leaving behind the human loves, the beauty and all the things that make our experience on earth so rich and varied. There is, for many, a clear roadmap of where we go next. For those who hold such beliefs close to their heart, there is no ego-fear of annihilation. Nor is there an ending…
Spring is the time of rebirth and the daffodils are in bloom here. I hold to an inner certainty of an existence beyond this one. It is more than belief, but if there are those who choose to call it an expression of that very ego-fear it erases, that is their privilege. I have experienced enough ‘otherness’ to know the difference.
I believe that we are all expressions of the One, by whatever name, story or symbol we seek to understand It. Talking with my son today, he compared us to a microbe on our skin trying to understand the workings of our universe. So much we may be able to deduce, sometimes we are granted a glimpse beyond the Veil… but for the most part, we are far too small to see the Design or know its reasoning in its entirety.
From its essence we are brought into manifestation, still part of the One… and when we depart this world, we are still part of the One. As the components of our bodies are returned to earth, so is the animating spirit returned to its source, carrying with it the fruits of our learning and adding to the store of Creation’s understanding. If the One is All, then it can be no other way and the separation we feel through loss or death is an illusion, painful to the human side of us, but perhaps with a purpose too. If we are here as ‘crystallised spirit’ as some have called it, then we are here to learn things that spirit alone cannot learn and we cannot do so without seeing both sides of life, bright and dark, joyous or sad. How would we know how deep love goes without the grief of loss?
Like many others these days, I have been given the privilege of being able to say goodbye. To leave those I love with memories of smiles and laughter, fierce hugs and gentle tears… for, when you know in advance, the grief of letting go works both ways.
I watch as those I love and am leaving find their own place within themselves and within the circle of love that surrounds them unseen, knowing that they will grow through the grieving, and that anything I could have done to help is done. In the end, as friends, teachers, partners or parents… we can only ever guide faltering footsteps and hold a hand along the way. Choosing the way forward and having the courage to take that chosen path is always down to the individual and when they realise that, they also begin to realise how strong they can be.
And now, for me, comes a time of gratitude, where I look back at what an amazing life I have been granted… for they all are, even when they seem small and pale against the big screen of fame or notoriety. And I can wonder at how much I have learned from the living of it. And how much love it has held… and then find that there was even more than I could possibly have believed.
This may be the last post I write for the Silent Eye, a school with which I have worked for years and which has given me so very much more in return than I could have dared to dream. I would not have missed this adventure for the world. And any time now, I will embark upon the next… and all I will take with me is love. And that is always enough.
Laughing with my son today I could not help but notice as the light caught a faint scar on his shoulder. It is so faded now that no-one else will ever notice it. I do, and it breaks my heart and fills me with joy in equal measure.
The scar was where the various tubes were sewn into his flesh as he lay in the coma. There were others, more dreadful, more horrifying, but for some reason this was the one that caught at my heart and broke it. It was through these tubes that they had pumped in the drugs that held him in stasis, that protected him as much as possible while withholding him from life. They came to symbolise the possible permanence of his state of being, poised between hope and despair, caught between life and death, with both, at that point, sustained and denied artificially.
I seldom notice the scar these days, but when I do I am taken back to that time and the conflict of hope and desperation that seemed to tear me in half. Such words say little… they are over used and trite. The emotion was raw and vicious, feeling physically as though a clawed hand held my heart and was ripping it slowly in pieces.
As I write I can feel an echo of that pain in my chest, somewhere beyond tears. I will not forget that rending, that feeling of being dragged between the polar opposites of willing his recovery and hoping for him to be allowed to die in peace if that end were to be inevitable.
Survival would not be enough for him: he would need more than that. I would have settled for him opening his eyes and holding my hand as I sang the childhood lullabies and told him over and over how much he was loved. How very much. And because of that, I told him over and over that it was okay. If he came back it would be to love and care. If not, he could go if he needed to go, taking my love and blessing with him.
