Finding Christmas

It doesn’t matter how many times I see the words Merry Christmas, or how many cards I receive or send, or how many lights I see on trees or strung across streets or over buildings – Christmas doesn’t exist for me until it happens in my heart.

And because of this, the whole season has assumed a kind of hallucinatory quality; the other day I saw a bus come barrelling down the Skipton Road towards me with the words Happy Christmas lit up in front where the number and destination ought to be. For a moment I thought perhaps it was a Christmas special but just before it passed me the signboard flashed and changed to its normal display – in time for people at the bus stop to know what it was and where it was going. I wondered how I should be feeling, and whether this should make me feel festive, but all I had was a strange sense of dislocation.

This is the same bus company that a few days ago had a staff member dressed up as Santa Claus giving out mince-pies and gifts to passengers boarding at the bus station, and I’m warmed, really I am, by every gesture that spreads a smile and a bit of happiness and goodwill. But somehow it’s as if there are two Christmases – the one that happens outside, and the one that happens on the inside, and that’s the one has to be lit, ignited, felt.

This asks for a search, something individual and subtle, something special and magical. It has to be a journey of the imagination….

Want to give it a try?

It could start anywhere, but let’s say the journey starts in a crowded Christmas market. I don’t have to describe it – just picture it for yourself. All the sounds, the smells, all the lights and the twinkly stuff. And there in the middle of all this, largely unnoticed by everyone, is a sign saying Christmas Journey, and what looks like the entrance to a sideshow or a tent – but with nothing more than two undecorated Christmas trees blocking the way in. There’s no-one to take your money or try to give you a ticket. It looks – well, puzzling. But different. So you push aside the branches and gently work your way through into the darkness inside…..

Now, what happens next is the part that only you can see. I can’t describe it, because everyone’s journey is different, but as soon as you arrive inside you are on a path – all you have to do is to walk it, and walk slowly, seeing and smelling, feeling and listening. I don’t know exactly what you will see or who or what you may meet……

I can say that there may be snow. For me, there often is – I frequently find myself walking in a pine forest with snow covering the trees and the path ahead, and all I can hear for a while is the sound of my footsteps muffled but audible, that soft creaking sound that footsteps make in snow. And the feel of cold air in my nostrils, and the warmth of my breath. I walk for some time through this forest, with a dark sky overhead and light only from the stars.

Then sometimes the forest gives way to a cold desert hillside, rocky and hard, and the sky overhead opens up into an immense dome of stars, and one of these is brighter than all the rest.

I’ve met creatures of all kinds when I make this journey – rabbits, sheep, camels, once a bear, several times reindeer. I’ve seen and watched other travellers. The road is always different but the destination is always the same.

A rough shed, or outbuilding of some sort – a stable.

There’s a carol called The Children’s Song Of The Nativity that starts by asking ‘How far is it to Bethlehem?’ and the answer – ‘Not very far’. Bethlehem is of course several thousands of miles from where I am in Yorkshire, but it’s also only a very short distance away – as near or as far as my imagination makes it. And this is where I arrive:

How far is it to Bethlehem?
Not very far.
Shall we find the stable room
Lit by a star?

Can we see the little Child?
Is He within?
If we lift the wooden latch
May we go in?

May we stroke the creatures there
Ox, ass, or sheep?
May we peep like them and see
Jesus asleep?

If we touch His tiny hand
Will He awake?
Will He know we’ve come so far
Just for His sake?

Peace, and love of the deepest, most extraordinary kind, the kind that comes out of silence and stillness, love that came from the beginning of time and lasts forever.

I sit down in the straw, and know, and feel in the deepest part of my heart, that this is Christmas.

Spell To Dispel Fears

Take it lightly, lightly,
weightless as a cloud, drifting
apricot white in a pale blue sky.
Say these words. Speak them out loud.

Soothe the old lizard darkly crouching.
Let her bask in the warmth of the sun.
These are old fears, not new ones
come to haunt you, to trick you.

Listen. Listen; outside,
a fluttering of wings
and a blackbird, singing.

