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.”

Field of dreams..?

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Long, long ago, when the world was still young and I was younger still, I moved into a house with a garden. It wasn’t much of a garden, long-deserted, overgrown and gone to seed, but my mind painted it in rainbows. Since getting married, we had lived in a flat and a ‘street house’ that opened straight onto the pavement. My only forays into gardening had been herbs on the kitchen windowsill. It was the first time I’d had a garden of my very own, though there had usually been one at my parent’s home and my grandparents’ long-established gardens were places of magic and mystery.

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It is odd to think that although I remember every home I have lived in very well, as well as those of my grandparents,  I remember the gardens better. I have but the vaguest of memories of my father’s family home. We probably did not visit all that often as my father was stationed in Kent where we lived in married quarters and I cannot have seen Longfield after I was about three years old. I recall the tiles on the floor of the porch, the billiard table in the cellars, and being helped to slide down the great oak bannister that framed the huge staircase in the hall. Outside, though, my mind still paints the shadows cast by the rhododendrons, the slopes that ran down the hillside into the woodland and the wide expanse of the croquet lawn below the terrace.

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I can still see the garden of the married quarters where we lived in Maidstone until I was three and  where I searched for an absconding tortoise. I could sketch, plant by plant, the gardens of my maternal grandparents and great-grandparents. It was here that I first began to learn the names of plants as a child and had my first lessons in herb-lore. I learned which were poisonous, which could be eaten or used in the kitchen or for medicinal purposes, and best of all, some of the folk traditions that went with the plants.

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When I finally had a garden of my own, I remember standing outside the back door one winter morning and looking at the mess we had acquired. I had no gardening tools other than a trowel, no plants and no money. All I had was a dream of life and colour.

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I took the kitchen shears to the vast meadow that had once been a lawn and to the overgrown privet hedge twice as tall as me. It took me days to cut the stuff back. Then I started on what had once been flower-beds, removing the obvious weeds, softening the hard, squared corners and trying to identify what might be in there that was worth saving. Dead wood was removed from old roses, unidentified shrubs pruned and woody stems that still bore traces of life cleared of bindweed. By the time I had it tidy, the snow was falling… and I was in love.

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My love affair with plants blossomed through the dark winter days as I read every gardening book I could get my hands on, delved deeper into herb-lore and planned impossibly expensive planting schemes in my mind. In reality, our meagre budget would not run to plants, so I set about nurturing cuttings, raising seedlings and collecting spare plants from everyone I knew. Even so, the huge empty beds were going to look bare for a long time to come.

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As winter deepened and turned the corner into spring, I began to learn the most valuable lesson of gardening…patience.

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With the winter rain and snow, Nature watered the mutilated garden well. The threadbare hedge I had hacked put out new leaves, filling the bare patches and becoming a dense, dark backdrop against which my few flowers would glow. As the seasons turned, the lawn became a vivid green starred with daisies and crocus. Self seeded lupins, dug up from the old railway line, were steadily filling out and patches of pretty ‘weeds’ I had encouraged to grow, like yarrow and loosestrife, were showing promise. I planted what I had acquired and waited.

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Spring brought clumps of snowdrops and aconite, followed by daffodils and tulips. They had been hidden, invisible beneath the soil and were a beautiful surprise. I recognised the poisonous but beautiful leaves of monkshood. The scarlet leaves that had prompted me to leave an untidy clump of plants alone in winter revealed themselves as geraniums. ‘Dead’ roses and an ancient hydrangea recovered and bloomed and a drift of lily of the valley filled the air with fragrance and memory. By midsummer, the dismal mud-patch had become a riot of life and colour, buzzing with bees and a paradise for butterflies. It had done most of it itself, in spite of the efforts of the novice gardener. All I had done was the groundwork.

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I learned a lot from that garden and the lessons have stayed with me, rooting themselves and flowering, bearing fruit that I have plucked and tasted in many areas of my life. The perfect visions I had created in my mind were surpassed by the hand of Nature when she was allowed free rein. But, no matter what had been hidden in that garden, it would not have thrived, nor would I have been able to see it, had I not cut back all the dead and dying material, letting in the light.

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I had worried about the empty beds; I did not realise that the seeds of beauty had been sown long ago and were silently waiting to bloom. So often we think we must strive to achieve something, only to find it is already there, dormant within us, waiting only for our care and attention to grow.

