On the right kind of brooding ~ why we shouldn’t fear ruminating

On the right kind of brooding ~ why we shouldn’t fear ruminating

A week or two back, I sneaked out late at night to put down food for the hedgehogs. On the other side of the pond to the patio, I was being watched by beady duck eyes and I saw that Mrs Duck was observing me. She’d spread her wings out, to shelter all her ducklings. Now they’d been getting bigger by the day and would no longer fit under her tummy so she was trying to keep the cold night from her precious little fluffies by using her wings as an umbrella. I apologised for disturbing her and went in, brooding on, well, brooding.

The first thing that came to mind was the poem Peace by Gerard Manley Hopkins:

WHEN will you ever, Peace, wild wooddove, shy wings shut,
Your round me roaming end, and under be my boughs?
When, when, Peace, will you, Peace? I’ll not play hypocrite
To own my heart: I yield you do come sometimes; but
That piecemeal peace is poor peace. What pure peace allows
Alarms of wars, the daunting wars, the death of it?
O surely, reaving Peace, my Lord should leave in lieu
Some good! And so he does leave Patience exquisite,
That plumes to Peace thereafter. And when Peace here does house
He comes with work to do, he does not come to coo,
He comes to brood and sit.

We’re used to the word BROOD being used in a negative manner. It implies fretting, chewing over an issue, worrying. The first use of it for a process of incubating thoughts or feelings in the mind came probably in the late sixteenth century, but the word originates with the way hens and other birds care for their hatchlings.

Observing that mother duck made me think about how reluctant we can be to sit with our thoughts, to nurture and develop them. Many systems of therapy decry what is often referred to as fruitless ruminating, that process of endlessly turning over a troubling topic in the mind, returning time and again to try and tease out answers. The implication is that it’s pointless and we need to step away and stop hashing it over in a bid to find resolution. The term ruminating is used but in a negative manner. To me, to ruminate is to imitate the digestive processes of certain kinds of multi-stomached animals who extract every ounce of goodness and nutrition out of their fodder. It’s a long process, full of gurgling and chewing of the cud. From the outside, an animal (or a person) engaged in ruminating may seem inactive and even lazy. But work is being done at a deep level.

To sit with a problem, to incubate it (both in a bird-brooding way and perhaps also in the manner of the ancients who would sleep and dream at a temple to seek an answer to their question) is something we may have forgotten how to do, in our goal-orientated society that rushes at things. Much modern psychotherapy seems geared towards easing troubled people away from this process rather than enabling them with better tools and techniques. Jung commented that often insoluble problems of the mind would stop being troublesome as the person reached greater maturity of psyche; the problem did not go away but its importance faded as the person continued to do their soul work (“I had always worked with the temperamental conviction that at bottom there were no insoluble problems, and experience justified me in so far as I have seen patients simply outgrow a problem that has destroyed others. This ‘outgrowing’ as I formerly called it proved on further investigation to be a new level of consciousness. Some higher or wider interest appeared on the patient’s horizon, and through this broadening of his outlook the insoluble problem lost its urgency”- Commentary on The Secret of the Golden Flower). He also wrote, “When we must deal with problems, we instinctively refuse to try the way that leads through darkness and obscurity. We wish to hear only unequivocal results, and completely forget that these results can only be brought about when we have ventured into and emerged again from the darkness.” (MMSS p97) He also said, “”Go to bed. Think on your problems. See what you dream. Perhaps the 2,000,000 year old man will speak. Only in a cul-de-sac do you hear his voice.” (JS p359)

To really brood on what troubles you is to explore those dark places and find light and treasure and bring it back with you. The process of seeking often brings quite different results to those you thought you were looking for, which may also explain Jung’s observation that an insoluble problem was at times outgrown and ceased itself to have the same importance. I’m in a proper cul-de-sac, unable to move in any direction at present. Perhaps I must just wait and brood and see what emerges from the darkness beneath my wings.

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Oh England, my Lionheart ~ the land beneath the land.

Oh England, my Lionheart ~ the land beneath the land.

