Out with the Old?

It is not my intention to talk non-stop about my current health problems. But, even just a few days into what promises to be a rather long haul, so many things have been brought to my attention that I feel need to be highlighted. I’ve already mentioned the hospital food, albeit briefly compared to what could have been said, but that… although nowhere near as minor as it might seem… is as nothing compared to some of the other concerns that were raised.

Let me say straight away that I am not blaming the grossly overworked nurses; the care from individual to individual was, in most cases, superb. I am questioning a shift in our attitude as a society that allows unnerving changes in the way we deal with older and more vulnerable people.

After spending time in the Rapid Response unit and then in Resuscitation, I was eventually wheeled into a private room for the night, which was most welcome. Next day, I found myself on a ward. There were several other patients whose stories I could relate, but the saddest case was the old lady in the bed opposite mine.

Scrunched up into a little ball, the old lady barely moved. She would not speak, would not eat or interact… or so it seemed. But, just after two, her husband came in… and she came to life. The two of them were as much in love as when they had first met, nearly half a century earlier. They had shared a bed for forty seven years and the separation now was almost killing them both.

He had walked into a village dance one evening, caught her eye and winked at her. She winked back… and they were both lost to a lifelong love.

We learned how close they had become when a car had ploughed around a corner, ripping into her legs…and killing their children in the pushchair. We learned how their lives had been lived for each other from that day onwards…and how very deep the love between them still ran.

It was beautiful to see them together. She, all girly, wearing the special earrings the nurses had been forbidden to remove, he, dapper and smart, dressed for a date, bullying and cajoling the girl he loves into swallowing a little water or lunch. Honestly? They glowed. Both of them.

But that brief hour together was all they had… not even that much at weekends, thanks to Covid. He hoped to take her home… we could see him making plans for holding her in that bed together… and were worried that her almost catatonic state would prevent that.

It was the care of one or two of the nursing staff that made all the difference. In particular, the ones who took the time to talk to her, treating her like a human being with hopes, emotions and memories… talking about her husband, the cruise they had shared, the things they had done and life they had built. It was all it took to turn the silent, closed-in mannequin into a shyly proud bride, flashing a cheeky eye at her love.

Is there always time for this on our wards? No, of course not… but there should be. Perhaps with fewer managerial tiers and less red tape there would be more funding for sleeves-rolled-up nursing staff with time to help heal a patient through loving and personal care.

On Tuesday, I was told there was nothing they could do for me. That it would be a case of making me comfortable… no more. I could not speak to my family or see them. Could not comfort them. I could not be held. I could not cry on any shoulder or rail against the verdict. A lonely and impersonal death… separated from all I love…that was hard to deal with. I can’t even begin to imagine how it felt for that poor old lady.

I am so grateful that verdict seems to have changed for me at least, but this is the reality Covid is imposing in our hospitals. At a time when warmth, humanity and compassion are most needed, restrictions are pushing us further apart, and when hopelessness is added to despair, there can seem little left to live for. It does not seem right that policy is doing this to our oldest and most vulnerable people at their most vulnerable moments.

It is from our elders that we learn… have always learned. It is from them we see how to treat others, how to cherish life and love and laughter, how to value toil and continuation and courage. It was, I believe, Gandhi who said that ‘the true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members’. If that small cross-section of people is representative, I can only say that if we were to have been measured we would have been found wanting.

For many, especially older patients, technology is a mystery to be accessed only with the help of those visitors who are now banned. With no ability to leave the ward, thanks to Covid, no books or even television screens, there is nothing to do except sit and wither away. I felt it myself and I am lucky. I understand how to use technology. My granddaughters waved to me over the telephone, my email and messages were seldom quiet and although there would be no hugs, the voices I love were never more than a call away.

Surely, after all our older generations have done… the least we can do is warm their final days with a little love and compassion?

In brief…

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.

The caring game…

Image: Pixabay

“It is such a mysterious place, the land of tears.”
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince

“Bebop died. I stayed with him. Said thank you.” He choked again. “Said goodbye. It was really emotional.” The voice managed to sound both surprised and a tad embarrassed, even through the evident emotion, and well he might. “…and then Arthur died too…”. There was a silent pause. I am fairly certain I heard a sniff. Bebop was his horse… not a flesh-and-blood horse, mind you, but part of a computer game my son had been playing for some time. Arthur was the character as which he had been playing. Oddly, I didn’t laugh. I could quite understand why he was feeling that way, even though, on the surface, it should have been funny. I have cried my way through too many books and films to laugh for such a reason.

