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It is undoubtedly an incredible piece of craftsmanship. It is unbelievably impressive, designed specifically to be awe-inspiring, streaming light and colour into the great cavern of Bath Abbey. It is also just too big to be able to make any sense of the images it contains. Had I  not seen other Tree of Jesse windows before, recognising the recumbent figure of the dreamer, I would have had no clue what it was I was looking at. It is only later, with the help of the camera, that I am able to see the individual scenes depicted in the great, towering window of the south transept of the Abbey… and the east window is even harder to decipher.

You have to wonder why.

Politics, probably… the intent of the builders hovering somewhere between raising an edifice of the utmost beauty to the glory of their God and the desire to impress upon all who entered its portals the power and supremacy of the Church itself. In so doing they seem to have forgotten that the primary function of both the images and the Church itself was supposed to be to teach the words of a humble Man to other humble men.

Given that the stained glass and the earlier wall paintings of these magnificent and beautiful churches were designed originally to convey the stories of the Bible, the saints and the virtues of the faith to the faithful, it seems rather pointless to make them so grand they cease to fulfil their function. Their very magnificence renders them indecipherable to the naked eye… in effect, their stories become so remote and impersonal as to be invisible.

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It is only when you can actually get close enough to see the painted faces that any connection is made with the subjects they portray and it is through the emotional connection that religious teaching has always been promulgated, either with the gentle message of Love or through the fear of hellfire and brimstone. It has to be personal. Without that contact with the emotions, such teachings remain too distant to take root in the heart, where faith must grow if it is to be a true and personal relationship with the divine by whatever Name we come to know it.

The same concept applies to all our life-lessons. Unless they touch our emotions in some way, we take little note of the events, great and small, that make up our lives, events that may be there and gone in an instant. There are 31556952 seconds in a single year… each one already in the past before you know it is there… each one capable of being a pivotal point of understanding, of change, of realisation. Multiply that by our traditional ‘three-score years and ten’ and the number is just too great to comprehend… too distant to seem as if it has any relevance in our lives… too big to know how to even read the number correctly… Yet we will grumble at wasting two minutes of those lives… a mere 120 seconds… in a queue. Those seconds are relevant because they are small enough for us to come to terms with… small enough to understand their waste on something annoyingly unimportant, yet big enough for us to see what else they could have been spent upon. Annoyance and frustration make them real to us.

There are 3600 seconds in an hour… and an hour spent with someone you love, doing something you love… even dreaming about somewhere you love… is an hour well-spent. It makes you smile, relax, feel good about life. We can understand the passing of an hour. It is small enough to be personal and yet it can hold enough to make life feel as if it is pure gold and we the richest of creatures.

There are 2.208e+9 seconds in seventy years. Except for the mathematicians amongst us, such a number holds neither warmth nor possibility… it is too far from our everyday comprehension to hold any relevance. It is too big… too impersonal.

Our way of life is becoming more and more remote. The personal touch is being lost to scripted phone calls, self-service checkouts, automated business… even our social lives are now lived largely online. Youngsters will even text each other when they are in the same house. The distance between human hearts and the lack of contact in a society that shuns the intrusion of personal space can isolate us insidiously. Automation is saving money for businesses and organisations to the point where fewer people need to be employed and I wonder how far society is moving towards losing the ability to connect with each other and solve problems through building a personal relationship that starts with a simple smile.

This is especially worrisome now, when both fear and imposed restrictions limit our movements and mask our faces, isolating the hard of hearing by making lip-reading impossible and making it far more difficult to make that contact between eye and smile that warms the heart and creates an atmosphere of possibility.

It doesn’t really matter if it is a beautiful edifice divorced from the heart of its purpose by its own grandeur, or the two pairs of eyes, gateways to the soul, that slide away from each other for fear of an illusory intrusion… without that personal touch, we cannot reach each other and we are prisoned in glass stained by our own tears.