Most days I walk down to the stream in the village a mile or two from where I live. I walk through fields farmed for mainly arable crops, though one large field (I’d estimate around a hundred acres) is currently planted up with roses being grown for the garden centre trade. Each walk is slightly different even though I take the same route; the daily changes and the seasonal changes mean it’s never the same twice. I stand at the bridge and I watch the water; sometimes if I am lucky I see a kingfisher or a dipper. Sometimes, if I go later in the day, I see barn owls and bats.

I live in a country that is deeply beautiful and historic. It’s jam-packed with legends, stories, myths and mystery. There have been humans here since before the last Ice Age and the evidence is everywhere, from white horses (“It’s an ad for mead; they don’t call them the Beaker People for nothing”) carved into hillsides, through medieval churches right the way to tower blocks and factories. Dig anywhere and you will find something. I sometimes field walk, for fun, and in half an hour in an average field, I’ll find a dozen items. Most are trash but some are not.

More than this, I am so immersed in the mythos of the land I live on, I can feel the presence of those who came before me. I feel the tug on the tiny web of threads that connect us. When I see the kingfisher flash upstream in a blaze of brief glory, I think of the Fisher King, of the Grail, of Arthur and his court, of T.S. Eliot’s poetry, trying to scrape at the layers of the years to reveal the origins of the modern Wasteland; I think of Gerard Manley Hopkins, battling his own demons of existential angst and trying to make peace with who he was. When I see a gathering of oak and ash and thorn, I think of Kipling, of his Puck of Pook’s Hill, and of all the ancient tree lore of the druids of old.

When I visit a city, I see the clues to the past among buildings and parks; sometimes lost completely but perhaps a ghost of a memory locked into a street name. I look upwards in old churches and cathedrals, seeking the faded residue of once-brilliant paint, and I look in hidden corners for masons’ marks and sneaky graffiti. I look for the past reaching into the present, holding out hands of loving connection.

Amid a wild landscape, I can see the phantoms of what once was there. I lived once in a village where a ruined village, abandoned in the time of the plague, hummocked and hidden, lurked just beyond the bounds of the modern village. I can look at the under-storey in a wood and I can tell you whether it is original ancient oak woodland or whether it’s modern plantation.

Why does any of this matter?

The living land is an ever changing thing, always moving and shifting, but it is the past that gives it permanence. What once was is always there, if only as post-holes and scorched flints. When an artist, a real artist like the old masters, not dilettante dabblers like me, painted, they painted in layers that meant the work in progress looked nothing like what they were painting. Layers of paints, piled one upon the other, produce a depth of colour that is impossible to reproduce with a single layer of what is technically the same colour. There is a richness, a power, that cannot be produced by short cuts.

It’s the same with a land. The older the land, the deeper and richer the history and the surer the foundations. If you try to sweep away the past, whether personal or national, you sweep away what makes it strong.

Oh England, my Lionheart, with your stories and your landscape etched and carved and eroded and forgotten corners, with your heroes and your kings and queens, and the fair folk and the winding roads the Romans hated so much and then fell in with: you are what made me, and I love you.

Trying to let go of questions I cannot answer ~ till the next time

 

 Trying to let go of questions I cannot answer ~ till the next time 

The last month I have spent in mortal combat. Not a game but a struggle with questions I can’t find answers to. It’s a struggle I’ve been engaged in for much of my life, and at regular intervals it becomes all encompassing and utterly destructive. I am so tired of it, fighting something I can’t even see or name. The names I give it fail to convey the power it has to wreck me.

Having fought and lost, and failed to gain any ground in the exploration of the dark interior of my own soul, I’m handing over to a much better voice than mine own, a guy who fought a similar series of battles and put his thoughts into poetry that has long held a place in my heart. This is the final poem in a sequence of what were termed, The Terrible sonnets, not because they were badly written but because the subject matter was so devastating.

Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844–89).
 

47. ‘My own heart let me have more have pity on’

 
   
MY own heart let me have more have pity on; let
Me live to my sad self hereafter kind,
Charitable; not live this tormented mind
With this tormented mind tormenting yet.
  I cast for comfort I can no more get         5
By groping round my comfortless, than blind
Eyes in their dark can day or thirst can find
Thirst ’s all-in-all in all a world of wet.
   