The game, one of the latest generation, is graphically gorgeous. The wide landscape it portrays is beautifully done and very realistic. You can wander it at will, exploring the Wild West in its heyday as well as following the story through the game. He had shown me the scenery and I was impressed, not only with the artwork and animation, but with the attention to detail. Birds and butterflies randomly rise from flowers, day turns into night, grass bows in the wind as the seasons cycle and there is wildlife in abundance.

What had impressed me more, though, was that in spite of it being a western in which you play as an outlaw…and the inevitable gun-slinging that goes with it… the game does require you to make moral choices. Your character can choose the be helpful, compassionate and honourable… though that doesn’t always work out too well for him… or to simply be a violent, mindless outlaw, taking what he chooses at gunpoint. There are consequences to violence, and you will be hunted and imprisoned, or worse, should you choose that path, though doubtless many do, as violence and gore seems to be part of the gaming culture. My son had chosen to follow the honourable path instead, and that choice determined how the game unfolded.

‘His’ character takes care of others in his camp, and helps them with their problems. If he hunts, he must do so with respect. The animal must be killed cleanly, the flesh used for food without delay and the skin must be used too. No wasted deaths. His horse must be fed, groomed, watered and encouraged. It cannot be overridden and needs enough attention to bond with its rider. It needs to be protected… and the character needs sleep, food and shelter too.

But no matter how honourably you choose to ‘live’ as your character, both you and your horse will ‘die’. It is part of the story. How you die depends on how you have ‘lived’… My son had invested time, attention and care the virtual horse.  He had identified with the character in the same way you do when you watch a film or read a book. And his choices in the game had given the character the gentlest of the programmed passings, against a beautiful sunset and he had found it moving.

For a game, it is engrossing and, after many hours of playing, I could quite understand the emotional attachment my son had formed for both the horse and character. Even though it was just a game, he had put the welfare of horse and friends before his own and had lavished attention on his horse, even going so far as to name it, and naming things has always been a big part of the bonding process. It illustrated very clearly that you learn to care about what you choose to care for.

It reminded me of the Rose in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s book, The Little Prince. The Rose is not a particularly nice character, but the Little Prince loves her and when he finds a whole host of roses, he explains why:

“You’re beautiful, but you’re empty…One couldn’t die for you. Of course, an ordinary passerby would think my rose looked just like you. But my rose, all on her own, is more important than all of you together, since she’s the one I’ve watered. Since she’s the one I put under glass, since she’s the one I sheltered behind the screen. Since she’s the one for whom I killed the caterpillars (except the two or three butterflies). Since she’s the one I listened to when she complained, or when she boasted, or even sometimes when she said nothing at all. Since she’s my rose.”

The emotions that grow when you make a choice to care are almost inevitable. It is not the same as shouldering a duty or a chore when it is a chosen course and the reward comes quietly, as an opening of the heart; it becomes an act of love. If we care for person, we grow close to them, if we chose to care for… looked after… our planet, the way the Little Prince cared for his Rose, we would care about it too.  The two go hand in hand.

It doesn’t really matter whether the thing you care for is what you feel it to be. It could be a cantankerous rose, or a virtual horse… the reality and the beauty is within the love and the care that is given, it is not always obvious in what we choose to care for. “But eyes are blind,” says the Little Prince. “You have to look with the heart.”

A little care…

jan wet dawn 002

The narrow village street is busy with rush hour traffic. The lorry coming towards me on the other side of the road is respecting the speed limit, the impatient driver behind him is not. Without warning, the car pulls out onto my side of the road, overtaking the lorry and coming straight at me. In that scintilla of clarity that happens at these moments, I realise there was nowhere for me to go. I could turn into the path of the lorry…but that is hardly a good choice. I could wrench the wheel to the left and plough into the schoolchildren waiting at the bus stop… and that is no choice at all. Or grit my teeth, hold the wheel, and slam the brakes on, hoping the cars behind me are going slow enough to stop.

I hit the brakes… so does the lorry… and the impatient driver hits the accelerator, raising one obnoxious finger to the world, squeezes through the gap with millimetres to spare, racing off to whatever destination is more important to him than the lives of others.

I am not a timid driver and I don’t scare easily… but this brief incident left me shaking all the way to work. It had been close.

Sadly, it is the kind of scenario that happens every day on our increasingly busy roads. This time, tragedy was averted by the quick reactions of several drivers. It is not always so, and the toll of death and destruction on the roads rises daily. Accidents happen often enough, both on and off the roads, but many are not accidents at all, they are simply the result of heedless or selfish behaviour and, when lives are lost to such causes, it is tantamount to murder.