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A horseshoe nail…

Horse's eye

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the message was lost.
For want of a message the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

That old rhyme has a lot to say. It is usually interpreted as being an admonition to pay attention to the small details from which cascade larger events and possibilities. The implication is that if a small thing is overlooked through lack of attention or laziness, then we may wreak havoc with the outcome of whatever we attempt… either individually or in the larger arena of life.

I thought of this rhyme after a comment was made about the pointlessness of an individual life. It reminded me of conversations with my sons when they were younger, where we established that without their presence in the world, it would not just be my life, but the whole of existence that would be changed. Ineradicably altered. What if we are the horseshoe nail?

I remember discussing with them the effects of their subtraction from existence. All the ‘what ifs’ that shower from that point of erasure. If they were not, then perhaps ten generations in the future the man who changes the fate of the planet would not be born, the cure for cancer not found… how can we tell? The branches of any family tree spread wide and in only a few generations its scions may be far from the original root. Were any one of us subtracted from the great mosaic of life it would not only change the world now, but for all the future yet to come.

Which is all very well, and theoretically interesting, but that doesn’t help the person sitting alone, day after day and wondering why they cling to a life that may seem to be without meaning.

Yet who can know how much difference a single life may make? We don’t always know how our friends really feel, as most have a public face that can hide a great deal and the word of affection, that bit of care, might be more meaningful that we can see. We cannot tell if a casual word of praise or encouragement, a much-needed shoulder or a friendly smile may change the day for another. Nor can we know how hard that day has been, or how many other hard days have preceded it… how tired, lonely, desperate or despairing a stranger may feel. There is no feedback, no report card that says, ‘you saved a life today’… yet it may be true. We can never know.

Even the apparently negative actions of others may be the catalyst for change, the tipping point that galvanises us to address injustice, learn empathy and compassion… so many possibilities flower from each moment and each life and we gather our own lives from that garden.

The life we share is a shared life, the actions of each of us cascade like a domino race across the face of time. Every life has its place, its purpose and its value. Even if we cannot always see it.

Who wants to live forever?

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Morning lights the east with liquid flame as the earth and I shrink into ourselves, frozen and pensive. Even so, with such beauty as this you almost wish you could live forever so the memory of it would never fade. The dog dismisses my philosophical mood and with her usual abandon, races across the field with every evidence of selective deafness. Ignoring both blandishment and command with her lopsided grin, she chases her breath in circles and greets the birds. Why, after all, would she want to come back to a nice, warm house and breakfast when there are moments like this to be had?

The sky changes, moment by moment, fierce flame and pastel softness vying for attention. It is incredibly boring for her to sit inside when there is a whole world out there to explore. Ani would far rather chase the morning than curl up by the fire. I, on the other hand, would happily go for the curling up today. It is cold and fingers struggle with the camera. Hibernation feels like a good option this morning.

Yet I can’t help thinking how much of life is spent in slumber already. Not just the necessary and healing luxury of sleep, where the realms of possibility unfurl over a landscape of dream; but the hours spent half awake, going through the motions of survival in our busy world, in submission to the systems that regulate our movement through the labyrinth of blind alleys and perceived opportunities that litter our days.

Even our bodies adjust their rhythm to the clockwork dance of time; hours devoured by hands that grasp each second as they turn in never-ending circles; seeking to define that illusive ‘now’ in which we are supposed to be and which is already the past before we are aware of its passing.

The flaming dawn ignites the horizon in a momentary blaze of splendour never to be repeated. For me, it is the immediacy of a ‘now’ that can never come again. Yet the sunrise I see is illuminated by light born far away and in the darkness of our night. The luminous glow that unfolds came into being over eight minutes ago at the centre of the solar system before I even left home. It’s now is my past. My now is my past too, over before it has been perceived… its separation from the present marked by the milliseconds required for neural transmission.

My cold-numbed mind is aware of a concept beyond words as I finally catch the laughing dog and head home in search of coffee. I am moving in what I see as a linear fashion through what I think of as time, yet it is such an elastic concept in our lives. I think about our perception of time and how it slows and speeds us through our days. How it flies in laughter or drags its heels through boredom and loneliness. The more new information the brain has to process, the slower time appears to pass for us… the more familiar the input we receive, the faster it seems to slip away.