Soul, self; come, poor Jackself, I do advise
You, jaded, let be; call off thoughts awhile         10
Elsewhere; leave comfort root-room; let joy size
At God knows when to God knows what; whose smile
s not wrung, see you; unforeseen times rather—as skies
Betweenpie mountains—lights a lovely mile.
   

 

 

Endings and beginnings ~ why you need to grieve for the past before you can begin anew

 

Endings and beginnings ~ why you need to grieve for the past before you can begin anew

I’ve always loved Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poetry but the following poem was recently brought back to my attention by a musical version of it by Natalie Marchant.

Spring and Fall:

to a Young Child

 Margaret, are you grieving
   Over Goldengrove unleaving?
   Leaves, like the things of man, you
   With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
   Ah! as the heart grows older
   It will come to such sights colder
   By and by, nor spare a sigh
   Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
   And yet you will weep and know why.
   Now no matter, child, the name:
   Sorrow’s springs are the same.
   Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
   What héart héard of, ghóst guéssed:
   It is the blight man was born for,
   It is Margaret you mourn for.

For those of you that are not poetically inclined, the poem is addressed to a young girl who is distressed that the leaves of her favourite woodland are falling. For a child, the seasons have not yet become predictable and the certainty that we as adults may feel that the spring will come and the trees with again be crowned in green is not present. The grief of the child is palpable in the words Hopkins writes; she is too young to have the assurance of spring. And yet, Hopkins does not dismiss this. Indeed, he says that even though as she grows older and becomes more hardened to such things, she will still weep for such things because the origin of the sorrow will always remain. Essentially a poem about the grief our own mortality can bring us, it is one of such compassion and understanding of a particularly sensitive child that I felt it speak to me personally.

Death has become the last great taboo in our culture and the thing that divides us most. People would rather not think about their own mortality at all and those who do are labelled as morbid or negative. Yet the fact remains that we all die. How and where and when are the great unknowns. And what comes next, if anything, is the greatest mystery of them all. Unlike children who learn by experience that after the great unleaving of the trees in Autumn and the cold, cold days of Winter, the Spring returns without fail, we cannot discover by experience and rest easy in that knowledge.

So the smaller deaths in life, the partings and the endings, become focuses for our anxiety and need for reassurance. Moving house, as I have done many times, becomes a grief beyond the mere hassle. So much of my life has been bound up within those walls. Changing jobs. The death of others close to me. All these endings. They’re hard to bear. Really hard to bear. And the temptation is to leap ahead for comfort, to try and see the future where things do not hurt. To know that the Spring will come again.

And yet, this is something that denies the reality of the moment. The death of a friend even when you are sure in your heart that death is not the final curtain but a change of state, should hurt. It needs to, because it returns you to a state of innocence, that of Margaret in the poem, where you grieve in a pure state.

In our busy society, without time or inclination for either rites of passage or time to grieve, to be allowed to grieve is a blessing. It allows healing to happen. If you cut that time short, you cut yourself. And the longer you defer or postpone or refuse that grieving, the more you may find waiting for you later.

  Be kind to yourself and allow yourself to grieve, because in some ways, you are grieving for yourself as well. 

Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves- concerning oracles

 

 

Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves

I have taken the title of this post from a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins though the content of the poem is actually not relevant to this post. The photo shows the leaves laid out on my dining room table this afternoon, drying so that they can be used during the prayers at church tomorrow, and because my winter tablecloth also sports leaves as its theme, I took some photos and it set in motion some thoughts.

Recently I had occasion to question whether my life might have taken radically different directions at various critical points and it made me ask why I made certain decisions. It’s seldom easy to see which way you should go when you stand at a crossroads; you often have no idea of where you want to go. Those who have had a game plan all along sometimes find themselves stymied when they find themselves at such points, because not one of the possible directions currently revealed resembles where they thought they wanted to go. For those of us(like me) who bumble along and take what comes, it is just as difficult. I don’t believe that we automatically will get where we were meant to go, but I do feel sure that certain things, certain themes or people or places are part of our life itinerary, and at some stage we meet with them. So you might say any direction will take you where you need to go. I’m not convinced. You’ll never know where the journey you didn’t make would have taken you.

