English summer

 

English summer

 

The roads weep tears of tar

As the country bakes.

The smell of dust and burning earth

Mingles with the scents

Of barbecues and beer.

Dogs pant, distressed

By this unusual heat.

The puddles that once

Were inland lakes, shrink,

Dry up and vanish,

Leaving cracking mud

Peppered with footprints.

A few days only,

And yet we crave rain,

A cooling breeze at least;

The nights a humid torment,

Skin sticking to sheets,

Mouth parched by 3 a.m,

Head pounding from poor sleep,

We curse the early birds,

The only ones pleased

To see the rising sun.

Lawns yellow, turn to straw,

The earth beneath unforgiving

As concrete or stone,

Holding the heat for hours

And giving it back all night.

Tempers fray, quarrels start,

Passions rise to boiling point.

The long days draw out,

Hellish hot and airless,

Fields whiten with ripening wheat,

The thrips infest my hair,

Tickling and torturing me

With pinpoint irritation

Grown great with weary heat.

Too brief, these days of sun:

Thunder storms relieve us,

The first drops sizzling

As they hit the burning ground.

The air, cool and damp,

Brings fresher nights

And better sleep for all.

Celebrating Brokenness

While I was walking home yesterday I was musing on various things and the chief of these is the question I have often asked myself: why is it that most of the dearest and closest friends I have are deeply damaged people in some ways? Oh sure, that’d be because they have me in common. Somebody has said that the people we attract into our lives mirror our own inner state of soul.

I admit quite willingly I am a mess. But I am a functioning mess nonetheless: I hold down two remarkably difficult jobs and do them well, I have been married since the dawn of time to a man I still love, I have managed to succesfully rear one child to adulthood( defining success here is not on the agenda) and I’ve never yet been arrested by the police for socially unacceptable behaviour (like murder or GBH or public drunkness). But despite all this I know full well that inside I am pretty mashed up and broken up and a real live crash test dummy.

If you could look at my soul as a collection of bones, you’d see unhealed breaks, compound and simple fractures and even bones that are little more than fragments of crushed egg shells.

Thank God no one can see into the soul like that.

But brokenness has a strange side. The edges of those internal fractures rub against each other, creating pain but also friction. And that friction creates a kind of inner heat that becomes transformed into a fire. Now the fire can go several ways. You can douse it in the ice water of whatever pain relief works for you, be it drink or drugs or sex or soap operas or whatever, and stop the pain. Or the fire can rage out of control and lead you into psychosis and loss of self. Or the fire becomes one of creation.

The painter sees an inner vision rising from that pain and the flames and seizes his brushes or his chisel, the poet rushes to capture the words on paper, the singer/songwriter reaches for their guitar, the shaman draws their drum to their heart and drums the pain for the people.

And the writer simply writes.

It’s a process of alchemy, defying description and definition, of weaving not the pain itself but the reactions to the pain and turning it into something that is beyond the pain.

I’ve been given morphine many times over the year by medical people and it has a strange effect not of stopping the pain but of moving it to one side so you lose conection with it. It’s a weird state to be in: you are there and the pain is there, so real you can almost touch it but it isn’t hurting you any more. And while the pain doesn’t hurt any more, you can lie still and stop thrashing around to try and escape it and then, a miracle happens:

You can start to heal.

It’s the same process with writing. The strange internal chemistry takes the fire and your feelings and your intense pain and it changes it. You find the pain still exists but no longer inside you, burning its way out,  but now it is to one side, so you can look at it burning away, dispassionately and without judgement. And as that fire burns without burning, you can for a while be still and let it be and let yourself heal from it.

Fire cannot burn forever without fuel and eventually the fire burns out. You are left with the memory of the pain and whatever you created. And if you have responded sensitively and skillfully, you are left with something that can act as a marker for someone else, a template so that they too can feel your pain, feel it move beyond you and then subside into healing and in doing so, they can experience some measure of healing themselves.

There’s a story in Greek mythology about the centuar Chiron, tutor to the young Hercules who was given a wound that would never heal and also immortality. In his search for relief from his own pain, Chiron found herbs and healings for many many people but his own pain never left him entirely.

For a broken person, perhaps the friction between those ragged fragments of soul will never end because when one soul-bone heals there are still plenty more that hurt beyond measure.  But if art and music and literature rise from these friction flames to heal others of their pain, then perhaps the soul purpose of the brokeness is revealed.