That pain was long ago and survives now only in memory. It is past, not present and has taken its place as part of the foundation of today. Something upon which to build. So why do I write of this time again? Well, I was thinking as we laughed together, acutely aware of the joy of being able to do so.
Back then, I was powerless to help. All I could do was wait and pray. Talk to him, hold his hand, just be there and hope he knew. I stood, day after day, beside the immobile body that was at once the child of my flesh who had grown beneath my heart and yet was not, in some indefinable way, my son. He was more than that tortured flesh. Somewhere the essence of my son was both learning and teaching through the plight of his body.
We cannot know, nor can machines tell us, what that elusive part of us is that holds the essence of who we are. There is something more than just the body and the brain. The flesh is, I believe, the vehicle with which the soul moves through this life. The brain perhaps the exchange where the Self and the physical vehicle communicate. As with anything else, when you break the vehicle beyond repair, it ceases to function. If the exchange goes down there is no means of communication between the two parts of being.
It does not mean the messages cease, only that they cannot get through.
None of this can be proved, but I had always believed it. But there was one day, one heart aching day, when things changed. My son was just as immobile, just as far away as he had been since the attack. There was no difference in the readings on the life support machine. He was incapable of blinking as much as an eyelid, still unconscious.
Up till this day, in spite of the apparent lifelessness, there had been an indefinable sense that he was fighting back, a desperate yearning on his part to find a way through to us. A completely improvable, unmeasurable thing, yet it was something we had all felt.
Yet on this one day he withdrew. I cannot put it clearer than that. The presence that was my son drew back from the body and the husk that remained was empty. The nurse who sat at the end of his bed felt it too. It is a common thing among nurses to sense when the end is near. She warned us gently. There was a peace about him, as if he had stopped fighting what was to come.
Although he was expected to die, I was not so sure. It felt as if he had withdrawn to regroup, to seek a peaceful place where he could take a deep breath and take stock. Make a choice. And the next day he began, beyond all hope and reason, to improve. When my son came back, it was with sleeves rolled up and a determination to make things happen.
There is a lesson in this, I think. We fight so hard against life and the events it can pile upon us, lose ourselves in worry, panic about the inevitable or the possible. We forget sometimes that there are things we can change and things we cannot. Those we can change may need a clear mind in order for us to act. Those we cannot alter, we can at least meet face on, toe to toe… and this too requires a mind free of the fog of fear.
There is a moment where we can stop fighting all the ‘what ifs’ and accept gracefully that things will come if and as they must, perhaps in order for us to be able to learn and grow, perhaps in order for us to understand enough to teach by who we can become. By taking ourselves out of the mire of fear and finding a clear, calm place above it, we can see a wider picture of cause and effect, of possibility.
To accept and embrace what comes is not simply to be a victim of fate or circumstance. It takes a certain kind of courage to face and deal with things that have held us in thrall to fear. And it is a courage we can all find within ourselves. There is a belief that we are never sent more than we can handle. Just more than we think we can. We do not have to wait for the drama of unusual events to measure our courage against our fears. It can be as small as a mouse or a spider, or as daunting as that pile of bills. At the deepest level, the only thing we have to face is ourselves. Yet there is the seed of a greatness of soul in every single one of us, if we give it chance to grow in the clear light of the sun.
For November, it was a surprisingly pleasant morning. In need of somewhere to go to stretch our lockdown-cramped legs, we wandered to a neighbouring village to explore its history. Whilst personal preference may direct our attention to the ancient face of the land, it was because of more recent memory that we had landed in Whitchurch… this sleepy little backwater, like every other town, village and hamlet, has played its part and paid its price in time of war.
To most of us, the fallen from long ended wars are simply names inscribed upon the Rolls of Honour or cenotaph. It is their families who feel the loss of life, love and presence most keenly. They may not even know what happened, how or where their loved ones died. There may be no grave at which to stand in mourning, no chance to say goodbye.