The long, hot summers of childhood were filled with wonder, the shortening years of age pass in swift familiarity. Minds constantly learning with childlike abandon stay more alert than those content with the known… I dredge up the science I have read and conversations shared on those subjects and it seems that time itself, at least on a subjective level, is a perception; an elastic frame within which we order the chaos of experience.

Lurking around the freeze-dried edges of a warped imagination is the vague idea that here lies the key to immortality… the fabled elixir of eternal youth. If our days were filled with wonder and new learning, if our minds and bodies were alert to every scrap of information and attentive to experience, how slowly would our lives appear to run? Could we ‘stop time’ through our perceptions so that even a short life would feel like a long one? And is that eyes-wide-open awareness the secret of those of our elders who seem graced with the glow of inner joy that takes little account of physical age or bodily health?

I wouldn’t want immortality … wouldn’t even want eternal youth in the normal sense, but I would rather like to grow old with the wondering eyes of a child; with relish, not regret for the life I have been privileged to be a part of; something not mine but entrusted to me to do with the best I could. That kind of temporary immortality of perception I think I could handle.

Light and shade

The road home was flooded by brilliant winter sunlight, criss-crossed with the deep, dark shadows of the trees. The light and shade fell upon me through the glass roof of the car as I drove, setting reality a-flicker like an old movie reel. It seemed appropriate as I looked back on the days and months behind me, taking stock. They too are unreal… they exist only in memory and consequence, yet their weight can crush us if we permit it.

Tomorrow sees the beginning of a new year and a new decade. I am old enough that the thought of seeing in the year twenty-twenty still seems like some impossibly futuristic dream… and young enough to know that seeing in twenty-fifty is not a complete impossibility.

Many of the strange and wonderful technological advances that graced the pages of science fiction books when I was young are now part of our everyday lives. We may not all have a Jetson-esque ‘Rosie’ to do our chores, but our homes are filled with incredible gadgetry. We have adapted to its presence and learned to take it so much for granted that our behaviours as a species are changing… not always for the better. We are amazingly adaptable creatures, though and the void left by what we unlearn or leave behind will be filled with new skills, I have no doubt.

But of all the decades I have lived, this one has been both the worst and the best. And the two are so intimately entwined that it is difficult to separate them, as the one depends on the other.

In 2010, my son was stabbed through the brain and left for dead in a coma… every parent’s worst nightmare. For the past ten years, I have run the gamut of human and maternal emotion as I have watched his journey, through the extremes of fear, hope and grief… and watched him answer them with courage, determination and a sheer, bloody-minded refusal to be beaten. Even by himself.

Ten years on and there are still days of both utter despair and of unbounded optimism. It has not been an easy journey, for any of us… but, in many ways, it has been a beautiful one; in which we have seen the very best of human kindness and character as a direct response to the effects of the worst.

On a personal level, I have played a part in the establishment of the Silent Eye… and that too has been an amazing journey and one that has changed my life in so many ways, allowing me to explore aspects of self that I would not have believed existed. The price has been learning to look myself squarely in the eye and acknowledge a good many uncomfortable things that ego would rather not see, but in doing so, I also found a few positive things too that I would never have expected to find.

Exploring the land with Stuart and with purpose has been a delight. Even though our travels are rarer than it may seem, the adventure is constant as flashes of understanding and glimpses of unknown wonders continually reveal themselves as we work with what we learn. It is a journey that demands dedication, time and energy…but the rewards are boundless.

It is always the way… the scales, in constant motion, seek balance. We seldom live anything that is wholly dark or wholly bright. Shadows are not the absence of light, merely light interrupted… and we do need their darkness in order to notice and appreciate how bright the light can be.

As I drive, winter pretends it is spring. There are buds on the trees, daffodils sending green spears up through sodden earth. The seasons run as they will. Nature does not count the passing years; there is only the continuing cycle of growth, decay and new life nourished by old. And I wonder at our dependence on time to measure the quality of a life. Surely our experience of living should count for more than years?