I despair at times of the self help world because it promotes wholeness without understanding brokenness. It’s not a perfect world. It can’t be. We cannot be perfect people because while we remain open and alert to the beauty and wonder of the world we remain open to the horror and the pain and the ugliness to and if our souls are sensitive, we break.

Would you have a world without pain? Then you would also choose a world without sublime beauty and soul too. As night and day are part of the same thing, so too are pain and beauty.

I’d like to leave you with the final stanza of TS Eliot’s poem Little Gidding, from the Four Quartets.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always—
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

I shall write more about the fire and the rose in another post but I’d like to leave you with a thought. Think of your favourite piece of music, or poem or painting or book. Would you rather that didn’t exist? Because I would be willing to bet that the creator of that fashioned it from their response to that internal friction of soul fragments rubbing against each other.

A book review

I just had a lovely review over at : http://creativebarbwire.wordpress.com/2010/06/24/book-review-strangers-pilgrims-by-vivienne-tuffnell/

I am really rather chuffed!

Orange Meditation

This is a sample of a book I have been messing about with writing. What do you think and should I carry on and write the whole thing?

Chapter Four

 

Meditation One

 

Orange

 

Background

 

To a modern person there is nothing terribly exciting about an orange but historically, for everyone but the very rich or the royal, the orange was a highly prized commodity and every part of it was used. Discarded peel was not thrown away but was dried to add to pot pourri or was candied to add to cakes, or was ground up and used in medicines. The vitamin rich fruit was until quite recently extremely expensive and hard to come by; those lucky children who found one at the foot of their Christmas stocking would have been more excited and pleased about it than any modern child can now imagine.

The sweet scent of an orange being peeled can lighten and freshen the atmosphere of a room and is especially helpful during the winter when its flesh and its fragrance can help ward off colds and also the blues.

For this meditation you will need either an orange (or Satsuma or other small citrus fruit) or you may use essential oil of orange placed either on an oil burner near where you are to sit, or a single drop on a strip of blotting paper.

Using the techniques described in chapter 3, begin to relax and enter a receptive state. When you feel comfortable, using a fingernail or a paring knife, scrape along the very top surface of the orange skin releasing the volatile oil. Hold the orange close to your face so that the aroma of the wounded skin can reach your nostrils without having to touch your skin. Breathe in the scent, slowly, allowing yourself to breathe normally, in through your nose and out through your mouth. Allow the fragrance to fill you.

Now is the time to begin, still breathing steadily and softly allowing the scent of the orange to enter your nose and then your mind.

Meditation.

 

You are standing amid a grove of mature orange trees, their trunks thick and strong. Through the canopy of branches you can see a brilliant blue sky, without a hint of a cloud anywhere, and the sun shines fiercely down, baking the ground to brick hardness. It is very still and distantly, beyond the trees you can see the shimmer of a deeper blue, telling you that you are not very far from the sea. Crickets sing but the birds have all sought shelter from the heat of the sun.

Walk deeper into the grove. The thick leathery leaves provide some protection from the intense sunshine, but when you look closer at some of the lower branches you can see that the leaves are dry and coated with a fine white dust. When you look at your feet as you slowly walk along, you can see little puffs of pale dust rising each time you set your feet down.

Look up at the trees. They are covered in both flowers and fruit and the scent of the flowers in particular is intoxicating, but the flowers are beginning to look slightly dry too, and the fruits are not as big or as juicy looking as you might imagine. Under the trees a little grass grows but it is looking tired and dusty too. You’d like to sit down but the grass looks uninviting. Walk a little further.

As you go deeper into the grove, the air grows heavier with both heat and fragrance, but the shade is very welcome and as you walk you see a bench built around the trunk of one of the oldest trees. The bench curves beautifully to encircle the orange tree; the wood is polished to a soft sheen by countless years of use. This is where the workers sit to take their ease and enjoy refreshment during the day. There is no one here now so approach the bench.

On a small earthenware plate lies a pearl handled knife and an orange that one of the workers cut in half to eat and then left to seek the coolness of the farmhouse a short distance away. Sit down near the plate; the worker is fast asleep and will not be returning soon.