There are others who do return home from conflict, broken, scarred, both physically and mentally, to families who may be equally traumatised by separation and fear. Theirs are the forgotten stories… and sometimes it needs a name or a face better known to highlight and illustrate the tragedy.
Whitchurch is typical of so many of our Buckinghamshire villages, built along the course of the major road out of town. It has the almost obligatory Norman church, the remains of a Norman motte and bailey castle, a handful of holy wells, its fair share of half-timbered buildings and far more than its fair share of thatched cottages. Today it is home to around a thousand souls. Some, amongst the many who lived and served here, stand out.
Once, in the years of peace between the First and Second World Wars, Whitchurch was home to a young artist named Rex Whistler. He lived at Bolebec House, a beautiful old building whose back lawn nestles in the shadow of the old Norman castle, looking out across the valley. In 1933, Rex painted that scene, a painting now known as The Vale of Aylesbury, and famously used it as part of the advertising campaign for Shell.
One of the “Bright Young Things” of the 20s, Rex, a man of great charm, had made a name for himself as an artist, designer and illustrator as well as painting the portraits of the rich and famous and accepting commissions for murals. When war broke out, he was a successful artist and thirty five years old. He joined the army, and, in June 1940, was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Welsh Guards. On the 18th July 1944, he left his tank to go to the aid of other men in his unit, he was killed by a mortar bomb and lies in the military cemetery of Banneville-la-Campagne. He never came home.
At the far end of the chocolate-box village of Whitchurch, they played with bombs and explosives at The Firs. The house had been built in 1897 for Charles Gray who had served as an officer with the Imperial Yeomanry in South Africa.
By the outbreak of WWII, The Firs was owned by Major Arthur Abrahams, from whom it was requisitioned to serve as a part of Ministry of Defence 1 (MD1), also known as “Churchill’s Toyshop”. Housing around two hundred and fifty people, the Firs was part of a British weapon research and development project, responsible for dreaming up weapons like the limpet mine and anti-tank weapons… such as the one that killed Whistler. There could be no clearer indication of how humankind brings tragedy upon itself…
Just a few doors away from Whistler’s residence is Whitchurch House. This was the childhood home of Joyce Anstruther, a name unknown to most. She is better known as Jan Struther, who not only wrote some of our best-loved childhood hymns, such as “Lord of All Hopefullness”,”When a Knight Won His Spurs” and “Daisies are Our Silver”… songs which take me straight back to Assembly at school… she also created the character Mrs Miniver as a newspaper column for The Times.
Mrs Miniver was supposed to be an ordinary suburban housewife, but when the war began, her remit subtly changed, reflecting the changing world. The columns were eventually released as a book which became a real success, particularly in the US, which was still maintaining its neutrality at that time. Winston Churchill is credited with saying that the book had done more for the Allied cause than a flotilla of battleships and that the book (and later the film) was worth “six divisions of war effort.”
I have to wonder whether Jan Struther would have been glad about bringing the United States into the war, placing so many more at risk…or simply glad to see some end in sight?
Then the movie rights were acquired by M.G.M who went on to make Mrs Miniver.
The movie, released in 1942 and rushed into theatres at the behest of President Roosevelt, touched hearts, especially across America, by showing how the war was affecting every corner of every family, in every village and street in Britain. The war was no longer some distant and hungry beast, growling in the night, but a persistent predator, taking away all that was most loved and cherished.
Even Nazi Propaganda Minister, Joseph Goebbels, wrote of the film that while saying not one word against Germany, the film managed to become a powerful weapon against his regime.
Jan Struther, born Joyce Anstruther, later became Joyce Maxtone Graham and finally Joyce Placzek. She died of cancer in New York, in 1953 at the age of fifty two. She did come home and her ashes are interred beside those of her father in the family grave in Whitchurch.
Three stories… three different faces of war from one sleepy village. And yet, there is one thing they all share…they would all have recognised and agreed with the sermon a local vicar gives at the end of the film… and it has a relevance and resonance still today, though our wars are fought as much in the corridors of power as they are on the battlefield… and our search for discernment and truth remains our most urgent necessity.
