Off duty…

After driving for four hours on the road north, there is a brief glimpse of a hillside on the horizon which, at this time of year, is the one thing I am waiting to see. If the light is right and the weather kind… and if the heather is in bloom, the shadowy hilltop wears a faint purple smudge.

It doesn’t take much for this smudge to be hidden or indistinct. Without it, I have to drive another half an hour before seeing the first possible patch of heather. On days like this, that means an anxious wait. I usually have just one chance every year to see the heather in full flower.. and this was it. I had missed it last year, seeing only the tail end of glory and was really hoping that this time, the timing would be right.

Ever since I moved away from Yorkshire, first to France and then to the south, the moors have called me home. In spring, when new life is beginning to break through the winter pall…even though the moors seem to change little at that time of year… and again mid-August.

It is a curious yearning. There is beauty enough in this land to heal any heart, without purple hills, but if you have heather in the blood, no other sight fills you with quite the same joy and sense of homecoming. When you are far away, it tugs at your heartstrings and I held my breath as I crested the hill.

I was out of luck. Low clouds and racing shadows obscured the view of the distant hills. I would have to wait until I rounded the corner below Gardom’s Edge… and there, the dull, faded purple was a body blow. Either the heather had not yet reached its full flowering or I had missed it…and it looked like the latter. The extremes of weather this year have thrown the flowering out of its usual pattern. I would see no vibrant purple hilltops, no seas of colour…and I was devastated.

It rained all the next day and we had meetings cross-country. The following day, I had an unexpected day to myself. A day when I had absolutely nothing to do except rest, potter and read, with no clocks to watch, no-one waiting and nothing at all demanding my attention.

It was odd, because I had said only the day before that I couldn’t remember the last time that had happened, at least, not without me first having to be at death’s door. And it was weird. I am so unused to being free of all duties, responsibilities and time-constraints that I barely knew what to do with myself… until the sun came out and I went out to play.

A little warmth had dried the sodden heather. It was definitely not at its best and hilltops that should have been brilliant with colour were a dull, reddish hue. Even so, this is a landscape I know and love… and it is never less than beautiful. I took the hidden backroads that are usually empty of all but a few walkers, even in summer, and drove out towards the Snake Pass that links Yorkshire and Lancashire across the Pennines.

It is a road I love to drive, being full of twists and turns that lead up from the valley onto the highest moors and back down again on the other side. There, I would turn around and drive back. There are few places to stop, but I know them all… and each one unveils a vista very different in character from the rest. There are green vales, high moors, silver streams and tumbling waterfalls… and, when the season is right, whole hillsides covered in heather and perfumed with honey.

I had to laugh at myself. Only desire and expectation were responsible for my disappointment. I had focussed solely on the heather and forgotten the beauty that surrounds it. How could I possibly be disappointed when I had a day to play in such glory?

I drove on, stopping here and there to contemplate the view, drinking from a stream whose golden waters taste of home and memory…and found swathes of almost perfect heather on sheltered hillsides. It felt as if I had only needed to realise the lesson I had been offered before the gift was given.

Expectations narrow the parameters of hope. Expectations restrict the possible to a mere fragment of what it could be, leaving disappointment to become almost inevitable. Hope is expansive by nature…it takes in as many possibilities as we will allow and, if we let it blossom, we remain open to wonder. Once again, the land had been my teacher, reminding me to focus on a wider picture… to be not just grateful for what was, but to revel in it. And once I had been reminded, I lost myself in joy.

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Everywhere…

It was, without a doubt, a glorious day. Spring had painted the world with colour. The sky was a cloudless blue, the birds were singing and the sweater had finally come off, replaced with a thin cotton top allowing bare skin to absorb the sun. Magic. Even the early ride to work had been a joy…apart from the travel-sickness. I’m not a good passenger; my little car is off the road at present and taxi drivers notoriously lack delicacy in their driving… So I am blaming the taxi for the sudden wave of emotion that grabbed me as I watched the fields give way to housing.

I understand the necessity of providing more homes, but the five miles of green fields that once separated my home from the town are now being obliterated by bricks and concrete. First they build the best homes… looking very like a rather swish village. Once sold, they fill in all the wonderful green spaces with flats and smaller streets. Next come the facilities to serve the homes…and, once the house-builders have sold everything, the warehousing and industrial units start to ring the ‘village’ in. Meanwhile, the new high-speed train line will be cutting through the landscape right next door.