Barbed Wire and Fairy Lights

I find it hard to know what to say these days. This last week, watching the new order play out under newly installed president Trump has been a bit like standing in a blizzard. I’ve found it hard to take in, and exhausting; if it’s having this effect on me here in Britain, I can only imagine how it feels on the other side of the Atlantic. When my thoughts are in a tangle, I write; when I can’t think, I draw, and often I discover more that way. 

Barbed wire from the trenches, 1st World War

My local museum has a cabinet with a miscellaneous collection of objects from the first world war and on Thursday, the day Theresa May travelled to Washington as the first world leader to meet Donald Trump I found myself standing in front of this display drawing strands of barbed wire from the trenches on the western front. I don’t have the words to describe how I felt, studying this stuff, thinking about what it means to create barriers of this kind and the horrors of what this did. I stood there drawing and thinking about walls, and fences, and detention centres; about refusing refugees. About people who are now living in increasing uncertainty and fear, and how the whole world is now a more uncertain place for everyone. 

I thought a lot after I’d come home with this drawing about what its opposite would be. Closing my eyes and drifting off to sleep that night I thought about Amnesty International’s symbol of a burning candle surrounded by barbed wire…….. 

Faced with such immediate threats to democracy, to freedom of speech and freedom of movement, being fed lies and witnessing ever more division and racism and hatred – it’s hard to know what to do, what to say, or how to say it. It’s overwhelming and intimidating, and it’s easy to feel that there’s nothing I could do that could possibly make the slightest difference. But neither can I bear to stand by and not do anything. I keep thinking of those words of Edmund Burke’s, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” As true today as it was 200 years ago (except that today he would have said men and women). I can’t go on marches, the way thousands did last weekend all around the world. I can support organisations like Amnesty, I can show solidarity and add my signature to petitions and write to my MP. But none of these make me feel as if I’m creating any light in the darkness. 

I spend the first few minutes of every day after waking up simply filling the landscape of my heart and mind with light. I imagine I’m watching the sun rise and I watch it hit the tops of distant mountains and gradually flow down the slopes and into every valley. I consciously try to feel the warmth of the sun, and I greet it with every part of me. If I can start the day filled with light, it makes a difference to the way I read the news, the way I talk over breakfast with my husband, the way I think when I go out shopping, when I drive the car, when I speak to the assistant at the supermarket checkout. I smile more often. I think fewer dark thoughts, I’m less anxious and more relaxed. 

I think this can produce a chain reaction. I think it often does. 

Like a tiny ant, I’m not going to look up at the towering ant-hill above me and think, I can’t do this, building this is beyond me. I can simply be a good ant and do what I can as well as possible – and actually that feels good. And then I realise that there are thousands – millions – of us out there doing the same thing, glowing not terribly brightly but glowing all the same, and together we’re lighting the darkness like a string of fairy lights. 

Then I knew what I had to draw. 

Compassion

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After a morning
of pain
(not mine)
I lay down
and tried
to run away.
It didn’t work.
The pain ran with me.

Pain is a fast runner.
It can stick to you
like a shadow.

Exhausted, fearful
I tried a different tactic;
stopped running,
turned to it
and smiled.
Spoke to it
and listened.

Discovered
we are not enemies.
It is not evil, simply
the way things are.
It needs my love
and runs after me
to ask it.

I can reach out to it
now, touch it, even.
I can feel my heart melt.
We can sit together
in the half-light,
listen to each other’s stories
and hold hands.

Weekly photo challenge: One Love

Extended Family

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In winter I mostly walk in the park, and sometimes in the cemetery. It’s wooded and shady, and being lower down the side of the valley, winter sunlight doesn’t stay long; cool dappled shadows that are welcome in summer are less inviting at this time of year. Nevertheless I love it in all seasons. Parts of it are wild and secluded and overgrown and I go there to watch squirrels and rabbits, and to walk amongst the old graves of not just individuals but of whole families. Generations are buried here and remembered here, together.