“The homes of many of us have been destroyed, and the lives of young and old have been taken. There’s scarcely a household that hasn’t been struck to the heart. And why? Surely, you must have asked yourselves this question? Why, in all conscience, should these be the ones to suffer? Children, old people, a young girl at the height of her loveliness? Why these? Are these our soldiers? Are these our fighters? Why should they be sacrificed?
“I shall tell you why. Because this is not only a war of soldiers in uniform. It is the war of the people, of all the people. And it must be fought not only on the battlefield, but in the cities and in the villages, in the factories and on the farms, in the home and in the heart of every man, woman, and child who loves freedom. Well, we have buried our dead, but we shall not forget them. Instead, they will inspire us with an unbreakable determination to free ourselves, and those who come after us, from the tyranny and terror that threaten to strike us down.“
As the majority of our friends and readers will now know, I was rushed into hospital last week in a very bad way. I would like to say a HUGE thank you to everyone who has sent good wishes through all the various social media platforms, through the comments, by email, snail mail, text and phone. And to the friends wh have kept me company across the miles with tales of normality and laughter.
I am sorry if it has taken a while to respond to everyone individually, I am really rather unwell and my energy levels are a tad variable.
At a time when the Covid restrictions mean that even close family cannot visit, it has meant a very great deal to be touched by so much love, friendship and kindness. Trying to process the changes that serious illness has and will impose upon us as individuals and as families is always difficult. Just now, when we cannot even see our nearest and dearest, cannot give each other a hug, hold a hand… or even discuss the practicalities face to face, it is particularly harrowing. The feeling of utter isolation is terrible, and the care shown by family and friends, albeit remotely, matters more than ever.
This week has been a journey from looking death right in the eye as I failed to breathe at all, through relief as litres of fluid were drained from around my heart, to a sliver of hope. I have had a series of tests and procedures, and some exceedingly unpleasant biopsies, for which I still await the definitive results. One thing that is clear, however, is that I do have a lung collapsed by cancer.
They let me come home last night, until the results are in. The dog thinks it is hilarious as I too am now being kept on a short leash, attached by tubes to the oxygen extractor occupying way too much of my living room and not letting me out the front door.
I am being well looked after, the small dog seems glad to have me home. I am being well fed and cared for now I am home… and all I need right now are answers.
Thank you to everyone who has held my hand through this first rather shocking stage of the journey. Especially my friend, Mary Smith, with whom I have a date in spring at Cairn Holy when hopefully both of us will be in a rather better state than we are now.
I was no more than five years old. We were staying with one of my great-grandmothers for a while. She was an old lady by that point, with a sharp mind and a wicked sense of fun. She was also blind, having lost her sight quite suddenly one day on her way to work. We were there to make sure she would be able to manage on her own. My mother had gone out to get some shopping and Grandma and I were alone.
“You’d better go watch the cat,” she said, quite suddenly. Whether it was her hearing or her sense of smell that had alerted her, I never thought to ask, but she knew the moment that the resident moggy went into labour. The cat was curled up a cardboard box lined with clean rags. Grandma had me watch and keep up a running commentary, explaining to me what was happening and what to watch for in case the little mother needed help. Thankfully, she seemed to know what she was doing and, before my mother returned, six damp balls of fur were being licked clean and stretching uncertain limbs. It was the first time I saw a creature born into the world, the first time I held a newborn being. The second came soon afterwards when her son, great-uncle Wilfred, placed a half-hatched egg in my hand and I felt the new life emerge. Warm and damp, the tiny, ugly squab was the most beautiful thing in the world.
Five years later, I was privileged to help my baby brother into this world. I will never forget the wonder of that moment, nor that mine was the first loving touch that he felt. Later, I gave birth to two sons of my own, and the breathless magic of holding them for that very first time is etched in my memory. Many people will experience and recognise that feeling, but each time that ‘feeling’ is ours alone as it is through our senses that we experience the world as a unique and personal journey.