The cynicism of the whole affair reminded me of the sequence in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy when the Vogons are about to demolish the Earth to make way for a new hyperspace expressway.The Vogons, before pressing the button, pointed out the need to look carefully at the plans…
“There’s no point in acting surprised about it. All the planning charts
and demolition orders have been on display at your local planning department in Alpha Centauri for fifty of your Earth years, so you’ve had plenty of time to lodge any formal complaint and it’s far too late to start making a fuss about it now… What do you mean you’ve never been to Alpha Centauri? Oh, for heaven’s sake, mankind, it’s only four light years away, you know. I’m sorry, but if you can’t be bothered to take an interest in local affairs...”

Even in the few brief years since I have lived in my own village…a much older one…I have seen it expand, nibbling away at the countryside that should be sustaining us. I even live in a new-build flat, right on the edge of the village where once there was just a field. A couple of years down the line and there is talk of another field or two full of houses behind mine…and the high-speed train, of course will pass this way too. But it wasn’t regret that made my eyes prickle with tears. What came with the utmost clarity was a realisation of how very lucky I am to have been born when and where I was.

There are still great open spaces, even in this tiny island. We will not fill them in my lifetime. The very roads and transport that cause so much pollution have allowed us to roam and see places our great grandparents might only have read about, even within our own land. We have the leisure to travel, even if we do not travel far. And there is still beauty on out doorsteps no matter where we are.

Once in the town, I was obliged to walk to the local shop for a few groceries for my son. Instead of taking the long route through the streets, I cut through the forsaken alley that runs behind his home. Graffiti sprawls across the walls, plastic, glass and the detritus of human indifference strews the ground… yet the birds are everywhere. Blue-tits and coal-tits hop from branch to branch. Sparrows, blackbirds and thrushes flit by or add their song to the chorus. Magpies are nesting in the trees and the doves sing a soft, reassuring counterpoint to the music of life.  The resident robin watches as the local squirrel scurries across the wall. A confused blue butterfly romances the forget-me-nots and even here in the town, a red kite sails overhead.

The flowers seem to be laughing at the sun. Escapees from the confines of the gardens, discarded and thrown into the alley as trash, have taken root and flourish, side by side with the wildflowers that the gardeners would call weeds. Gnarled bark creates patterns of shadows and petals reflect a light so bright they almost consumed and rendered invisible. The fresh fragrance of flowers lifts away the taint of exhaust fumes and the breeze and birdsong silence the traffic noise.

Blossom casts petals like confetti on the bridal rite of spring… a rite that will go on regardless of what we do. Mankind is a newcomer compared to Mother Nature. We have brought destruction and yet we have also created beauty. I wonder what our final legacy will be… and whether we can, as a species, live to find harmony with the forces of nature or if we will self-destruct through our constant expansion and desire to conquer the very source of our own lives. I remember a documentary series I watched some years ago, Life after People,  and find the destitute, littered alley strangely comforting… full of hope. There is a life-force in nature that is stronger than humanity’s heedless tenure. Unless we manage to wipe every trace of life from this planet we call home, she will survive us and slowly cover the traces of our juvenile destructiveness. Perhaps, like a grieving mother, she will cover our memory with flowers.

At a more personal level, I had to smile as the flowers were a reminder of how little importance may really be attached to so many of the things over which we agonise. The memories of those cringeworthy moments of youth and inexperience, for example, hidden in the undergrowth of the memory, are replaced with a greater poise and confidence as we grow. Damage that we may have either caused or felt will remain and take time to heal, hidden in the shadows beneath the leaves,. But it is often just those decaying and discarded experiences that form the basis of new growth. Yesterday is buried beneath the blossoms of today.

From the darkest corners of our lives true beauty can be born; the starker the contrast, the more it will shine, yet, without that contrast we might never notice …Spring is a season of hope and promise. Life and light drive cold winter into monochrome memory. We know that there will be dark days again, it will rain, it will storm and the seasons will continue their dance.  But there is always spring.

Persistence

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It was the hottest day in ages, so of course we decided to climb the steepest hill in the area, with neither hat nor water. And we would do it via the longest route and the steepest slope. By the time we were on our way down again, it would not have been surprising had we been hallucinating, which may explain why the great branches of the shattered tree looked like a smiling monster, arching over the path.