What will the next year…the next decade…  bring? Who knows? I am just glad there are still adventures ahead and hope, to paraphrase a well-known quote, that I can stand at the end of my days and say I embraced every bit of the life I was given.

Whitby Weekend: Night Lights

We had, finally, booked into our hotels and headed back into Whitby to join the rest of the party for dinner. Arriving early, there was time to wander the darkened streets for a while and, eventually, call for a swift half at one of the sixteenth-century inns in the old part of town.

First, though, we had to walk across the swing bridge that divides the Georgian spa town, served by its three chalybeate springs, from the old town, watching as we went, the reflections in the tidal River Esk, looking one way, out to sea and the other towards the upper harbour where the Penny Hedge is planted every year, as penance in perpetuity for the murder of a hermit.

Three hunters chased a wild boar, but it took shelter in a chapel. When the hermit who lived there tried to protect the animal, the hunters killed him. He forgave them before he died, but the penance imposed was that they and their descendants should plant a hedge near the spot that could withstand three tides, cutting the stakes with a penny knife. The ceremony has been carried out every year bar one, when the tide was too high, since 1159.

We crossed the bridge into the old town. I love this corner of Whitby. Almost all my memories see it crowded with the hordes of sunlit holidaymakers that throng the narrow streets all summer long. There are tiny shops selling jet, souvenirs and fossils, the famous ‘Lucky Ducks’ that were always made before your eyes… all housed in a ramshackle jumble of buildings that span the centuries. The goods in the windows may have changed, but the old quarter of Whitby has a timeless air.

I have often wondered how many people stop to look up, above the storefronts and plate glass, at the real history of what was once a tiny village? How many who climb the one hundred and ninety-nine steps up to St Mary’s church realise that the ‘landings’ where they take a break and look out over the bay were made to let pall-bearers rest when carrying coffins up to the cliff-top churchyard, now crumbling into the sea?

We were lucky enough to have much of the old town to ourselves; the chill and early darkness of a December evening had sent many already into the warmth of the pubs. I admit, I loved having the town so empty for once and would have loved to explore, but food and good company awaited… followed by a very long evening, talking and catching up, in the bar of the pub where we were staying. That is one of the joys of these weekend workshops; Whitby, after all, will be there long after I am no more than a memory… but time with friends that you see all too rarely, once lost, does not come again.

A matter of time…

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I watched the sun go down tonight from the roadside. For once, the camera had not come with me… I was just driving to the shop and didn’t pick it up. Even so, I cursed myself for leaving the camera as I saw the huge, golden orb shot with crimson reflected in the rearview mirror. Too late to turn and go back, the sun would have gone by then but maybe, just maybe, I would be home in time…

No. Halfway home it was evident I wouldn’t make it, so, camera or not, I pulled over to watch the setting glory of an autumn day.

It took only a couple of minutes for the last of the blue to fade through a rainbow of colour to a molten sky, aflame against the silhouetted trees. Almost as if the sky was clothed in the colours of the School…I couldn’t help but smile.

It was the speed of those final moments, though, that struck me. In the space of just a few heartbeats, dusk became sunset and night swallowed the earth. The change came with incredible swiftness and was complete.

It made me think how fast our little planet is spinning, unnoticed by we who live and breathe her air. Hurtling through space around the sun at around seventy thousand miles an hour, rotating on its own axis at around a thousand miles an hour at the equator… and we are so habituated to that movement we never notice. Yet, we get motion sickness in a vehicle.

Our eyes and brains process light that hits a speed of six hundred and seventy million miles per hour…and we don’t bat an eyelid at that constant miracle. Our field of vision seems infinite. Even I, short-sighted as I am, think nothing of glancing up to say hello to Orion,  capturing in my gaze light which left the nebula nearly one thousand, three hundred and fifty years and nine trillion miles ago, to meet my eyes tonight. Some of the stars I see no longer even exist. Yet I have trouble getting to grips with things when I speak friends from ‘the future’ in timezones across the world. Odd, isn’t it?