My sons, growing up, would bring me all sorts of injured creatures they had found. Some we could help, others died in my hands and I felt the life leave them. It seems more than the cessation of breath and heartbeat; one moment there is a living thing in your hands, the next, no more than an empty shell. When my partner died of cancer many years ago, it was the same. The much-loved shell remained, but holding his hand as I waited for the ambulance, I could feel the last flicker of life leave him and knew the moment of that final parting.
I have known the beauty of the sense of touch at both ends of life. I have clung to a hand that called me back from the confusion of illness and the blackness of grief and held out that same hand for my sons. I have known the gift of a friend’s arms, the warmth of a lover’s embrace and the joy of a child’s hand in mine. Touch is our first welcome and our last farewell in this world. It is a common human language that, in spite of cultural differences, we all understand and respond to at a level deeper than logic.
Our sense of touch is incredibly important. While the simple, sensory function allows us to learn about and navigate our world, the type of touch that evokes an emotional response plays a huge part in our health and wellbeing. An affectionate hug or a hand holding yours can change everything, from offering reassurance to easing both emotional and physical pain. It alters the levels of oxytocin, the bonding hormone, and cortisol, the stress hormone, as well as having a beneficial effect on blood pressure and helps protect the heart’s physical health. It helps shape our children’s ability to interact with the world, bolster our own self confidence and sense of self-worth and creates the social bonds of trust that we, as a species, all need.
I remember a time when I had first moved to Paris, wandering the streets… loving every minute, but desperately missing contact with another human being. It took all my self-control not to hug a stranger in the street… a wholly inappropriate impulse, but one that arose from a primal and gut-wrenching instinct. That feeling too is etched in memory.
I recognise the beginnings of that feeling now, when touch is being denied to so many, especially those who live alone and who rely on time with loved ones to fulfil this human need. People are beginning to notice and talk about the lack of affective touch and the longer this situation goes on, the worse it will feel. It is one of the tragedies of the pandemic that so many people are being starved of its comfort and reassurance.
I wonder how much collateral damage is being done to our mental and emotional health, just for lack of a hug. How much less stressful the current situation would be if we could hold those we love, instead of being taught to fear any kind of physical closeness. And, perhaps more importantly, how much damage prolonged social distancing and emotional isolation could inflict upon young children, learning to live and love in a world kept two metres apart.
When you open your arms to someone for whom you care, you are opening your heart to them too as you welcome them into your personal space. It is a gesture of trust and acceptance, a sharing of life and love, even just for a moment. For those who see Love as the heart of Creation, it may go deeper still, expressing and affirming the oneness of all.
St Michael’s victory over the Devil – Sculptor, Jacob Epstein
The French occultist, Eliphas Levi, the German philosopher Franz von Baader, and the Theurgist, Louis Claude de St. Martin spoke of 1879 as the year in which Michael overcame the dragon.
In 1917, Rudolf Steiner the founder of anthroposophy, similarly stated, “In 1879, in November, a momentous event took place, a battle of the Powers of Darkness against the Powers of Light, which ended in the image of St Michael overcoming the Dragon.”
All of which is, to say the least, curious…
The traditional texts which mention Michael, and they are few, do not mention a dragon, and yet, iconographically, St Michael slaying the dragon is almost as ubiquitous as St George…
Religious paintings, sculptures and stain glass windows are all in agreement despite many, if not most, of them being produced before 1879!
So what is going on?
