Letters to myself (4)

Beech Tree with spreading limbs, in summer


There’s no springing into action without first being grounded. A spirit of adventure will fizzle into nothing at the first wobbly bound. I know this by experience because I’ve tried it too often and come unstuck, simply by forgetting to pause and take a slow breath…..

A tree is such a powerful reminder of balance, strength and stillness – a flexible stillness, because on days like today when a gale is blowing, the branches that in summer stretched up motionless into the green canopy are whipped and bent and thrashed in the wind – but the tree remains. It abides. 

This beech is a favourite of mine, one I pass frequently and often stand under. The simple act of standing under a tree helps me do what I try to do when I practice hesitant Tai Chi moves in the garden every morning before breakfast – an attempt to be at one with myself, and still.

There’s also a way in which this is a listening, a paying attention to what we already know deeply in our bodies, and what we can learn there. As children we were all more naturally able to do this (- just watch small children standing, running, playing) and it makes me smile just to think about it. I take a long deep breath, and remember….

This is the fourth post in a series of letters to myself. If you haven’t already read it, the first one is here) 

Letters for the twelve months to come

Small white feather fallen on dry leaves


Standing at the doorway of a new year and just about to put a foot forwards, I realise there are certain words that I wish for myself during the journey through the next twelve months. Pausing and reflecting (a good time to do this, today, with a pale grey light in the window and the sound of rain on the glass) I know there are things I want to embrace and other things that I want to let go. These are not resolutions exactly, nor even intentions – they’re more in the way of senses, feelings, perhaps ways of being, and to write about them or try to explain them in anything more than a whisper would be to bring them under a harsh spotlight that will not help me remember them any better.

I don’t set goals. But I like the idea of way-markers, or torches to light a gloomy bit of path, or firesides to come home to. 

So here for the next few days I’ll share a handful of these – whatever you like to call them. They’re like one-word letters addressed to myself, to carry with me on the next bit of the journey, and at the end of the year I’ll be able to spread them out and look at them, and gaze at the way I’ve come, and ponder…. 

The Dreary Days of Winter, Brightened 

As I headed down the road towards Cliffe Castle this afternoon I met a friend coming in the opposite direction. ‘It’s very dreary in the park today’ she said. (She takes inspiringly beautiful photographs of local landscape and even on drab winter days usually seems to find something wonderful to shoot, so I thought her comment surprisingly downbeat.) 

So perhaps because of this I was more open than ever to let something extraordinary catch my eye……. 

Well, the ordinary can be extraordinary after all. Just depends on how you look at it. 

Grey Cloud Rising


The back of our house faces south west. When I practise Tai Chi outside in the garden before breakfast, dawn is breaking, and for the last few days there have been times when the clouds have parted, or lifted, or thinned in pale grey washes, and sometimes rippled across a clear background like waves of chiffon or melted towards the horizon like smoke.


I’m not much good at Tai Chi. I know very little and I’m clumsy and unbalanced – but looking across the back of the house towards the east I do Hands Waving Clouds, and feel for a moment as if I’m a part of the sky. Even if the clouds are too thick to catch a glimpse of sun, even if it’s raining, I can still sense a brightening, a sense of light, and it’s perhaps the best part of the day. If I can’t grab a camera quickly enough I do another sort of practice later with a brush and watercolour; a similar focus – just a different kind of immersion.

The side of the house and the top of the wooden fence make two sides of a rectangle framing the sky which makes it easier to focus on the clouds and the colours in isolation, and it makes me think of James Turrell’s Skyspace installations. It’s not the same – it can’t be – but in a small way it draws me in and fills me with something of the same sense of quiet wonder. I looked again at this short film about Turrell’s Skyspace in the Deer Shelter at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park and realised I’d never truly appreciated the subtle variation of the greys in English clouds, and never consciously thought of England as being an island at sea, and having a ‘maritime light’. (It’s taken someone from a larger continent to draw my attention to that).


I’m never more aware than when I’m watching clouds that peace and stillness come only from within, and that happiness has very little to do with what I have or don’t have, or my circumstances. I’m more and more aware that a deeper, more widespread peace can only come from my being at peace in myself, and from being able to let it spread out in small ripples wherever it can. This season of peace and goodwill I’m surrounded by people in a tearing hurry, pressed on all sides to do a thousand things to satisfy the Christmas spirit. Every now and then someone stops in their tracks to reflect on this, pauses for a moment to declare the need to remember-what-it’s-all-about (I’ve been doing the same thing myself) – and then jumps straight back into the race. It’s the way it is (though not always the way it was), or really needs to be. But to pause in the middle of a race is to feel the best of what it is to be still.