We live our lives against the backdrop of the enormity of time, yet it often seems that all we know can change in a heartbeat. A single moment, a scintilla of time, and life can be transformed, becoming unrecognisable, both for better or for worse. It can be a small thing that changes a mood, moving a day from sadness to joy, or it can be the bigger events that upheave a lifetime.

Just like the movement of the earth, we often don’t even notice how these changes begin. Or even at all. Sometimes we think we can trace them back to a particular and pivotal event, if we look but it is hard, if not impossible, to untangle the skein of a lifetime. The further you try and trace an event’s beginning back to its roots, the more apparent it becomes that you cannot do so, for each event is dependent in some way upon the ones that preceded it and brought you to that point in time.

We cannot alter past events and the future is unscripted… which leaves us with now, this moment, this scintilla of time, in which to change our worlds. And we do so. All the time. And don’t even notice.

I deliberately took time to watch that sunset. It is something that happens every day, something that has happened over my head nearly twenty-two and a half thousand times since I was born and which I seldom consciously take time to watch. I have to ask myself how many of those days of my life I have missed, simply by taking them for granted and not drinking in each moment in full awareness of the possibilities they hold, not living with a passion.

Tonight the sky was a rainbow veil that turned to a sea of molten gold. And I never want to take that for granted again.

North-easterly VII: A final grace

 

“…Manifest thy light for my regeneration, and let the breadth, height, fullness and crown
of the solar radiance appear, and may the light within shine forth!”

Abbe de Villars, ‘The Comte de Gabalis’

“We’ve just got to the top of the slope by the castle,” said the voice on the phone, in answer to my query. We had been a few minutes late arriving on Holy Island, and our companions had begun to stroll out towards the medieval castle that dominates the island landscape. Having failed to find them in any of the three cafés where we had looked, we had located them by phone and, putting on a bit of a spurt, finally caught up with them. From here we could look back at the beginning of our journey, over the water to Bamburgh Castle, just as the spiritual pilgrim looks back on his inner journey and sees with greater clarity than before, how short was the true distance he had to travel , no matter how difficult and tortuous the route he felt he had to take.

The plan was that we should spend an hour exploring in our own way before meeting for a light lunch and our departure, so while some visited the castle, the rest of us walked back into the village and met the sparrows. Time always makes its presence keenly felt on Holy Island, which is odd, because, in so many ways, it is a timeless place. As you cross the causeway from the mainland, that sense of stepping outside of time is one of the most striking feelings, and, if you remain when the tides come in, flooding the causeway and cutting off the island from the shore, there simply is no time, only the spirit of place. Yet the tides rule all and the clock ticks regardless, and for those who must leave before the waters rush in, time is always limited. The very consciousness of that knowledge makes every moment precious.

When we had gathered once more, we walked over to the ancient parish church, dedicated to St Mary the Virgin. In spite of the fact that there have been people on the island since the very earliest of times, this is the oldest building to remain. It is built on the site of St Aidan’s original monastery, founded in 635, and parts of the building date back to that century.

A service had just finished, and we had no wish to intrude, so simply sat quietly for a while, in contemplation. Faith is unique to each of us, no matter by what name we know it or what path we walk. Each of us has our own relationship with something other and greater than ourselves and the simple silence of St Mary’s seems to welcome all those who turn their faces to the Light.

There are beautiful stained glass windows, touching tributes to those who have served in the church and those who have lived on the island and worked with the sea. There are windows that glow with colour and light, a statue carved from elm and called ‘The Journey,’ that shows the monks who carried St Cuthbert’s coffin on its long odyssey, a transcript of the Lindisfarne Gospel… the beautifully illuminated manuscript from the last years of the seventh century, made by a monk called Eadfrith in honour of St Cuthbert.

Fourteen hundred years is a long time for any place to be at the heart of a tiny community, and the church holds that community in its heart.

You ‘may sense the ‘thinness’ linking with the ancient saints who trod the same ground so many years before,’ says the church website. And you can. There is a very real sense of the sacred here, of something older and deeper than the exoteric Church that we know today. It is impossible not to be moved by the echoes of so many centuries of prayer.