Pull up a seat…
‘ … And look! A man clothed in linen, whose loins were girded with fine gold… His body also was like beryl and his face had the appearance of lightning. His eyes were as lamps of fire, and his arms and his feet like in colour to burnished brass. The voice of his words was as the voice of a multitude… and he said, “… To you am I now sent. Fear not, Daniel, for from the first day that you set your heart to understand, your prayers were heard and I am come for your prayers… I am come to make you understand what will befall your people in the latter days. I will show you the literal truth of these things. There is no other that can do this.”‘
– First appearance of Michael : The Book of Daniel, Chapter 10: 5-21
“It’s a wild violet. A bit scruffy… it has lost a petal… but still…” The tiny purple flower peeked out from between the stones we had piled up at the base of the weigela to cocoon the roots that had sprouted from its stem in the old raised bed.
“Where did it come from?”
My son, with his nascent interest in gardening, has a lot to learn and is learning fast. Every day, the garden offers new miracles, details that would pass unseen as part of the bigger picture of spring to anyone not inspecting each plant minutely and daily. Growth points and leaf buds are being monitored, unexpected colours are appearing and the mysteries of Nature are revealing themselves to eyes full of wonder.
Tiny, scale-like leaves top each little branch of the heather, crowning last year’s faded flowers with pink and vibrant green. A clematis catches hold of the branches of the climbing rose, wrapping its fragile stems around the green wood, pulling itself higher every day. Spires of tulips, their outer leaves wrapped tightly around the inner to protect the half-formed bud, begin to unfurl as the flower grows towards the sun.
Bud casings swell and slowly burst open as the baby leaves they contain seek their freedom. Folded, pleated…Nature’s origami… finding their way into the light.
But it is the roses that really fascinate my son. He planted a host of bare-rooted specimens in the autumn… lifeless, dead-seeming wood that is now coming to life. He watches the growth buds turn from brown to pink, green and red before the new growth emerges… leaves and stems that are not merely green, but deep red, hot pink and lime.
He already had some mature roses too, that I pruned severely either when they were moved or disturbed last autumn. My son was concerned that they would look bare… even though I had shown him that I cut the branches above an almost invisible growth point. He has been amazed at how the sparse branches are filling out, completely covered with new shoots.
I am taking great delight in his wonder, as it is reminding me to see and appreciate the miracles happening just outside the door, instead of just knowing that they are there. And, as we tour the garden every day, we are seeing life in action.
Every growing thing is a channel for an invisible but determined life-force. Watching the garden grow, it seems that how much of that force can be channelled is determined by the natural form of the plant. A rose, for example, that is pruned, thus diminishing its natural form, will put out many new shoots to replace the one that is cut as if to compensate and provide a vessel for the unstoppable influx of life.
One of the old roses did not survive being transplanted. Even its skeletal remains, as the dead wood begins to decay, is a vessel for life. Insects, fungi and algae have moved in to colonise the vacated form. Life, observed my son, always seems to find a way. When you consider the innumerable life-forms on the planet and the almost infinite number of ways they can reproduce and replicate themselves, there is no arguing that statement.
It begs the question, though… is life-force itself an infinite or a finite thing? If infinite, where does it come from? Is it in a constant state of cosmic recycling or is it being continually replenished as it is spent? If finite, is every life on the planet simply part of the planetary being? An exuberant expression of earth’s inner life? Either way, the artistry that creates the incalculable diversity of forms can only be a source of amazement.
I thought about how much money local authorities spend on municipal parks and flower beds… planting trees, covering roundabouts in floral designs and generally creating green spaces. With budgets so tight that essential services often suffer, you might think that landscaping might come low down the list of priorities, and yet we continue to make space for nature within our urban developments. Perhaps it is a very deep-seated need that is being acknowledged by the town planners.
Watching the tender, fragile leaflets and stems burgeoning in a suburban garden has opened a doorway to a vast realm of wonder. The sense of connection, of being part of a single stream of life, is acute and beautiful. The sense of kinship with every other living thing in existence, on this world and beyond, becomes unshakeable. And the knowledge that, with or without us, life will find a way is rather comforting. Watching the garden grow brings home the human part in a vast dance of life, where we are but one of myriad dancers. And that we have the capacity to be conscious of that can only be seen as a gift.