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The tree had little to smile about though. Whether by the weight of its limbs or a lightning strike, the branches had snapped from the trunk, leaning forlornly away from the place of its growth. What had broken away was  itself as wide as a tree trunk, its heartwood shattered and exposed. You could only imagine the age and the years it had seen. Where the branches had fallen, the wood had begun to rot and small creatures were at work, burrowing, buzzing, turning the carcass into new homes and returning it to the earth. Dead leaves still clung to the branches; for them, autumn had come early. The tree didn’t seem to mind; its wood carved by Nature herself into a semblance of its serene spirit. The lined and bearded face of the ancient one lay upon a bed of green and watched the clouds pass.

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Yet, as we looked around, it was clear that even in defeat, the tree had not given up. Long after midsummer when the leaves are holding their breath before the blaze of autumn, for this ancient tree, incredibly, it was spring. Tender green leaves were unfurling, months late, from the one unbroken branch. Its spring had come late, yet it was beginning. Life, like hope, is tenacious.

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Life does not die, nor does hope; only the forms that hold it decay and dissolve. The dead wood had gone and now the tree needed only to give its energy to that which would grow…and around us the delicate tracery of its branches carried a constellation of green. In what seemed to be death, life had found a way. In apparent destruction, a fresh beginning.

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Unhappy bunny?

Image source
Image source

Life gets a little odd sometimes. Just when you have come to terms with the way things are working out, it gets turned on its head and a myriad possibilities open before you. Or you could say instead, that just when life is looking settled and predictable, suddenly nothing is familiar and you don’t know what is coming next.

Both are true. It all depends on how you look at life. Is your glass half empty or half full? Do you see the emptiness as full of sparkling possibility, a space just waiting to be filled? Or as something forever gone and worthy of grief?

Most of us will lean towards one view or the other… but things are not, as they say, always set in stone. The most negative of pessimists will sometimes see the blaze of hope, while the most optimistic will have a down day.

I had been up early. Way too early considering it had been a late night again. Five o’clock had seen me shivering in the sodden fields with the dog. I couldn’t sleep. While Ani chased shadows my thoughts were a little glum. Tiredness does that sometimes. It was no better by the time we got home, cold, damp, muddy and distinctly miserable. A review of any situation, in that state of mind, will produce little but further reasons to feel sorry for yourself. Wonderful possibilities may be dangled tantalisingly just beyond your reach and the bite of sharp necessity will have its teeth firmly in the cheeks of your nether regions. And if you think that’s a sorry picture, you should see the rabbit of negative euphoria gnawing at your heels…..

“Sometimes our light goes out, but is blown again into instant flame by an encounter with another human being.” ― Albert Schweitzer

The phone rang. It was a call from another unhappy bunny… rabbits, of course, being well known for their propensity for breeding. We discussed the relationship between fear and hope; how hope can seem like the Holy Grail perched on a mountain top and how, when you stand in the foothills, you have no idea if you will make it to the summit. We talked of how the fear of failure is exponential to that vision of hope. And of course, how it is so much better to see that hope, that brilliant shard of possibility, than to wallow, blind in the darkness.

Suddenly, the possibilities seemed a little brighter than the problems.

The phone rang again. Laughter ensued. Perspective was restored and the night shadows banished for both of us. Yes, the same problems exist and need to be faced and dealt with. But just look at the adventure that could be! Who knows what could be found on the way up the mountain? The possibilities of the journey are endless and exciting.

The inbox had delivered an unexpected treat that had me smiling a few moments later and the lights, went on again inside. My thoughts turned to something I had read recently. The Sufi philosophy speaks, I think, deeply to most of us if we listen. The imagery of love speaks of the journey of the soul into awareness, of the journey of the heart and mind and body into living with passion. I was reminded that without the contrast we would not see the joy, without the shadows that haunt us there would be no fierce embracing of Light. When things are about to change and move forward, the old has to be left behind and that leaving can have us feeling as if we are being torn apart. But no birth is painless, no beginning comes without an ending of a phase of life. From a single point in time we can either look back at what might have been and grieve for the losses, or we can walk forward into adventure and live it with passion.

“When a true lover appears calamities blaze up. I like a heart that can stir the seven seas fearlessly withstanding the waves. I like a lover with a fiery heart burning even hell to ashes. I like a heart that can wrap the universe around its hand, catching the eternal light hanging it like an icicle. I like a lover with a heart as large as the world who fights like a lion, not only with others but with himself, a lover who shatters the veils of all hearts with the blazing light of Truth.” – Rumi