The long night

The seasons turn as we approach the turning point, the Solstice… the longest night… just three short weeks away. And yet, the sky is beautiful this morning, a clear, deep blue graced with the lights of heaven. The world is still and silent, even the birds are hushed as dawn creeps over the horizon of a rain-washed world. The moon lights the village and touches the rooftops with silver. Branches are down in the lane and few are the leaves that still cling tenaciously to the trees, most stripped away by the vicious fingers of winter winds.

There is such strength in the grasp of leaf to twig, both so fragile they can be plucked and broken by a child, yet the bond of life so strong it can withstand the most inclement weather. Until it is time for them to fall.

Even when the leaves fall it is part of a greater renewal, the confetti of the marriage of the seasons, nourishing the earth and the tree from whence they fell. The tree sleeps through the winter, seemingly lifeless, husbanding its resources against the coming of spring. Beneath the skeletal surface of this dying time the life within shapes new leaves and blossoms, waiting in pregnant patience for the warm kiss of the sun.

northagain 064Leaves fall, branches break… the old and sere stripped away by the turning wheel of the year, clearing the way for a green birth.

There is so much laid out before us, even in the avenues of our city streets. The life of nature is so strong and so beautifully balanced. So easy to damage when, with careless hands her children grasp at her skirts, taking anything that claims their attention and desire… yet strong enough to recover when we are no more.

In the little wood where we sometimes walk, the small dog and I, man has left his traces. From the earliest times, track and road have passed this way. From the air, the circled marks of ancient homes can be seen in the fields, the line of a Roman road, lost now to plough and furrow. And still we carve this little patch of green to serve our needs. Yet as soon as we turn our back the wild things cover our tracks, reclaiming the earth for themselves, our little lives more fragile than their delicate blooms.

In towns and cities, sites and factories that were once hives of industry fall silent as technology moves on and we are proud of our advances, not noticing the quiet crown of plant and sapling our forgotten edifices wear, the gentle but inexorable hand of nature taking back her own as soon as we depart.

The seasons of the earth are echoed too within our own lives… we are part of the cycle, our bodies dance to the same natal song of the seasons. Life springs from death, death from life in an endless round.

northagain 108The cadence is echoed within us as we laugh for joy beneath the sun of summer and weep in grief when winter touches our hearts. In the dark days, we too may feel as if leaf and branch are being stripped from us, battered by the winds of change and the storms of emotion. Yet like the trees only the damaged and broken falls from us… the green heart is strong and holds the pattern of renewal within itself.

As the wheel turns it is easy to become lost in the dark days, feeling a verdant spring to be too far to reach, fearing in the shadows that it will not come. Perhaps, like the trees, we too are then husbanding our strength, withdrawing within where growth and renewal can work their magic unseen, ready to blossom at the first touch of the sun.

When the Solstice comes, the world, still facing the worst of winter, turns almost unnoticed towards summer. We know this, yet the winter is still to be endured. The days will lengthen, the light will be bright on days covered in snow, ice is yet to break open the cracked stones, and we will huddle by our hearths as if there is no warmth in the world, forgetting that we have passed the nadir and the eternal dance of the seasons carries us onwards towards a brighter dawn.

When we are lost in grief, gripped by the cold of fear, it is hard to see that light at the end of the tunnel, hard to believe that we have passed the worst point when we see a dark road still looming ahead. Yet this is the rhythm of life itself, as the earth holds us in the reassuring and loving embrace of a Mother and shows us that not all is lost in winter, it merely endures the frost while within, nourished by the fallen leaves that were stripped away by the storms and the turning year, the green life springs anew.

sheffield book weekend 396

Centenary

King George attends the burial of the Unknown Warrior, in Westminster Abbey, 1920. Artist Frank O. Salisbury

For some reason, the image moved me to tears. The ninety-four year old monarch standing, black-clad, alone and in silent respect, beside the tomb of a man buried six years before her birth on the centenary of his committal to this final resting place. One woman, alone. The grave, outlined in the red of remembrance poppies, is lit by a cascade of white orchids and myrtle… a replica of her wedding bouquet, first placed there over seventy years before, and following a tradition begun by her own mother, Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, in 1923, on her marriage to the man who would become King George VI.

Lady Elizabeth’s elder brother, Fergus, had been killed during the Battle of Loos in 1915, his body had been buried in the nearby quarry and the details of his grave lost. As she walked down the aisle, the young bride paused to lay her bouquet on the grave of the Unknown Warrior in a personal act of remembrance that has been upheld and continued by royal brides ever since.

The story of the Unknown Warrior goes back to 1916 when the Reverend David Railton, an Army Chaplain on the Western Front, saw a grave marked by a rough wooden cross, upon which was written simply, ‘An Unknown British Soldier’. An idea formed and he wrote to the Dean of Westminster, suggesting that an unknown soldier be buried amongst kings at the Abbey, to represent the countless dead of the Great War, across Britain and her territories. The idea found favour with both the Dean and the Prime Minister, David Lloyd George and a plan was made to so honour the nameless and faceless soldiers who had given all.