In the churchyard, the lives of those who walked here are both remembered and forgotten. The oldest inhabitants have no grave-markers, their names and stories are, for the most part, lost. Only those whose stories were written in the annals of history are remembered by name and deed, and those who lived recently enough that their headstones survive.

Two nineteenth century headstones caught my eye. One was that of a Freemason and soldier who served in India. His affiliation to Freemasonry is not explicitly mentioned in the inscription, but the Masonic Square and Compasses tell their own story. Another local rejoiced in the name of Field Flowers. Time and weather have worn away much of the inscription, but he still rests in the shadow of the Saxon Abbey.

From the church, we walked down to the shore, passing the old well that shelters beneath the walls. I had long wanted to visit St Cuthbert’s Island but on our previous visits, either the tide or time had always been against us.

St Cuthbert’s Isle is a tiny islet just off the island’s shore. At low tide, it is just a short walk across the mussel-encrusted rocks, but to fully appreciate its isolation from the rest of the community,you have to see it when the tide comes in, completely sundering it from the island. We had done so one day, when we had stayed the length of a sea-tide on Holy Island, watching the sun gild a roseate path to the mainland as it sank beyond the hills.

It was to this tiny islet that St Cuthbert would retreat when he needed solitude. He had become a monk after a vision that came to him the night that St Aidan died. he felt called to a contemplative life, but his kindness, charm and generosity, as well as his gift of healing and deep faith, were to take him from his cell and make him Bishop of Lindisfarne and one of the best loved of the early saints.

The little island was his retreat, until in later years he sought the greater solitude of the Farne Islands. Today the foundations of his chapel remain on the islet, marked by a simple cross where pilgrims still leave tokens of respect, and earthworks that may be the foundations of his cell.

 

I once heard the monastic life described as being ‘in the world, but not of it’. In some respects this relates too to the journey of the spiritual seeker… pilgrims in the land of the living… who embrace the earthly life and its world fully, yet who know that the source of being is not of this world. It was the perfect place for us to end our weekend.

From here we could see the mainland and the dark outline of Bamburgh Castle. We could look back too at the Holy Isle and see the ancient church and the Abbey. Our journey together was drawing to its close, yet our journeys would continue. For a moment, we were once more outside of time and the spirit of place caught at the heart.

“I can hear mermaids singing,” said one of our companions. Sure enough, she was right. Turning our eyes to the sea, we scanned the waves and saw their faces in the waves. It was indeed magical to watch the seals watching us from the sea… playing and diving through the waters with what looked like joyful abandon.

But time touched us even here, and it was time for the weekend to end. Gary read the beautiful Invocation to the Flame from Abbe de Villars’, ‘The Comte de Gabalis’ and Barbara ended the weekend with a poem she had written. Then, with hugs and the knowledge that we would hopefully meet again soon, we parted.

For three of us, there was still a little time. Just enough to linger on the island for a moment or two… long enough to realise that the dark shadow on the sandbanks was not seaweed, but our ‘mermaids’.

The three of us, joined by silence and friendship, watched from afar, listening to their song. Such moments can justly be called a grace.

The sea-song continued, eerie and haunting on the wind as we left the islet and climbed to the Heugh. Sheltering in the lee of the ruined Anglo-Saxon chapel, we watched the seals from afar and saw a heron gliding over the waves.

But although, for once, we were in no hurry, Gary had a long drive ahead and had to leave. We walked the length of the Heugh, looking down into the ruined Priory that was already nearly a thousand years old when the castle was built. Time and distance were about to make themselves felt and it was with a certain amount of sadness that we descended from the outcrop, knowing that the world was about to take us once more by the hand. And that although at such moments we may wish the demands of the world elsewhere, it is right that it should do so. We are born into this world for a reason and to live in it fully is at least part of our purpose.

The weekend held one final and surprising gift though. As we walked across the fields towards the village, we came face to face with the past in the most surprising manner. Our timing could hardly have been more perfect and we watched archaeologists brush fourteen hundred years of earth from the faces of the early monks in the newly uncovered Priory burial ground.