If this seems a gloomy thing to do, it’s not – or not for me. As a child I practically grew up in a graveyard as our back garden bordered on the village churchyard, and a gap in the hedge led straight into the plot at the exact point where the newest graves ended and the unused, unmown field sloped gently uphill to the woods beyond. My sister and I played in the field and the churchyard as well as the woods, and took the path through the graves to reach the church and the village. My grandmother, who lived with us for the last few years of her life, spent almost as much time out there as we did, tending the neglected graves of those who had no-one else to care for them. Her favourite had a granite headstone and belonged to an admiral; she weeded it with the broken end of a bayonet that had been my grandfather’s and which she had previously used as a poker.

When she died, she was buried not here but with my grandfather, in the town where they had lived and where I was born. My family moved; we no longer live near to each other, and probably none of us will be buried together.

I feel drawn to graveyards. I have happy memories of the chuchyard that seemed like part of our home, and even though the people that were buried there were strangers they felt like friends. The admiral almost felt like part of the family.

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“This is what I wanted you to see.”

These lines are spoken by Mattie Ross, right at the end of the classic Western, True Grit. Mattie is tending her father’s grave in a neatly fenced plot high up on the hill above the house, her arm still bandaged in a sling from the snake-bite that nearly killed her, when Rooster Cockburn, played by John Wayne, rides up the hill. Mattie and Rooster have been through an adventure together that could have seen both of them killed, and nearly did; courage and determination in the face of trouble have brought them close and made them unlikely friends.

Mattie knows she is lucky to be alive but although she is still very young, she is characteristically thinking ahead, and organising.

“Papa’s marker was not what was ordered. I had to make that fool of a stoneman change it. Some day, Mama will be here. And my brother and his family over there. And that is for my sister and her family. And I will be here, on the other side of Papa. It’s comforting to know where we’ll meet eternity.”

“I would like you to rest beside me, Rooster.”

“Now, sis, that place should be for your family, your husband, kids… ”

“You have no kin. I don’t count Chen Lee and the cat. Where would you end up? A neglected patch of weeds?”

“I might just take you up on that offer, sis.

Excuse me if I don’t try to move in too soon!”

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Grateful thanks to Drew’s Script-O-Rama for the transcript excerpt from the movie True Grit.

The Scent Of Roses

Wartime, in a northern town in England.

In this grey, cold city a young woman is away from her family, far from home because the college where she is studying has been evacuated away from the danger of the bombing raids that are concentrated on London and the southeast of the country where she lives. She is in the company of friends and is enjoying her studies, but all the same she misses her home and her family.

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In a town near London my grandmother is standing amongst the rose bushes in the garden of her house, separated by hundreds of miles from her daughter. How do you reach out to someone you love when she is hundreds of miles away, when there is no way to speak except by letter, when you can’t hold her in your arms, or smile at her across the table, or make her a cup of tea? When you miss the sound of her voice – singing, usually – or the noise of footsteps in the hall and the door opening and closing as she comes home? My grandmother, smelling the scent of the roses, has a thought and going indoors she finds a biscuit tin and some pruning shears. Later she will get out brown paper and string.

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The next morning my mother receives a parcel in the post. It’s large but not heavy, and although she knows who it’s from by the spidery handwriting of the address she can’t guess what’s inside, so she is already smiling as she undoes the knot in the string and then carefully unwraps the paper. She opens the lid of the tin.

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She smells the scent of them before she sees them, the fragrance wafting out and around her and filling the room. Bending forward she holds them up to her face and breathes in deeply, smiling, and then shuts her eyes as she breathes out slowly, slowly, seeing her mother in the garden with the shears, choosing the flowers, clipping them carefully, tenderly laying them in the box. She is filled with thoughts she can’t name and flooded with love.

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Sixty years later, I am in the northern town that is my home, many miles from the town of my birth and feeling, not for the first time, lost and very alone. The grey sadness that descends on me from time to time has settled this time like a cloud and the world feels like a dark place. I speak to my mother on the phone but we cannot meet, and she can’t hug me as she wants to. I can feel the love in her voice, but we are both familiar with this darkness and know how love just has to wait it out, as I know that hers will, with the unconditional compassion that is motherhood.