How would the lorry driver have fared emotionally, as well as legally, had I turned my car beneath his wheels? How would I have lived with my actions had I instinctively turned away and hit the children? How would either outcome have affected others… witnesses, those who care about us, the parents of the children? How many lives would have been injured, broken or lost? In both cases, the road would have been clear for our impatient motorist to speed away and possibly remain unaware of what he had done.

I could not help reflecting on the fragility of life. This gift that we are privileged to share can be torn away at any moment, by any number of unforeseen circumstances and there will be nothing left of us but a memory. Our emotional lives are just as fragile and can be broken by just such a lack of care as was shown by the reckless driver. We may be the guilty party, the one who causes harm… sometimes through a genuine misunderstanding or error, sometimes through a lack of empathy or care…  yet because we move forward with our own lives, we may not see the devastation we leave behind.

Our society is increasing the distance between us in many ways, even while it brings us closer in others. It is easier than ever before to keep in touch and to watch events unfolding across the globe, yet it is probably easier than ever before to remain isolated, touching the world only through the medium of keyboard and screen. It is our responsibility to ensure that we do not lose our ability to care… that, although we are undoubtedly the central point of our own consciousness, we do not learn to see ourselves as the sun in a universe of lesser satellites.

Consideration, empathy and kindness are social skills, and without social interaction, we can forget how central they are to allowing society to function. We see the effects of isolation every day and how quickly and insidiously these essential skills can be forgotten. Awareness and care for others can be unconsciously replaced with a false, but inalienable sense of self as the central point for all things. When one person’s journey…in their own eyes… becomes worth more than that of any other, tragedy will not be far behind.

It costs nothing except a moment’s thought and feeling to consider the impact of our actions. We will not always get it right, regardless of how well-intentioned we may be, but a little care goes a long way towards making sure that we do not go too far wrong. We cannot always avoid disaster, but if we can take responsibility for our own actions and open ourselves to the needs of others, we may not only be helping them, but saving ourselves untold heartache too.

Alchemical Fire in the Landscape – Gog and Magog by Morgana West

We are just home from a few days in Glastonbury where, with dear friends from across the world, we met to share the Beltane celebrations. It was with deep sadness and incredulity that we heard of the folly that has caused damage to the venerable trees that are all that remain of a processional avenue of oaks. Morgana West of the Glastonbury Pilgrim Reception Centre shares a plea for care in honouring the landscape with flame and cloutie…

 

On the 26th April, just before the Beltane weekend, our ancient tree guardian, known as Gog, was set aflame. More than 2000 years old, Gog is partner to Magog and this is a plea to all those that that have ever used a candle (and ribbons) out on the land. There is someone out there, possibly still in the Avalon landscape, sitting with the knowledge that, in their misguided understanding of ‘honouring the trees’, they instead have burnt the bugger down.
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Photo: Sally North
(EDIT These two ancient oak trees –with the traditional and biblical names of giant beings – stand in one of the further reaches of the sacred Avalon landscape, where they are in a relationship of alignment with other aspects of the sacred landscape such as the nearby Tor, Chalice Hill, the Abbey and Wearyall Hill. The Oaks gained their names from a legendary race of giants who, save for Gog and Magog, were slaughtered by Brutus and his Trojan army. Gog and Magog, marched to London, were held chained to walls of the city palace and their effigies can still be seen in the Guildhall to this day.

​Known as the ‘Oaks of Avalon’, the two trees are said to be a traditional point of entry onto the island, and part of a ceremonial Druidic avenue of oak trees running towards the Tor and beyond. Gog has been dead these past ten years, and indeed has burnt once before, [Edit: It was Magog that was previously set alight] but stood strong, keeping vigil with Magog as she too let go of her long life. To make a pilgrimage to these two sentries is to take a walk through time. They have stood witness to ever-changing populaces, beliefs and cultures, and watched whilst individual humans, long forgotten, have come and gone, passing beneath the leafy canopies fed by roots reaching deep into the sacred land.  Nowadays, a conscientious visitor, paying homage to the Oaks, is shocked to see spent night-lights placed at the base of the trees, some even in the bowls of the tree themselves and it took such foolish actions to turn Gog into a funereal pyre for 2000 years of myth and history.