The bench is surprisingly comfortable, low and broad in the seat and the supporting back is angled so you can lean back a little and peer into the branches of the tree and see bright glimpses of the blue of the sky above. The scent of the opened orange rises to greet you and is incredibly refreshing and relaxing all at the same time. It cuts through the heavy scent of the flowers and dust.

Make yourself comfortable on the bench. I will leave you here for a while to enjoy the rest and the shade and the fragrance.

*

 

You are brought back to awareness by a change in the air. The light has changed too and as you look at the ground, a single immense drop of rain falls onto the ground and sends up a tiny cloud of dust. A second drop and then a third falls. Finally, the dry spell is being broken by the much-needed rain.

Stand up and begin walking back the way you entered the grove. Even through the thick canopy of leaves, the rain still strikes you, but it is warm rain and very pleasant after the oppressive heat and unrelenting sun. Pretty soon you are wet through. It’s a nice feeling, like a warm shower.

As you leave the grove, stop a moment and turn back and look. Each leaf has been washed clean of the white dust of high summer, and all the fruits seem to be swelling and growing before your eyes, their skins clean and vibrant with the new rain. The flowers seem to perk up, their scent changed by the falling rain into something lighter, fresher and sweeter. The grass below the trees is also looking better, though the dust is turning to soft mud like a milky wash of clay.

Turning back, there is a faint rainbow in the sky, shining, and a rumble of distant thunder encourages you to seek shelter. The drumming of the rain on hard earth continues as you return now to your room and to full consciousness. Breathe deeply a few times and open you eyes. You are back.

 Vivienne Tuffnell 2009

Summer came quickly

 

Summer came quickly

Summer came quickly this year,

Scarce a breath between

Daffodils and blooming may;

Blackthorn and whitethorn

Overlapped in flowering bliss.

Leaf buds unfurled so fast

I could not map their progress,

Leaping from tight knots

To silken green in moments.

The general rumble of rooks

Minding their business in treetops

Passed to the chaotic conversation

Of growing families in days.

The scent of new-mown grass

Hangs on the evening air

Like celestial incense burned

To honour the return of the Sun.

Summer came so quickly

Now I must mourn the Spring.

 

Swallows Wings and Sparrows Falling

 

Swallows wings and sparrows falling:

a little of what goes on in the psyche of an over-sensitive soul.

 

I was walking along the road, heading off to the post office with a small parcel to send to my father, when I noticed the swallows over head. To me there is something about the swallow that approaches aesthetic perfection and seeing them in the sky above me brought a sudden and entirely unexpected surge of tears. The angle of the wings, the clarity of the colour against the blue of the sky and the sheer purpose-driven perfection of their flight was all at once impossible to bear. Beauty is sometimes unbearable, because of its fragility, its brief perfection and my own impossible aims to emulate it. I’d have like to have been physically beautiful. In my dreams I sometimes am, but in those dreams, there is always a mirror that tells me the ugly truth.

I chase beauty in many forms: seeking to create it in my own head, either in terms of what I write or in what I feel. Perhaps that’s why I am, for lack of a better term, a bit religious. If I’d been a little less self conscious, I might have become a stalker of beautiful people, gazing at them like impossible works of art. Actor Johnny Depp has eyebrows like swallows wings; the curve and the line of them cut across his face like the wings of the bird cut across the sky. If I’d been a little shallower, I might have believed that this beauty made certain people somehow qualitatively better than others.

When it comes to the books I read, that quality of beauty draws me too. The intense experience of reading prose so smooth and delightful, even in describing both tragedy and horror, that it is not like reading at all but more like living the story, is a rare and wonderful one. There’s not many writers who can do that for me.

But when it comes to daily life, both the visual beauty and the beauty of the world beyond it combine to make it hard for me to leave the house some days. The swallows today made me shed a few tears of over-brimming emotion; a little uncomfortable but nothing drastic. A day or two earlier, something a little different but still avian nearly undid me completely. As I walked home with my dog, she pulled me to the side of the road to show me something. In the gutter, there lay a young hen sparrow. I picked her up and she lay floppy and unresponsive in my hand, her body warm and fluffy and her little feet remained unstiffened. There was no blood and no sign of injury. I breathed on her and stroked her head. Nothing. She was perfect but she was gone.