“These men would have known Aidan or Cuthbert,” said the archaeologist, when I asked if it were permitted to take photographs. “Treat them with respect if you use the pictures.” I could not do anything else, for these were the men in whose footsteps we had walked the island, the men who had ‘trod the same ground so many years before,’ and whose faith has made this a place of pilgrimage, both religious and spiritual, for centuries. I may not share their particular form of religion, but we share the essence of faith and, in coming face to face with the past, I came face to face with myself. And surely, that is what any pilgrimage is supposed to achieve?

With thanks to Steve Tanham and Barbara Walsh for organising the Castles of the Mind weekend.

If you have enjoyed reading the story of our time in Northumberland and would like to join us for one of our informal weekends exploring the spiritual landscape of Britain, or at our annual April Workshop in Derbyshire, please visit the Silent Eye’s Events page.

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Saving for a rainy day …

The fish need feeding… their food cannisters need refilling too. The bird feeder needs completely restocking…and it is freezing outside. Not only is it cold enough to make a snowman shiver, it is raining… the kind of rain that falls as stinging darts making the presence of each drop sharp and immediate. I shiver, watching the blood withdraw from my fingertips, feeling them shrink and stiffen with the cold and I wrestle with the frozen metal of the lock. Raindrops trickle across my scalp, slithering down my neck. It is not a day to be outdoors… but the fish and the birds need to be fed, regardless of my misery.

Opening the shed, I squeeze past my son’s wheelchair to reach the feed. I remember, just for a moment, coming onto the hospital ward one day and seeing the longing on his face as he watched the raindrops on the window pane. I’d give anything to be out there, he had said. To feel the rain on my face again. Back then, we had no idea if he would ever be able to do so…at least, not without help.

What if, I wondered, this were the last time I ever felt the rain? I know, all too acutely, how life can change between one moment and the next. How normality, freedom…even life itself… can be snuffed out without warning. Such thoughts may seem morbid to some, but I have found that an awareness of the finite nature of the life we know only enhances our ability to appreciate its beauty. Yet, here I was complaining.

I asked myself the question once again. What if this were to be the last time I ever felt the cold of winter or the rain on my skin? Would I really want to remember it through a veil of misery? Or would I want to remember the clarity of the moment? The sparkle of rain on the first, burgeoning leaves of a nascent spring… the ever-expanding circles drawn by the raindrops on the silver surface of the pond… the aliveness of my skin, tingling beneath the touch of winter… the freshness of the rain-soaked garden and the smell of wet earth…

Some ‘last times’ we are aware of… we know they will be the last. We see them coming and they make an indelible impression on memory. I will never forget my last, tear-blurred glimpse of the Sacré-Cœur as we left Paris, thirty years ago. I didn’t know then that it would be the very last time… I still do not yet know if it was, for that matter… but it was the end of a chapter in my life and the beginning of a new story. I remember the final hug shared with a friend and his final words to me, hours before he died, as clearly as I recall the last time I closed the door on the family home.

Sometimes we only realise it was a ‘last time’ once the moment has passed… and those memories too entrench themselves, kept alive by emotion. But most ‘last times’ only become clear in retrospect… we will not know until it is too late to give them our attention and store them up in memory.

As we grow older, any farewell, no matter how temporary, takes on a new layer of meaning; as the years pass, the chances that some of these farewells will be ‘last times’ cannot help but increase. I would not wish to waste such moments in sentimentality, regret or in the imagining of some dire future… I want to enjoy them, storing them up in a treasure house of memory where life, love and laughter are the true riches of living.

There is a reason we are here, in this life, in these bodies and with these senses. Our lives are short… seconds, minutes and hours tick by, heading towards an unknown point, for few know the span of their days. For any one of us the world can change at any moment… yet we live our lives taking so much for granted or, as I was doing, railing against the downside instead of carrying away with us all the moment has to offer.

Living in England, the chances are that I will see and feel more rain than I could possibly wish for… but I do not know what the future holds. Would I really wish to be stuck behind glass watching the rain fall beyond my reach… and knowing I had wasted my ‘last time’ grumbling?