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In the movie, Field of Dreams, there is a phrase oft-misquoted as ‘build it, and they will come.’ I have read the sentiment before, if not the exact words, in Dion Fortune’s book, Moon Magic, when ‘Lilith’ speaks of building the temple in order for it to be indwelt by the gods. No sacred space, be it temple, church or our own being, is truly alive until it is a home for something more than its physical form, no matter how beautiful. No gardener creates the beauty of a flower. We can only clear and create a space, enabling the conditions in which it can grow and bloom.

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Where I now live, I have a small space I laughingly call a garden. I have planned the garden I would like to make, right down to the last detail… knowing it will probably never be anything other than a dream. For now, there are only a handful of rescued plants, no flower beds to speak of and a threadbare patch of grass that cannot be called a lawn. I doggedly exercise a gardener’s patience, waiting to see ‘what happens next’, trusting that when the time is right, the seed of purpose will grow and reveal itself.

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Even so, there is beauty. I need not lift a finger to see the seasons turn, the light change hour by hour or the stars illuminate the night. I need not dig and toil to create what is surpassed by every blossoming dawn. I need only watch to see the birds and insects at work, the dew scatter diamonds on the grass or the small dog fill the space with joy. Dreams are wonderful things, but you have to choose to make them happen, and you have to work to bring them into being. And sometimes, we work so hard chasing dreams that we forget to see the beauty of what is already there.

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Industry

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“I feel a blog post coming on,” said my son, grinning as he watched me snapping away at the bees. The words have become something of a joke, as practically everything may now engender a blog post. We were having a break. There were dozens of bees on the loosestrife beside the pond, all different kinds, busily harvesting the nectar of summer. It had been a busy morning for us too. After all the normal jobs and his breakfast had been done, I’d put his shopping away and cleaned the barbecue ready for the Thursday ‘lad’s night’. At least I wouldn’t be cooking for them for once.

“Possibly,” I replied, pausing to point the camera skywards at a low-flying kite. What I would be doing was cleaning the pond and fountain pumps and sorting the UV filter… housed in the most inaccessible position for vertically challenged people. Still, we were working together, his height and strength, my dexterity, and talking as we worked so the day passed pleasantly, even though I was obliged to go back to the dreaded supermarket for a few things he had forgotten…and call at the homeware place to get him a houseplant for the table we had just built.

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I’m getting good at this flat-pack malarkey. I remember the very first flat-pack furniture I had tried to build, way back in the 70s. The board from which it was made was soft and bowed with the slightest pressure. Holes were pre-drilled, but hit and miss. Dowels had not come into use and no-one had electric screwdrivers.

As a very young wife, we had just moved in to a house with a huge living room. I had considered the long wall… a wall I could, potentially, fill with books. The new, flat-packed furniture seemed a good option. It wasn’t exactly cheap back then…but it was sleek and modern and it matched. Up until that point, our home had been furnished with a misassorted collection of whatever we could manage. I could build them, surely. The adverts showed beautifully coiffed women putting them together with ease and a simple screwdriver. How difficult could it be?

Youth is so optimistic…

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Who on earth had invented this stuff? Okay, the Romans, probably, with their collapsible travelling gear as they marched across the globe. You can blame the Romans for most things… and if they could cope with the perennial problems of flat-packing their army, they probably deserved  to conquer the world.

I wrestled with boards far taller than I, attempted to make sense of the translated instructions with little success. Scrabbled through the mysterious piles of screws, washers and strange plastic things that were supposed to hold the lot together…Regretted buying the models that came with drawers and doors and hinges…ironed on the edging strips… and finally, in frustration, resorted to the hammer.

Since then, there has been an array of bookcases and cheap furnishings that have come and gone…or simply given up the ghost and collapsed over the years. Construction has, on the whole, improved with the screws all being present and the holes aligned more often than not and I can now assemble a six-foot bookcase in a little under twenty minutes. The console table we had assembled should, in my experience, have been no more than five minutes and six screws. No… they had to do it in the most complicated fashion with three-foot long metal dowels and locking contraptions. Even so, with a variety of implements from the kitchen drawers being put to unorthodox uses, we…eventually…prevailed. It looked good. It needed a plant on top…

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So off I trundled to the supermarket, wondering on the way about the flat-pack society we have created. I understand the economics, both for producers of the stuff and at point of sale. I am cognisant of the logistics of shipping and can see all the benefits of flat-pack both to suppliers, stockists and consumers. For those on a limited budget, the stuff is a godsend…my bookcases cost peanuts. But the difference between living with prefabricated DIY furniture and something made in real wood is huge. So, at point of purchase, is the cost, yet over a lifetime, the real wood will last, acquiring a patina and character, where the flat-packed stuff will not.