A few days later, a packet arrives in the post. It’s small and not very heavy, and I can see from the label where it’s from but I still don’t know what’s inside. I open it and find bubblewrap protecting a small beautiful blue glass bottle, the maker’s name in etched glass on the side and for the first time in many days, I smile. I am still smiling as I read the label and unscrew the curved black cap, and take a sniff. The scent of roses, the essence of rose in its purest form. Rose Absolute, one of the most difficult essential oils to make requiring thousands and thousands of rose petals, one of the most precious and expensive. One that I have always wanted and never had. I close my eyes and take a longer, deeper breath of it, and breathing out slowly I feel a warm sense of peace, and almost imperceptibly the darkness fades. It still weighs on me like a shroud and cuts out the light, but the weight is less and for a moment or two the first glimmer of light has given me hope. I can feel the love there, even if I can’t yet let it in.

When we speak on the phone, she tells me the story of the roses that arrived by post in the biscuit tin.

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I have kept this little blue glass bottle on the table beside my bed ever since that day that it arrived in the post, and whenever I undo the cap and breathe the scent of roses the three of us come together, my grandmother, my mother and me, across time and space. We were all of us writers in our way – of journals and poems and letters – but no words could ever have been as eloquent, or could have connected us in this way, nor would they have brought with them such a flood of love, as did the scent of roses.

Beyond Black and White

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It’s strange how your worst nightmare can sometimes, in some ways, turn out to be not a bad thing at all. In fact I’ve begun to think quite differently about what we usually designate good things and bad things in life. I’ve started to see this as uncreative, narrow minded and downright unhelpful.

I like to think up good titles for posts. Lately though, if I had been impelled to write about what’s been going on in my day to day life (and I’m not that kind of blogger) the titles would have been more like bad newspaper headlines. I might have started with an eye catching Mad Dentist Declared Health Hazard: Patients Flee. This would have been followed shortly after with Computer Collapses at Critical Moment – and while we were all waiting for the sequel to that one I’d have dropped in a scene-setting piece entitled Family Fall Out (a background story on communication breakdowns amid the trauma of distressing illness). Then would have come a story of woe which I could have called Safety First: Do Not Drive When Anxious. (No harm came to anybody in this episode but it was a salutory tale.) All of these, however, would have been eclipsed by the most recent and hopefully the final article in the series, for which I can think of no more dramatic a title than the simple fact – Heart Attack.

This is not a story I will write. But as I find myself treading the corridors of the hospital on the way back from visiting, I am filled with a sense of gratitude and mild bewilderment. My husband, plucked from his usual state of semi-isolation (a condition largely of his choosing) and deposited once again in the middle of a busy teaching hospital, has recovered enough to be sitting up in bed, telling me about the hours of pleasurable conversation he has been having with the patient in the bed next to him (who evidently enjoyed both the company and the conversation so much that I have been left instructions to go and meet this man who by now has been transferred to another ward). As I make my way back to the car after making his acquaintance I’m relaxed and less worried than I have been for weeks. The sun is warm, even the wind is warm, and the hospital is filled with the scent of manure drifting in through open windows, a delightfully unexpected smell for a clinical environment (we are right in the middle of farming country and they are muck-spreading the fields). Nothing fills me with dread, even the prospect of further investigations and procedures. Family members who haven’t spoken to us for months have called on the phone and talked at length. We care about each other. We are not alone.

Again and again we let ourselves rule our lives with our heads, or try to. We believe our thoughts to be empirically true and a reliable guide to what is happening, which is not the case – quite easy to see when you stand back for a moment and see things as they really are. Trust can be a much more powerful guide than grit and determination.

I climb the hill to the top of the car park and stand by the car, looking down over the hospital and the whole green valley spread out beneath me, and breathe deeply. The afternoon sun is warm on my face and the breeze blows through my hair; I have never been here before in such lovely weather.

It occurs to me that if I described this episode now, I might call it, not Heart Attack, but Attack Of The Heart. There’s a big difference.

When Shadows Fall

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Let go, until you find
that stillness where
there is no fear
of shadows, falling.

Only the beating heart,
acceptance,
and a deepening love.
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Life has a habit of throwing things your way when you least expect it, often unwelcome things that arrive when you feel least able to deal with it. These things can happen without warning, like shadows that fall across your path, unlooked for, unwelcome, turning the world dark.