I fed the fish and the birds, smiled at the Indian airline label still attached to my son’s wheelchair… and went out to enjoy the rain.

All images in this post were taken in India by my son…where he felt the rain.

Watching the flowers grow…

I was convinced it was Sunday. The roads were quieter than usual on my way to work and that is a sure sign that it is a Sunday. Not because there is less traffic on the roads, but simply because, the shops being shut until ten, there are few cars about at half past seven in the morning. It took me until Tuesday to realise it had been Monday and the schools were on holiday.

There was a time when I would not have needed that particular clue. Working a regular job and having children meant that such alterations to routine were always eagerly awaited; holidays and weekends announced themselves loudly in our lives instead of sneaking up on me or laying in ambush to catch me unawares. I no longer have children of school age… in fact, my youngest son has a daughter of his own already in school… and for the past eight years I have worked seven days a week, except when I have been on the road. Like school holidays, weekends have ceased to exist, unless I am away. The passage of time I am all too aware of, but the specifics elude me as I no longer have those accustomed  markers to remind me of where I stand within its flow.

It is an odd thing, this notion of time. It rules our lives with an iron rod and yet there is no consistency to it. In Britain these days, we are not allowed out of the house for a couple of weeks after we are born… we wait a set amount of years then must begin school, and a scant few years later, we are expected to behave with the supposed wisdom of adulthood yet are allowed none of its privileges.We can legally marry and have children at sixteen, but cannot drive, drink alcohol or vote.

Youth, middle age and old age are defined by numerical averages that have no meaning to those at the extremes of the spectrum of health or attitude. We can qualify for retirement homes at fifty-five and because of that age can be classified as ‘vulnerable’… yet the minimum age for the state pension is sixty-seven.

We live our lives by clock and calendar, regulating our own internal rhythms to the required and prescribed status quo… until Daylight Savings kick in and throw us out by an hour.  And, although we may moan and groan about all of these things… especially here in Britain where it seems to be a national pastime… we simply accept the imposition of artificial timetable on our lives.

We don’t even think about that…  Time itself may be a frame for perception, but the regulated time to which we daily and yearly submit is no more than a corporate convenience, an organisational tool. I do not advocate a complete disregard for this organisation… society as we know it would cease to function without its order and shibboleths, but I wonder if we place too much value on our adherence to the accepted norm and our judgement of ourselves within its confines.

As I drove to work, the dawn was breaking. It struck me, in one of those ‘why didn’t I realise that before’ moments,  that it does so every day. The leaves are turning and falling in golden drifts as autumn kisses summer goodbye as it does every year. Neither the sun, nor the rest of Nature, gets a weekend or a holiday. Weekends do not exist, nor do Monday mornings, nor, in fact, do any of the days of the week. Years and days are astronomical events, months no longer follow the lunar cycle. Weeks are no more than mathematical constructs, designed not to reflect time, but to contain it.

On the other hand, the sun never has to start early or work later than its alloted duty. Nothing is born, comes to maturity or dies before the ‘right’ time. Nothing retires, it simply evolves, following a natural rhythm dictated by fitness for function. Maiden, mother crone… child, warrior, sage… all enabled and limited by Nature herself; the transition individual, not regulated.

Plant a seed and, when soil and season conspire to make the right conditions it will germinate and grow. The manner of its growth and health will be influenced by both its own nature and its environment. Force it to maturity before its time and it will lose strength, cut it before its time and it will add neither fruit nor seed to the riches of the earth.

We may have to accede to convention and a societal need for order, but we do not have to do so blindly. Nor are we obliged to impose upon our inner selves the constraints and expectations of external time. We can be what we are, not what our acquired expectations make us think we should be. We do not have to obey all the ‘rules’ We need not grow old before our minds and bodies are ready, nor do we have to stay young longer than is right for us. And even then, we can be old and wise one minute, a child full of wonder the next. Our outer lives may be subject to the clock, but our inner growth cannot be forced and is ruled only by natural time.