I took her to the little bed of shrubs near the shops and lay her there. I wasn’t sure if she were dead or just stunned. When I got home I told my husband about it and he told me that sparrows, especially young ones will faint if frightened. Literally, they faint, pass out and become unconscious with fear or alarm.

She might well have been alive,” he said.

There’s a passage in the Gospels (Matthew 10: 29)  where Jesus says about not a single sparrow may fall without the Father knowing and caring about it.

Perhaps it was meant to be that I picked her up from the dangerous place she had fainted in and put her somewhere safe to recover. But it’s my love of beauty that means I haven’t gone back to see if she’s still there. I want her to just have fainted and to have recovered and flown back to her family.

Snip

The following story is the third installment of a trilogy taking inspiration from certain Greek myths.

The other two can be read here: Snag and here: Snuggle

Snip

Tethered to machinery in a high dependency unit was probably not the best place to review the last couple of days, but what options did he have? It wasn’t as if he could even get out of bed unaided and go somewhere else. His mouth felt so dry; he could use a pint but all they did was give him sips of metallic tasting water. He had spent a few blank hours watching the level on his IV drip go down slowly, bringing him closer to someone coming in and changing it for a fresh full one and the chance for some human company. Once he might have despised the nurses here as not worth a second glance but now they had begun to look like angels to him and that, almost more than anything else, had begun to worry him.

Oh, he’d sent a few texts when he’d first become ill, but while his mates had replied with the usual ribald responses he’d expected, no one had actually rung. No one had visited. His so-called girlfriend had left him fresh clothes in a case at reception but hadn’t come in. The nurses said she seemed too upset and he’d been asleep anyway. That was three days ago. There was a row of brightly coloured cards on the window sill, and even a big bouquet of flowers. They’d started to fade and wilt now. Bit like him, really.

He had been glad when he’d found he was too weak to get out of bed to go to the bathroom because he hadn’t liked to look in the mirror. While the designer stubble look was one he cultivated anyway, the big black circles under his eyes and the rapid hollowing of cheekbones and the yellowing of both eye whites and his complexion made him reluctant to do what he usually did in front of a mirror. Right now, there wasn’t much to admire. Even he was forced to admit that. And not eating at all meant he was losing muscle mass; the six pack would take a lot of getting back.

It wasn’t as if any of this was his fault. He’d only been doing the responsible thing, after all.

“Listen, babe,” he’d said. “The world is overcrowded enough as it is. If you want kids later, we can adopt an orphan from somewhere. You can have your pick of babies. And no stretch marks and saggy boobs, eh?”

She’d cried of course but it hadn’t really been her he’d been concerned about. It was the other three. He’d not told any of them about it, of course. And since he couldn’t have risked them turning up while she was here, he’d not sent any of them a text about what had happened. Only texts cancelling their dates. Treat ’em mean and keep ’em keen, he thought, but had a slight pang of concern about how long it might take him to recover his looks and his mojo enough to get them back on the hook. After all, he’d turned thirty and everyone knew it was downhill all the way if you didn’t watch it. A lengthy hospital stay for a severe post operative infection wasn’t going to do him any good whatsoever. Maybe it was worth cultivating one or two of the better looking nurses for a possible bit of bed-bath fun when he was on the mend. It didn’t do to lose the knack for too long.

Mind you, his consultant was a bit of all right if you liked that very severe blonde bombshell look. She had weird name too.

“Atropos?” he asked. “Is that Polish, then?”

It might explain the very, very slight accent but then so many of the quacks and nurses weren’t British born.

“Greek,” she’d replied quickly.

“You don’t look Greek to me,” he’d said, expecting to hear her say it was her husband’s family.

“Very old family,” she’d said. “True Hellenes. All the original families were my colouring. Cleopatra’s family too.”

“She was Egyptian,” he’d said.

“Queen of Egypt, certainly but the Ptolemies were Hellenes.”

He’d shaken his head at her ignorance. Everyone knew Cleopatra was Egyptian. Mind you, she might be ignorant of history but she knew her stuff here. He’d not been in pain at all. Uncomfortable certainly, but not in pain. She was due again soon and he relished the thought of seeing her again, even if he couldn’t do anything but try and look down her fitted blouse.