On the night of 7th  November 1920, the remains of several unidentified soldiers were carried, from a number of battlefields, to a chapel at Saint-Pol-sur-Ternoise, near Arras in France. He remains were placed in unmarked coffins beneath the Union Flag, making them impossible to distinguish one from the other. Brigadier Wyatt, with closed eyes, placed his hand on one of the coffins…the rest were taken away for reburial with all honours. The remains thus randomly chosen became the Unknown Warrior… the representative of hundreds of thousands of lives cut short by war.

There was no indication of rank, nor class, nor social status. Neither colour nor creed defines the Warrior. He is every mother’s son, every brother who did not return, every husband whose wife waited in vain, every father who did not see his children grow. There is a kinship in loss that defies any artificial border or barrier.

With great ceremony, the body of the Warrior was transported to England, laying one night in state in the great library of the castle of Boulogne, which had become a chapelle ardente, lit with myriad candles for the vigil held by the French 8th Infantry Regiment, who, as a company, had been awarded the Légion d’Honneur.

The coffin was then placed within a casket made of timbers from the oak trees at Hampton Court Palace. The casket was bound with iron before a medieval crusader’s sword, personally chosen by King George V from the Royal Collection, was fixed in place and a shield installed upon which is inscribed ‘A British Warrior who fell in the Great War 1914–1918 for King and Country’.

The Unknown Warrior at Westminster Abbey, November 1920 : IWM Non Commercial Licence.

The slow and dignified journey continued, crossing the Channel and finally reaching home… one man representing so many who would never reach home again. On the 11th November 1920, the casket was placed onto a gun carriage of the Royal Horse Artillery drawn by six horses. Crowds lined the strets in silent respect as it passed through London’s streets to the cenotaph… the symbolic empty tomb… where it was joined by the King, the Royal Family and ministers, who followed the coffin to Westminster Abbey.

The casket was interred within the Abbey, in earth carried from each of the main battlefields in France. Later, the grave would be covered with a marble lid from Belgium, engraved with brass made from melted wartime munitions.

First, though, thousands waited to file past and pay their respects in a huge outpouring of national mourning.

But the guests of honour were the women…  around a hundred of them. All in their situation were invited.

Each one of them had lost their husband and all their sons in the war.

A hundred years… a mere handful of generations. I knew my great grandparents. They were there. It is not ancient history… it is our story and we continue to write it in blood.

File:Tomb of the Unknown Warrior - Westminster Abbey - London, England - 9 Nov. 2010.jpg
Tomb of the Unknown Warrior
Image: Mike cc-by-sa-2.0

As Her Majesty stood in that private ceremony to mark the centenary of the Unknown Warrior’s presence in the Abbey, was she thinking of her part in the history of this country, or simply as a woman, remembering her wedding day and grateful that the Warrior need not stand in place of her father, husband, sons or grandsons.

I have stood at the foot of the Warrior’s tomb in Westminster Abbey. It is the only tomb there upon which no foot may be set.  I have stood at the foot of his counterpart, buried simultaneously beneath the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. And at both, I have wept. The tears of a wife, a daughter, a mother and a sister… tears I give thanks I never had to shed for my own sons and family. Tears I have shed for the mothers who weep still as wars and conflict continue to ravage our world and leave behind empty arms and hearts.

The walking dead…

We had been engaged in one of those long existential debates, discussing life, death and the possibilities of what might come before and after. The debate had gone on for some time, discussion had gone deep and we had covered some serious stuff, including the changing perspective of the years, fuelled by my impending birthday and the universal fragility of life.

“You should make a video,” said my son.

For a moment, I was flattered, feeling that perhaps I had acquitted myself so well that he saw my thoughts as worthy of being shared. But that moment was a fleeting one… he took out his phone.

“What, now?”

“Yeah.”

“But I’m a mess…” Vanity is universal when faced with a lens. Or that’s my excuse.

“Well, I’d rather you were sort of natural anyway…” It all clicked into place then. So much for flattery.

“You mean, for when I die?” My health may be a bit unstable at present, but I’m certainly not planning on dying at the moment. He had the decency to look a tad embarrassed.

“Well, yes… but don’t feel obliged to die anytime soon…”

“Thanks…”

“…I haven’t given you permission yet.” This is true. As he is both my son and my employer, such an extended leave of absence requires his approval and he has made his feelings quite clear on the matter.

By this time, the camera is running and I face the immortalising lens with no make-up, haystack hair and wearing my oldest clothes. We continue the debate, though in a far more lighthearted manner. Even so, it feels odd. Bad enough being recorded, which I dislike at the best of times, but to know you are being filmed as a memory for when you are dead is quite a strange feeling.