There have been plenty of occasions where I have been given choices to make, many of them in effect Hobson’s choices, and I have found that even after long rational thought and study of the options, I still have no awareness of which is the course I should follow. In many cases, there has been insufficient information to make an informed choice. For example, in deciding which hall of residence I wanted to live at during my first year at university, I read through the brochure, was none the wiser and picked Rathbone Hall solely on the basis that a favourite Sherlock Holmes actor was called Basil Rathbone. It was far from an important decision, but others seemed to regard it as such.

But when it comes to deeper choices, my advice is always to follow what your heart tells you. We all have very fine instincts, usually hidden deep within our civilised souls, and often these still small voices of wisdom are drowned out by rational, logical thought, or by prejudice or other things. I have made certain decisions that to others looked insane. I remember the utter horror of an American student I knew at university when I told her I was getting married six weeks after graduating. At that stage, neither my intended nor I had a job or a home or really anything much, but by the time the wedding day came, he had a decent job, we’d got a home to go to and a future to look forward to. That was 23 years ago.

There are times when even the still small voice cannot help us; it is silent and that silence is deafening. You simply don’t know what to do or where to turn. It’s frightening.

This is where the Sibyl’s Leaves come in.

The Sibyl had a collection of leaves each having a single word or letter written upon it; the leaves were thrown into the air and allowed to land and each leaf with a word on the upside was collected and the Sibyl would read a message through whatever words were there. Of course, no one knows what words were written but you may imagine. As oracles go, it’s not as icky as some; reading entrails has always struck me as rather a strange one, possibly only foretelling a chicken dinner for the priest.

How oracles work is another matter, but my belief is that they do indeed work. Some feel they are a way for the gods, or spirits or angels or whatever to speak to us and still more believe that they work by accessing our deep subconscious by means of archetypical symbols and so on. Personally,I’m working on the assumption that any/all of the above are valid until I get evidence to the contrary. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

I’ve worked with Tarot for many years, as well as other oracle systems, both regular ones like runes and other ones that are less well known. I could never get the hang of the I-Ching and gave my set away to a friend; my head became fuzzy and baffled by it. None of these things is really about predicting the future, though sometimes it can seem like it. To some degree this is because a skilled reader of an oracle is accessing a very complex set of probabilities that make picking the winner of the Grand National look like child’s play; there are too many factors at play to really hope for accuracy. It’s about(putting it very simplistically) saying if you do X, then Y will happen, but only if you do Z first. It doesn’t take into account the infinite other factors that are at work.

However using an oracle system for yourself is a very good way of accessing and reawakening your own inner voices of wisdom. Tarot in particular is filled with mystical images and archetypes and with a set that suits your character you can find a great deal of hidden knowledge about your own self that can sometimes make deciding between one path in life and another a great deal simpler.

Of course, you might say you might as well just toss a coin, forgetting that throwing a coin is one of the oldest and simplest oracles in the world. There are times when the logical and rational have nothing more to offer, or their advice is somehow counter to what your instincts tell you.

Trust your instincts; they’ve been getting people out of trouble for a lot longer than Google.

Sparrowhawk Soul

Sparrow Hawk Soul

 I’ve never been a compulsive bird watcher, but I have become quite good at identifying indigenous birds and understanding their habits a little. Many years ago, sitting on the banks of a mountain stream, I watched a Merlin, the UK’s smallest bird of prey, swooped down at high speed to attempt to catch a vole that was feeding at the stream edge. The bird noticed my presence at the very last second and almost crashed. The vole got away.

 Over the years I have watched birds of prey both in the wild and in displays by falconers and it’s never failed to astonish me quite how different their strategies for hunting are. The kestrel hovers, staying almost motionless in mid air, watching for movement in the grass below before dropping like a stone to grab its prey(it’s other name, by the way, is The Windhover, also a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins). Buzzards, one of the heavier and larger birds of prey, rely to some degree on carrion and while they can and will kill prey of their own, they prefer to see what they can find. Others like the peregrine falcon and the sparrow hawk pursue their prey at high speed. The peregrine is one of the fastest creatures on earth, clocking mind-blowing speeds.