Continue reading

Yellow Carpet Treatment

All of a sudden, overnight, the ceiling has become the floor.

I found myself astonished the way I am by snow – a sudden transformation in great sweeps of colour. Overnight rain brought leaves down in their thousands, and because there was almost no wind they came straight down, falling quietly and settling one on top of another until all the grass and tarmac disappeared and every inch under the trees was carpeted. This –


became this –


Under the lime trees I was treading on a multi coloured carpet of every kind of yellow and gold, merging into a glow of russet red under the copper beech.


Every leaf is a small marvel. I crouched down to explore more closely and then glanced up to see this –


What more to say? I walked around everywhere smiling, up banks and over lawns normally slippery with mud and wet grass, feeling soft leathery leaves under my feet. No paths visible – just great swathes of colour, undulating waves of copper and gold.

Tomorrow the yellow will have faded a little, and the next day more, and the gold will lose its glow; but because I was there today I saw it, and was amazed.

Colour Catcher


Every day a little more colour.


Every moment, change – clouds part suddenly and then close in again; the afternoon draws in. The hour before dusk is a slow gathering of shadows and a ripening of glowing colour.


I soak it all in. I stand about under the trees and look up, head back, gazing up through the canopy and the next moment I’m crouching down, with leaves rustling like paper bags and the smell of damp earth under me.


Closer and closer. To get lost in it all, to forget everything else and sink into this colour, this hour, this moment that will never come again.

Salad Bowl Summer


Every day this week, walking through the edge of the wood that leads to the park has felt like being in the bottom of a giant salad bowl. Yesterday afternoon in warm windy sunshine I clambered up the bank and felt quite dizzy with the greenery all around, above me and below me, and the wind tossed the leaves like a salad being shaken. For a moment I almost lost my footing and felt as if I was tumbled about in a swirling world of a hundred different greens.


These days I’m often not too steady on my feet, but if I can get out there nothing’s going to stop me from climbing up a bank. I held on to the trunk of a giant lime tree and took a deep breath. Newly mown grass. Lime blossom.


Time to pick my way carefully and back down to the path.

Softening The Heart With A Rat


I have a soft toy rat who sits, most of the time, on my bedroom window sill looking out. He’s a good subject to draw and I like using him as a model.

I bought him two Christmases ago at IKEA and he’s remained nameless – I’m not that sentimental – though I can’t help noticing that I think of him as him rather than it. I pick him up at least twice a day whenever I raise or lower the window blinds and without fail, every time I handle him, my heart softens and I find myself caressing him a little, holding his round little body against my chest and stroking his soft fleecy back. I’ve been known to whisper in his ear.


David Bennett just published a lovely image on his photography blog that had my heart softening in just the same way; he says

Here they are – three soft toys in a window.Though I saw them from across the road as I was passing and they were three small blobs in an upstairs window, I felt my heart soften – funny creatures that we humans are.

Funny creatures that we humans are. It’s true, we are. What is it about a soft rat or a teddy bear that has this effect on us?

We’re not responding to them as if they were the animals they represent (I don’t dislike rats but I wouldn’t feel quite the same sensation of love if I picked up a real one). As a child I didn’t have many soft toys (I do still have the small button-eyed bear I had from my earliest years, perhaps more of him in another post); growing up we weren’t short of real animals to stroke and play with, so perhaps the need for something cuddly wasn’t so noticeable – but really it’s not about that. There’s a friendship and a kind of love that can spring up between a human and a teddy bear, or a rat, or a soft-whatever, even though we know that in truth it’s a one-sided affair. These are creatures that are undemanding and reliable, but also vulnerable; they depend on us for everything – they can’t even move about on their own and for this at least, they need us.

We need to love, and these soft things melt our hearts.



I had no idea that I’d even be able to see yesterday’s eclipse of the sun. It was cloudy and I hadn’t prepared for it in any way, so when it started to get dark and I looked out of the window I was astonished to see that the clouds had parted a bit, just where the sun and the moon were doing their thing……so I grabbed my phone and took a picture. The even more astonishing thing is that an image actually came out. Grainy, indistinct, a terrible photograph, but it’s there – and it lives more vividly for me now. I’ll remember it better, and remember how excited I felt.

A small piece of magic.