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Hey folks, have a care!  Consider how leaving behind a metal casing, harmful to both flora and fauna and something that ‘hangs around on our planet’ for a very long time, can ever be considered ‘honour’.  Muse a while also on how placing a burning flame at the foot of a tree, especially a 2000-year old dead one, is up there with the most stupid of actions. JUST. DON’T. DO. IT! Leave nothing behind save your love.

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I might as well mention that the same people who leave their night-lights might also be about the landscape tying ribbons to a tree. DON’T DO THAT EITHER! This particular practice stems back to pilgrimages to holy wells, often places that would always have a tree growing by the side or nearby.  The pieces of cloth, known as clooties, were dipped into the water before being tied to a branch with a prayer, often to cure an ailment, believing that as the rag rotted away, the ailment would disappear with it. Our forebears would use natural fabrics such as a strip of cotton petticoat and these would quickly rot away without harming the tree. Modern day ribbons are made from plastic and take an extraordinary amount of time to break down; tied to the branches of a tree, they strangle and prevent new growth whilst leeching chemical dyes into the wood.
​I’m asking, as I am sure you are too, are both of these acts of ‘homage’ something to be undertaken by one who professes to care for the land and its spirit? No way, Jose! They are entirely selfish deeds, symbolic only of our own needs and desires. There are hundred’s of different ways in which we can serve those, but proclaiming that we are also working for spirit is to make a complete error of judgement. We are not serving anything, other than ourselves. This is a one-way street.  We are no more re-enchanting the land and connecting with the Spirit of Place than we are when we drop litter. Leaving non-biodegradable products of the modern age is about as non-magical as it gets and, if we claim to be ‘of the land’, should these ever really feature in our thinking?

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The careless act of the person that lit and placed a flame within the dead heartwood of Gog is hard for some to bear. Grief strikes at our own hearts and if we allow it, sinks into the soul. In 2010, another hallowed tree was destroyed in these sacred precincts when the Glastonbury Thorn on Wearyall Hill was chopped down, by persons unknown, in an act of wanton vandalism. A community came together and wept. Bridges across voids were built. Pagans and Christians held each other and mourned…and a shift of consciousness took place. In the seven years since the Thorn gave up its life, understanding, acceptance and mutual explorations have taken place.  Bridges that didn’t exist previously have been created between secular and spiritual communities.  The death of the Wearyall Thorn can, if we wish, be seen as an emblem of new understanding arising out of the collapse of an era. A new period where possibilities and positive actions are born out of the desire to connect and give way to a time where the re-connections of a community give rise to the re-enchantment of the land.

What price life?

The fish seem to have noticed that it is spring. The little male gourami needs floating plants in which to build a bubble nest before his mate will take his advances seriously. As they have, quite inconsiderately, eaten all the floating plants I had provided for them in which to build the aforementioned nest, a trip to the pet store was required.

All well and good. Except, the pet-store had no floating plants in stock. After a discussion with the very helpful young man there, we managed to improvise. I replenished the supply of algae wafers for the big pleco and headed for the checkout. The mistake was passing in front of the tanks…

I’ve lost a few fish to old age lately and, while I may sigh at the beauty of some of the fish on display, I know the big pleco comes first. She…don’t ask me why, but I think she is a she… needs a fair  bit of space in which to swim, so the bigger, more spectacular fish are out of the question until I can replace the tank for a more spacious affair. But the little glowlight tetras were on special offer… which struck me as odd in itself. How can you have a special offer on life?

As soon as I got home, I switched off the aquarium lights and opened the  lid. You have to float the plastic bag to acclimatise the fish before letting the tank water in, little by little. It takes a while. A little neon had died while I was out… they are all reaching the end of their lifespan, so there was a certain sad inevitability to its end. Removing the tiny body from the water, I was faced with the same dilemma I always face at these times. How do you dispose of the remains of a life? The traditional method of flushing the little corpse down the toilet seems wrong, on all sorts of levels. The garbage does not feel right either. I almost felt it would be better to leave him to the other fish… but settled, instead, for digging the smallest of graves.

By the time that was done and the dog convinced she need not dig him up again, the new fish were ready for release. I watched for a while as they explored their new home. I saw them being checked out by the resident ‘owners’ of the tank, the small but feisty Buenos Aries tetras, asserting their right of precedence…and watched the little glowlights run for cover in the plants before tentatively trying again.

The conditions for new life were created for the little gourami, one life had been lost, and six purchased. And that’s weird. I own lives… technically, at least! They are, as far as I can tell, happy in their environment. They are all tank-bred, not wild, but even so, were they released into the rivers and lakes whence their ancestors came, would they come back through choice? I think not.