Now, to casual inspection, and the lazy mind, these birds are all built to much the same design, with ripping claws, a beak like a curved razor blade and wings, but in fact, each is well suited to its means of earning a living. The wings of the sparrow hawk are short and stubby, and are very similar to the shape of many fighter plane wings. These are birds that can manoeuvre with extreme speed; they dodge and dive and their flight often defies the human eye. Compare their shape with that of a sea eagle, which lives by fishing. It flies along the surface of the water and scoops up fish; it’s large and comparatively heavy and while it flies pretty fast, compared with the sparrow hawk, it’ s a snail. A sparrow hawk cannot do what a sea eagle does. A peregrine cannot do the same as a buzzard, and a merlin cannot do what a kestrel can. It’s not in their nature. They are each uniquely adapted to their lifestyle.

 I spend a lot of time wishing myself to be someone else, someone who doesn’t suffer endless doubt about who I am and what I do. I soar from mood swing to mood swing, from high to low and back again and never seem to spend long in any sort of semblance of stability. But when we glimpsed a sparrow hawk while out walking a week or two ago, I started to wonder if like the wings of the sparrow hawk, my soul is meant to fly fast and dodge and dive and move like the wind while it works, and that the swinging of moods is actually my soul’s response to the world around me. While I look physically more as though I am built for comfort and not for speed, anyone who has known me for a while has discovered that I walk very fast, talk fast and type fast. My brain(when I am well) moves fast too. I have understood the punchline of a joke long before the person has finished telling it; I guess the ending of a film in the first five minutes.

What I guess I am saying is that in essence, perhaps my issues with depression and anxiety are exacerbated by not accepting that my whole being is not designed for stability. Like the wings of a sparrow hawk, my mind is designed for flexibility and not rigidity, and my soul is not designed to remain in a constant state but rather one that varies according to conditions and needs.

So, be the bird you are and not the one you think you’d prefer. Each has its own beauty and is fitted exactly for the life it leads.

Just don’t put me in a cage.

No Worst, yet

 
 

No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief,
More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring.
Comforter, where, where is your comforting?
Mary, mother of us, where is your relief?
My cries heave, herds-long; huddle in a main, a chief
Woe, world-sorrow; on an age-old anvil wince and sing—
Then lull, then leave off. Fury had shrieked ‘No ling-
ering! Let me be fell: force I must be brief’.
 
  O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne’er hung there. Nor does long our small
Durance deal with that steep or deep. Here! creep,
Wretch, under a comfort serves in a whirlwind: all
Life death does end and each day dies with sleep.

The above poem is one of the so-called Terrible Sonnets by Gerard Manley Hopkins. They’re not terrible except in the sense of their emotional content; they catalogue Hopkins’ battle with serious issues of depression and in all probability with sexuality.

I discovered Hopkins when I was 17. While others were out discovering drink, sex, drugs and rock and roll, I was reading poetry that made me feel as if I wasn’t the first and I wouldn’t be the last to feel what I felt. My sixth form years were hard ones, not least because in the six months between Christmas and June, during which time I turned 17, three close friends of the same age died. It changed me forever.

This isn’t an easy poem to understand or explain. No worst? The idea that there is no worst and that things can always get worse than the worse we’ve ever experienced is horrific. The feeling of abandonment by God, by Our Lady and by Jesus our Comforter, is one that I cannot even begin to express. I’ve had times where those concepts are like fairytales told to scared children to comfort them.

The mind does have mountains. When I first read those words, I already understood the terror of clinging on with mental fingertips to rocks on an inner mountain range, poised over an abyss, ready to fall if I let go. The only comfort(in the poem’s context) is a poor one, like any port in a storm, that death ends all life, and each day dies with sleep.

This is the Good Friday of the soul, where the best you hope for is an end of pain. I’m not there today, and I hope I won’t be back in that place again but as I wander the world of my own inner landscape, I know that the higher I go, and the further I explore, the greater the chances of finding myself yet again on that dizzying precipice and my finger nails digging into rock and the chasm below me opening like the maw of a monstrous beast from distant and forgotten legends.

No worst, not yet.