One of the things we had been discussing was the value of remembering that physical life is finite. It is a concept that must be taken from rather abstract idea we generally live with and transformed into a practical application. It is not a morbid or depressing perspective, as some might think, but is actually liberating as it shifts the focus from the transient to the eternal.

With a conscious awareness of the inevitable ending of this phase of existence, life and every experience in it, good or bad, takes on a new depth and richness. Nothing is to be missed through inattention, every experience is to be savoured and appreciated, because there is an awareness, a backdrop to living, that constantly reminds you that each moment could be the last.

And, as the camera captured our laughter, I was getting a graphic lesson in bringing that concept into reality.

It begs the question of how we want to be remembered when we are no longer in the world. Do we want to leave a mark on society? Be missed? Create immortality through art or a legacy of scientific thought? Maybe our immortality comes through our bloodline… our children and their children? Or perhaps we wish only to be remembered with a smile.

But why should we want to be remembered at all? Perhaps it is the fear of utter annihilation. Or simply the ego, the personality we wear in life, programmed for its own survival, that  seeks to perpetuate itself… and cannot accept that life as we know it can carry on without us? No matter how well-known or well loved we are, unless we do leave some kind of concrete legacy to posterity, in a few generations we will be no more than an entry in a ledger or database somewhere.  And even that will one day disappear.

Whether we believe there is no more than this physical existence, or in the survival of the soul, we cannot escape the cycle or the recycling of life.  One thing is certain, in the physical universe, nothing is ever utterly lost. From plankton to planets, everything that comes into being will evolve and come to an end. Its component parts will be returned to whence they arose and become the building blocks of something new. Personally, I believe that also holds true of the soul. We do not need to seek immortality. We carry eternity within us.

Four letter word

stonehenge 003

“Who do you love best?”

I overheard a conversation between mother and her small child and remembered my own sons asking me this question when they were very small. I imagine it is one many children throw at their parents and we reassure them, almost automatically, that we love them the same. It isn’t true, though is it? We may love them equally… in fact, I think by the very word love we are assuring them that we do, but we don’t love them ‘the same’.

Have you ever stopped to think about it? Such a small word for such a range of human emotions! The love we have for parent, sibling, friend, child or lover is always different. The colour of love may change, but it is impossible to quantify and all its colours, like those of the spectrum, blend and merge to make a love that encompasses all. There is no loving more or less… it simply is. There are no two loves alike, just as there are no two people identical, not even twins. Everyone is unique and so are our relationships with them.

We can like someone more than another, we can relate to them better, we can feel that odd attraction/repulsion that can be so strong… we can apply all sorts of other emotional overlays, both negative and positive, to the relationship; respect, sympathy, compassion… and all the rest. We can prefer the company of one, know light-hearted laughter with one friend, share an interest in books or butterflies with another, feel tenderness towards a child or a lover, fall hopelessly… or hopefully… in love, or burn with the flame of passion. We can be dutiful as children, loyal as friends… We can even find that miracle that seems to complete us. Or we can love in the hope that love will be returned. So many aspects to something both so simple yet so very complex it seems, yet it is the foundation of every human relationship by its presence… or absence. And it is such a small word.

The Greeks did it better… Four words instead of four letters, each with its own distinct meaning. Storgē is the love that accepts, and the love for what is. Philía is affection, friendship… the love for family, something to be shared. Éros, usually understood as the sensual and physical passion, falling in love through attraction and without thought, the desire of the senses. Yet Plato saw it as more than that… through the perfection of the physical form and its attraction he saw a pathway for the soul to remember beauty and through it find Truth. Agápe, the unconditional, selfless love that seeks nothing… only to be; the spiritual love for the Divine, or the purity of love for the child.

While we use that four-letter word so often, we seldom think about what it actually means and when we are asked ‘who we love best’ we give the answer that reassures. We do not stop to ask ourselves if we love our ‘best’ or could love ‘better’. Not in terms of quantity for I do not believe love can be measured, but in how we love and what we give… or seek.

Looking at the meanings behind the Greek words is revealing. In them, we can see a pathway to something more. In learning to accept what is, to love life without judgement, recognising both the good and the bad for what they are, what they might be or what they can teach, we could learn how to move through the world creating change. Through sharing… being able to give and receive what is given in friendship and affection… we can open ourselves to life and become part of a wider family, learning to understand the nature of love as we did as children, in innocence and trust. In seeking the beauty that sings to us, that embraces our whole being body, heart and mind, as deeply as we would a lover, we find a place of beauty within that simply wants to give love. It is enough. And when love ceases to seek anything in return it comes close to the Divine.

It is such a big thing, this little word, and we may all mean something different when we use it. It has become an everyday word used lightly… or it can be the deepest gift we have to give. It challenges us, holds up a mirror, breaks our barriers and sometimes our hearts. It can leave us wide open to hurt, yet to live it is to know the greatest joy.