Drifting in and out of a light sleep, he wondered how much he might be able to claim in compensation when he threatened to sue the hospital. Might make a decent amount; enough for a good holiday at least. Shocking that you couldn’t have a simple routine operation without something going wrong these days; day surgery was meant to be just that. But by the time he’d got home that evening he was already feverish and the infection was clear. By midnight he’d called an ambulance and was back in a hospital gown and dosed to the eyeballs with morphine. It had been downhill from then on.

He opened his eyes and found the consultant was sitting there. He blinked at her but she didn’t seem to notice he’d woken up; she continued to study his chart and wrote a note here and there. After a second or two, she got up and went to inspect the level in the catheter bag. She frowned.

“I am awake, you know,” he said, his voice sounding querulous and rough.

“Oh good,” she said, but without enthusiasm.

She came and sat down on the bed and to his surprise, she took his hand. Hey, my luck is in, he thought.

“Do you have any family we can contact?” she asked, her voice kind.

To his own surprise, he felt his eyes well up with tears at this.

“No,” he said. “Plenty of mates but no family.”

She glanced at the row of bright cards and the wilting flowers.

“Your girlfriend?” she asked.

“Can’t stand seeing me like this,” he said. “I texted her to come when I’m feeling a bit better.”

The woman swallowed.

“I’ve got some hard news for you to deal with alone,” she said. “The infection has spread and it’s causing a serious reaction in your whole body. Your kidneys appear to be shutting down. We’ve been giving you IV antibiotics but they have barely slowed the infection. I think it’d be fair to call it a super-bug.”

He gave her his cocky smile, the one he saved for the special ladies.

“But I will be all right, won’t I, doc?” he said.

She shook her head.

“That’s what I’m trying to tell you,” she said. “One by one, your organs are going to fail.”

“But you can do something about that, can’t you?”

She shook her head again.

“I’m so very, very sorry,” she said and took his other hand too. “You may not realise it because of the morphine, but you’re clinging to life by a tiny, tiny thread.”

He struggled to take in what she was saying.

“You mean I’m going to die?” he said eventually. “All because of a stupid vasectomy? I’m going to die because of the snip?”

His voice rose with anger and outrage.

“I’m afraid so,” she said gently. “It’s a million to one chance this has happened but it has. I am so sorry.”

He let the tears of self pity spill over and down his face, unconcerned for once about appearing unmanly.

“It’s not fair,” he said at last.

She nodded.

“Sometimes life simply isn’t fair,” she said. “You know this. Your girlfriend told me she did want children, you know.”

“You’ve talked to her?” he asked astonished. “She’s been here and she didn’t come to see me? The bitch.”

“No,” she said. “She’s not a bitch. She was just mistaken in you. She still cares but she can’t bear to see you this way because this was your choice. You denied her something important to her. She feels this is her fault entirely, that if she’d stood up to you, this wouldn’t have happened.”

“What can I do?” he said, suddenly helpless. “I don’t want to die.”

“Nothing you can do,” the consultant said. “It may take a few days or it may be a few hours. But you will die.”

“Don’t let me die in pain, then,” he said.

“That’s all I can do, now,” she said and gave his hand a kindly squeeze.

*

 

He lay very still, seeming as deflated by death as he had been inflated by life. The consultant stood at one side of the bed, and watched the pale young woman rubbing her eyes with a scrap of tissue as she looked at him.

“Was it peaceful?” she asked. “He didn’t suffer?”

“No, it was very peaceful. I stayed with him to the end. He had plenty of pain relief and he just drifted off at the end.”

The girl sniffed and touched the whitening forehead.

“He’d have hated how this made him look,” she said. “He was so vain, you know.”

She picked at a loose thread on the sheet that was pulled up to the dead man’s chin and broke it.

“He never got to know he was going to be a daddy, either,” she said. “I couldn’t bring myself to tell him you know. But at least I have something of him now to remember him by.”

She kissed the cold face and got up to leave.

“What a senseless way to go, though,” she said as she slipped passed the consultant.

Miss Atropos patted the grieving girl on the shoulder.

“I’m sure your baby will be a great comfort to you in the days to come,” she said.

The girl gave her a watery, red-eyed smile.

“I’m sure he’d have got used to being a daddy very quickly,” she said. “He’d have made a great dad after all.”

Miss Atropos smiled. It was what they’d all said.

© Vivienne Tuffnell 14th June 2010