Write Out

Sometimes, nothing will straighten me out except poetry.
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Not long ago I went on a workshop given by the poet Chris Tutton called Poetry as Healing, an afternoon that came like a gift of grace at a time when I needed it more than I realised. It confirmed what I already knew but had forgotten – that there are times when writing, and more particularly writing poetry, can do more than anything else to bring stillness and peace to a frightened mind.

I wasn’t surprised to learn that research shows when sufferers of anxiety and depression use poetry as a form of expression, it lessens activity in the amygdala – the so-called ‘lizard brain’, the primitive neurological centre associated with fear. Quite why writing poetry rather than creative prose should do this is not fully understood and was something we discussed, but it seems clear that as Chris suggests it probably has to do with structure. Finding words to express feelings in a concise, condensed form and in a free creative way can be very liberating, while at the same time it’s a comfort to find focus and order in a situation that is otherwise spinning out of control. I know that there have been times when I’ve found greater peace and comfort from this than I could have found any other way.

It’s important to understand that it doesn’t matter how good the results are in terms of writing. This is unashamedly, first and foremost, therapeutic and if you thought it was only worth doing to try to produce a poem to be proud of, you’re thinking about it the wrong way. Nevertheless it can sometimes throw up lines that make sense in a powerful way that can be worth sharing.

That Saturday afternoon I was filled with tension and anxiety. A close member of my family had slithered into a deep depression after enduring months of anxiety and was struggling to keep afloat; we watched in dismay as he sank further and deeper and weren’t sure he would be able to climb out however much we supported him. We had all been hanging on in one way or another, wishing desperately that there was more we could do, and having known the pain and despair of depression from the inside I now learnt the pain of watching someone you love suffer in a bleak dark place.

It wasn’t until almost a week later when the crisis had past, and new medication and the intervention of the wonderful Mental Health team had brought about the miraculous beginnings of recovery, that I noticed myself coming apart and agitated to the point of distraction.

I did a lot of vacuuming. I went for a fast walk, trying to ease my tension with fierce exercise. I immersed myself in work that didn’t really need to be done and got exhausted. I did practically none of the things that I could have done that would have made me feel better and by dawn the next morning my stomach was fluttering and cramping and no amount of slow deep breathing would calm my anxiety. My stress response had kicked in and activated the fossil-record of experiences from long ago so that the present merged with past and I was in a permanent state of fight-or-flight. I lay in bed unable to control my gibbering mind, and clutched at straws. Start from where you are, I thought. That’s the right way to begin because you can’t start from anywhere else.

Catching the first few words that came to me I let them form together and repeated them in my head until they made sentences that I could hear on the in-breath and on the out; the rythymn of the unspoken sound of it was like a lullaby, like listening to rain or the sound of the wind. Within minutes I was calm, and the calmness endured.

Let my heart cry.
Let me loosen the ties
that bound me
and held me together.
Let me unravel a little,
and travel a little
in weakness and worry and fear,trusting my journey
and finding the comfort of tears.

Its not much of a poem. I print it here to illustrate how much that doesn’t matter, how that really isn’t the point. What matters is that it’s often the best way I know to find my way back to myself, to a place of stillness and calm, the place that feels like home.

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Exploring New Worlds

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I have been climbing
through canyons
of light; basking
on the round smoothness
of golden silk-soft slopes;
diving headlong
down deep
into dark crevasses,
finding secrets.
I have been
lying cradled
in the curl of an edge
suspended
in space;
sheltered,
concealed.
I’ve been drenched
by dew drops
the size of dinner-plates,
then warmed
by sunlight
filtered through
gossamer canopies
of pale gold,
and all the time
breathing it in,
drinking deep,
held captive by wonder.

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Postscript:
I said in my last post Suddenly, New Worlds that I thought I would be discovering images that needed no words. And I have been. But all of a sudden I found I couldn’t help trying to write about what it feels like to dive into these pictures and get lost in places I’ve never seen in quite this way before. I never stop being amazed by how the ordinary, the everyday – or what we mistakenly think of as ordinary and everyday – can turn in the blink of an eye into something completely different, extraordinary, and magical.