I own the dog too, in principle. In reality, she owns me… but that is a different story. On the odd occasion when she has illicitly taken herself for a walk, she has always chosen to return, so there is no sense of ownership, just friendship…and responsibility.

In truth, I own no life but my own. Neither the fish nor the dog belong to me… they belong to themselves; they are simply in my care and it is my responsibility to ensure their wellbeing. I have children… created within my body and brought into life…yet although they are ‘my’ children, they too belong only to themselves. The ‘ownership’ here is not about possession, but denotes a duty and, more importantly, a privileged responsibility to the lives that pass into our care.

It is a strange thing, when you think about it, that we use terms of possession when we speak of those we love; the highest form of love is selfless and every day we see examples of people giving, not seeking to possess, simply because they care. Such a ‘duty’ is not an onerous task, but a joy.

There is only one life we can truly call our own, yet we do not always lavish the care upon ourselves that we would on a pet. We let things slide that would ring alarm bells with an animal in our care. We may pay less attention to our own true needs than we do to that of the cat or dog…or even the fish. We know the signs of stress in our pets better than we do in ourselves and move faster to help. Because we acknowledge responsibility… and because we love them.

I keep reading about how we are supposed to love ourselves first…and because of the way it is phrased, it gives the impression that we should put ourselves first, which seems an awfully selfish way to live. If, on the other hand, we looked at the way we love those lives in our care, taking responsibility for their wellbeing, perhaps ‘loving yourself’ might take on a whole new meaning.

We are responsible for all the lives in our care…including our own. While we may feed, water and excercise our bodies, we do not always nourish or care for our minds as well as we could…and many pay even less attention to spiritual needs.

Today I bought six lives for the price of a single capuccino and was immediately reminded of their fragility and impermanence. We have a precious and priceless gift, and too often we let it fade into grey. There are no ‘two for the price of one’ offers on life…we owe it to ourselves to live the one we have as fully and as vividly as we can.

Mothering Sunday

Someone, somewhere must have a vicious sense of humour. It is Mother’s Day in England today… a day when many Mums may get to lay in bed a little longer… except that today is also the day when we lose that hour as the clock’s have gone forward. I also happened to forget about that and worked late into the night, robbing myself of even more sleep. The dog wouldn’t have been bringing me breakfast in bed anyway…

That only happened to me once on Mother’s Day and, given the extent of the ‘damage’ in the kitchen when my small sons decided I should have breakfast in bed, I am quite glad about that. Today I get to go out to lunch instead, invited to my younger son’s home, where I get to play with my granddaughter while her parents cook and do the dishes.  Little things like that make all the difference.

It struck me, when I was thinking about my granddaughter, that I am a grandma. I know that sounds odd, but there is a vast difference between knowledge and realisation. I am not just a grandma, though, I have, since my granddaughter’s birth, moved ‘up’ a generation. If I am blessed with the longevity of my own great-grandmothers, I could even move up another couple of generations before becoming an ancestor.

I was lucky enough to know my own great-grandmothers. One, indeed, was with us until long ofter my own children were born and from her I heard the tales of her own mother and grandmother, taking my imagination back through shared memory to the mid 1800s. It is not the same as reading about it. When the person from whom you gather memories remembers the people and the incidents, they come alive…especially when these women were your family. In a little while, when they are old enough,I may be able to share that same gift with my grandchildren, giving them access to memories stretching back seven generations before their own, with me somewhere near the middle.

The realisation brought with it a sense of continuity. My personal memory covers the three generations before me. If I am very lucky, I may see three, or perhaps even four generations after me, though I would have to rival great-grandma’s years to do so. But the story doesn’t stop there. I am just one small link in a very long chain. The future will count me as an ancestor one day, just as I can look back at the faceless women whose names are on my own family tree…and even further back to a time before records began.

It puts you in perspective. You are suddenly a very small link in an incredibly vast chain… yet an essential one if the chain is to continue into the future. Even the smallest of things can make a difference.

Science has traced the first ancestors of humankind, but our evolution did not begin with humanity. The very earliest lifeforms appeared over four thousand million years ago, poised between inorganic and organic matter… and even they had to evolve from something. We speak of Mother Earth… and with some truth as the Earth must be the ancestor of us all.

She still does what mothers do… providing us with all those things we need in order to survive.

On Mother’s Day, maybe it would not be a bad idea to look at the Earth with as much love and appreciation as we give to human mothers.