We don’t want to wait for things any more. We have become used to being able to get something that will do the job and have ‘the look’ now. Flat-pack furniture gave us the option to do just that. For a long time it was cheap… these days, as soon as you get beyond the basic and functional, it is often just as expensive, if not more so, than its solidly built wooden counterparts. Except that even a lot of that is self-assembly. So ironically, our demand means that we pay more, deliver to ourselves, build it ourselves and dispose of the packaging …creating more work for ourselves than strictly neecessary whilst eliminating the jobs of others. Meanwhile crafts are under threat, skills are disappearing and the antiques of the future won’t be coming from the average home as no-one will dare to move them lest they fall apart.

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As a society we seem to have come to expect instant gratification and have lost sight of the values we once held, where patience was a virtue and the things we wanted were worth working and waiting for.  I thought about the bees and the kite I had been watching. The bee is an ancient symbol of tireless industry and diligence and as such was always associated with both kingship and the priesthood, which is quite telling. The hawks are symbols of focus and attention…and the clear vision of the soul. There is no instant gratification in the spiritual journey; everything must be worked towards and the results awaited patiently as they filter through into our daily lives. Not because there is a need to quest and strive for enlightenment or spiritual awareness… but because we perceive it as such as we dismantle the bars we have built around our being. We call it the Work, yet we ourselves are the work.

As I sat in the traffic, heading back to pond-cleaning duty, I wonder how much it truly costs to live in a flat-pack society. What are we losing, how much are we missing in our haste to have everything now? I would spend the afternoon getting covered in cobwebs, sludge and algae, being attacked by brambles. It would be a long and messy job that would need focus, attention and diligence. The results would be worth it though, seeing the water flowing fast and clear, watching the fish play in the fresh and oxygen-rich pool. More importantly, I would enjoy the afternoon because I was working with my son and laughing through the horrid, dirty jobs…sharing time working together.  Sometimes, no matter how messy the job, it is worth the effort.

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Of Pups and Patience

trial 021Ani, my dog is in the mood for play and has been since I got up at half past five. It is not unusual. Her needs are simple, food, play, walks, lots of love and somewhere warm to sleep. Usually the sofa, in spite of all my efforts to convince her otherwise.

By six am we had done sleep, food and walk… cuddles are always the first job, before even the kettle is switched on. After all, she hasn’t had a cuddle for at least five hours. Now I need to work, and she wants to play.

She understands that when I am at the computer I am ‘unavailable’ for ball throwing and tug of war. But understanding doesn’t necessarily mean not trying. She will hopefully bring me a toy and carefully insert it on the shelf below the keyboard, sitting with her tongue out and tail-end wagging, looking at me expectantly.

She is a persistent soul. She has her eyes set on her goal and works towards it with determination and a clear vision of where she wants to be. The only side issues are the distractions of duty… usually by a passing fly, a pigeon invading her garden or the postman, all of which clearly need to be dealt with as a matter of some urgency.

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After a while, I will generally explain that I am busy and it is not playtime, a conversation we have several times a day and which she quietly ignores. If the first toy doesn’t do it, she will offer me another, until the shelf is full and her toy box empty. Then she will sit beside me gazing up soulfully, with her head on my knee, knowing I can’t resist and at the very least my fingers will slide into the silky fur of her ear as she leans her head into my hand for the caress.

Just occasionally, if I fail to respond, her impatience takes over and I find my sleeve being surreptitiously nibbled. If that doesn’t attract sufficient attention, I end up with a substantial dog hauling herself onto my lap and in front of the screen in the full and certain knowledge that I simply cannot ignore her.

I can sympathise with her. We are not unalike. My needs too are simple and I am trying to develop an inner patience. The preparation for the annual workshop involves an awful lot of practical work. This is wonderful and I am loving every second of rolling my sleeves up and getting on with it… it challenges and stretches me daily as I learn new skills and enhance or remember old ones. I am constantly busy, constantly awake and focussed on whatever the task in hand may be.

This spills over into other areas of my life. When duty calls I bring a new efficiency to it, knowing that if I ‘bark’ effectively at my ‘pigeons’ I can return all the quicker to the Work with my mind free of distractions.

Yet there is this odd dichotomy, for so much of the Work has its being on the inner levels. Only here will I find the knowledge and understanding I need. It can be hard, waiting, when you know there are things to come, but I cannot nibble at Its sleeve or crawl onto Its lap. I must wait in patient inner quiet for that touch. The days are so hectic, yet within them I have to find time and space to simply lay my head on the knee of the One and wait for that Hand to touch me with Love.

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