Walking On Grass

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Sometimes I have to walk on grass.
Footpaths are good,
and pavements, in the rain;
but there are times my feet
need to remember
the springiness of short-cropped turf
nibbled by sheep,
or tussocks of couch grass
long-bladed, tousled,
catching the wind in waves
in an ungrazed field.
Grass mixed with clover,
buttercups and dock;
or a lawn freshly mown
with the cuttings still damp,
strewn, smelling of childhood,
of cricket fields,
of home.

Sometimes I need to lie
on my back in the grass
like I did today,
under a tree,
feeling the earth beneath me,
watching the sky,
thinking of nothing at all.

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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.

Horse

On a morning just like this
with dew heavy on the grass
and sunlight filtering through leaves
I could stand with eyes shut,
reach out a hand and believe
the smooth solidity of back, curving
to rounded hindquarters
and the swish of tail.
I could run my hand, palm down,
following the rise of shoulder
down to leg, knee, hoof, and
cupping in my hand lift its familiar shape
to pick out stones and mud.
My whole self knows the form,
the coarseness of mane, the silk
smooth summer coat on neck
and withers, and the velvety suede
of muzzle, nostrils, mouth.

Are these just memories,
or something deeper in the blood
and in the bone? Far more than memory,
it feels like coming home.
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I am so tuned in to the image, the sound, even the idea of Horse, that the slightest sound of hooves on the road, the faintest glimpse of something out of the corner of my eye that might be anything equine, and my attention is caught and  held, with everything else in a state of suspension. I don’t remember a time when this was not so, and where it came from I have no idea. It feels as though I came into the world with it already in me, and as a child I pestered my parents for riding lessons. I drew horses, I rose imaginary ones, I made hobby horses out of broomsticks with old socks stuffed for the head with eyes and mouth embroidered on, and bridles made of bits of leather and string. I had a whole stable full of these and galloped about mounted on one or other of them in the garden and in the woods at the back of our house. My mother had to step in when she discovered I was charging neighbours children for rides and giving them instruction and my early initiative as an entrepreneur came to a timely end, but it wasn’t making money that really drove me to do it rather than the obsession I had with the whole idea of a riding stable.

I was about eight when I finally learned to ride, on a black shetland pony called Lucky. Elderly and quiet, he allowed us to clamber up his rounded sides and sit up proud and straight on his flat back with a patience that was seemingly unending, sometimes dozing off as he stood with one hind hoof crossed over the other. He was the first of many ponies I rode at a riding stable that was to become as big a part of my life as school and family and probably taught me more any other activity I ever did as a child. My greatest ambition as soon as I was competent rider was to become a ‘helper’ and to work there grooming, sweeping, helping to teach beginners, doing odd jobs and earning free rides, and once I was doing this, when I was about 12 or 13, for a few years it was my whole life.

This was no smart establishment. There wasn’t even a signboard to announce its existence. The only building was an ancient stable with a dark and cobwebby tack room and three stalls used mostly for storing hay, where we cleaned tack after the riding was done for the morning. We washed and soaped dark old leather where flies buzzed in summer and where our fingers froze in the icy water during winter. The yard was too small for the twenty or more ponies so they were tethered ready for riders in the trees at the edge of the road, and here we brushed off the worst of the mud from manes and tails and coats before saddling, each of us taking care of a pony that was our own special responsibility. Ponies of all shapes and sizes, mostly mixtures of native breeds, out in all weather throughout the year. We collected them from outlying fields in the early morning, catching and then riding them in bareback, riding one and leading another, clattering along the tarmac of green leafy lanes. Returning with them in the afternoon, we’d let them loose to shake their heads free of bridle or halter and roll in meadow grass. Every Saturday and Sunday and every day of the school holidays we spent this way, whether it was dry, hot, freezing cold and snowing or pouring with rain – nothing could stop us.