I used to try to run away from suffering, from pain and illness, both my own and other people’s, or distract myself from it – and ended up being so afraid of it that I was afraid of the fear.

It’s stupid I know, and it should have been obvious that running away from fear or pain is an exercise in futility, but in the absence of any alternative I simply ran faster and faster, or tried to distract myself until eventually I just couldn’t run any more and began to realise there had to be another way. In the end I think I stopped running out of sheer exhaustion, but once I had stopped I discovered some unexpected things.

Simply to feel your own pain or sorrow, and then to approach it and let yourself sit with it and get to know it really goes against the grain. At first it feels like an alarming thing to do. But when there’s nowhere else to go, in fact it comes as a surprising relief – because for one thing, just experiencing the pain without bringing any kind of narrative to it and feeling frightened can be a lot less awful than the fear of the pain has been. Accepting things exactly the way they are, without weaving stories around them and believing all kind of disastrous outcomes feels – well, so much better. And how things really, actually are, rather than how you think about them, becomes interesting to explore.

I’m still fairly new to this. I’ve spent more than half a lifetime doing things wrong and it takes time to change old patterns. But I’m getting there, a little at a time, and even though I still slide straight down the same old negative neural pathways far too easily, at least I notice what I’m doing which helps to slow me down and I can remind myself that I have a choice. I can see the shadows for what they really are, and even sit amongst them in the shade.

Shadows will always fall, but they move, they shift, they change and eventually they pass.

Ice Age

Winter goes on. Last week an icy wind blew sheets of snow up the valley and across the hills, drifting in banks, filling up hollows and smothering all signs of spring. We are sheltered, here in this valley, on the outskirts of town. All round us on the hills, farmers have been struggling to find sheep buried in snowdrifts, and to try to rescue newborn lambs.
March 016

In our tiny back garden the snow piled up in curvaceous mounds and the patio table once again resembled a giant cake stand bearing a massive frosted cake. The last time this happened we felt playful and celebrated by decorating it with red apples and then cutting a slice of ice cake. This time the cold has got into our bones and our hearts, and we just want a thaw.
Table with snow cloth and ice lace

When the temperature rose a degree or so the cake developed a fringe at its edge like delicate lace, the finest filigree of frost. And slowly over the next few hours, meltwater dripped and the frost fringe lengthened and grew.
March 014

Water follows a course, finding its way along a path that’s already been established and reinforcing that same route, that same pattern. I watched the icicles build and get longer and stronger until they became a solid network of icy pathways for the meltwater to follow. My thoughts, my feelings and emotions have woven such pathways in my brain; over years and years of practice the meltwater of events now triggers reactions that inevitably course smoothly down those channels and lead me straight back to what caused the reaction in the first place, many years ago. It happens without warning, without consultation, and with inevitability, and every time I’m left feeling helpless, a victim of my seemingly permanent association with the past, my own personal ice age.

And yet I know that it doesn’t have to be so. Hard as it is to establish I do know that I can change the way I think, slowly and very much one moment at a time, and with glacial speed I can actually see myself beginning to sculpt new ways for my thinking. I have time; I tell myself, why hurry? Why not be patient, and learn to go slowly?

March 024
A pale and wintry sun made a brief appearance around the side of the house and warmed the glass and steel of the table just enough for the frost cake to slide, very slightly, to one side and bring more meltwater to the edge where it started to drip and erode the frozen fringe. Drops ran freely and fast, breaking fragile connections and the whole thing gradually lurched sideways threatening to crash in an avalanche. But the temperature dropped again; frost started to take hold, and now new threads of ice spun and connected in a web that had changed. New pathways had been made.

I know next time my ice age suddenly imposes itself on me I won’t be prepared, or not enough to stop myself from spinning out of control for a few moments. I know I will still feel gripped by anxiety and sometimes panic. But I know one thing, and I remind myself of it as I reassure myself and try to breathe slowly and be calm; this is not set in ice or in stone. Change is happening. I just have to be patient and feel it grow, even if it is at the speed of a glacier.