Every summer there was a gymkhana. The schooling ring in the field was roped off, freshly painted jumps of an assorted kind were put together and arranged for showjumping, and poles were put up for bending races. Even with all that bareback riding I was never a really accomplished rider and I have always lacked competitive spirit, which is why I suppose I was always hopeless at school sports, but nothing was going to stop me taking part in all the events. I don’t remember winning much, though rows of blue, green and yellow rosettes for second and third and fourth place decorated the wall of my bedroom and every now and then a red one would take pride of place, along with a little tin trophy cup, plated bright silver and standing on a shiny black base. But one event remains unforgettable, the time I took part in the Puissance.

For anyone unfamiliar with it, this event is simply an elimination contest in which everyone tries to clear a fence that is raised higher and higher every time. I was riding a Feller, an Exmoor pony who was not highly regarded by most riders as he was slow, and considered boring as nothing would persuade him to do anything more than amble. There was one thing however that Feller could do, and liked to do, and that was jump. He didn’t like to move fast, but he had no trouble about jogging up to a fence in a leisurely way and then taking off and sailing into the air, seemingly without much effort. This made him a good choice for the Puissance, a fact which others must have forgotten or overlooked, because speed is not the issue (as it is in showjumping) and before long there were only two contestants left, myself and one other.

It wasn’t hard to get Feller to jump higher and higher. Even though it was late in the afternoon, he wasn’t tired having not exerted himself much in the earlier events. All I had to do was point him in the right direction, show him the fence and suggest we jump it and off we’d go. I liked jumping, too; for some reason I wasn’t frightened as the rail was raised again and again, and Feller and I were enjoying every minute. Perhaps something about the way we looked caught the attention of the crowd because now each time we approached the fence someone would shout ‘come on, Feller!’ and others would join in, urging us on as we lolloped at a gentle canter, Feller with ears pricked judging distance and calculating stride. He was the one who knew what to do. All I had to do was hang on and not fall off. As he gathered himself for take off, the whole crowd were now shouting in unison, ‘ Huuuuup!’ as we sailed slowly upwards and cleared the bar cleanly yet again.

I don’t remember how many times we went around and how high the bar went. Feller was an average size pony, maybe 13 or 14 hands at most and the fence ended up higher than I stood when I was back on the ground, so we must have jumped well over 5 foot, and I do recall feeling proud of that, but what I remember most was the feeling that everyone there was behind us, wanting us to clear the rail, willing us up and over as we rose slowly into the air, and flew.

There are times when riding, when you and your horse are totally in agreement and you both understand this, and it’s a good feeling. It’s a really good feeling when you both know that you’re enjoying yourselves together. It may not seem like much, but it is, and I’ve never forgotten it.

I’m grateful beyond words for these recollections. In the last 50 years there have been too many times when I have been far away from this way of being, and these memories nourish me and draw me home.
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Sunset

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Sunset.
A cerulean sky
with clouds the colour of pearls,
flushed by the sun’s pale gold.
Watching
for these brief moments
I feel my soul stretching,
a smile spreading from my heart.

Where Grasses Blow In The Wind

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When I feel weary
I go to a place in myself
where grasses blow in the wind,
where the morning sun
is warm on my shoulders
and birds sing in the trees.
Not knowing them by name
I thank them silently,
and breathing the stillness
draw in with every breath
the healing of the day.

Writing Slowly

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I love writing fast, on a keyboard. It’s a good feeling, to be able to type at the same speed as I would speak. It helps me to get thoughts out of the tangle of my head and down on a page. But I also love writing by hand, and I do this when I want to write slowly, to choose and savour the words and watch them quietly establish themselves on the paper and take on a life of their own.

I love reading what others have written, especially when the words make my heart sing. Words that can take me out of time and space, shoot me up into the stratosphere of my mind and into another way of being.

These are the kind of words that when I come back down to earth, I like to write slowly. Words that I know will help me find my way back. These words I write by hand.