Z is for Zen

Z is for Zen

A quick scan of the internet shows that the definition of the word Zen is a troublesome one. The most basic, factual one is this: a Japanese school of Mahayana Buddhism emphasizing the value of meditation and intuition rather than ritual worship or study of scriptures.

Urban dictionary comes up with a nice one: One way to think of zen is this: a total state of focus that incorporates a total togetherness of body and mind. Zen is a way of being. It also is a state of mind. Zen involves dropping illusion and seeing things without distortion created by your own thoughts.

Sun is warm, grass is green.” http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=zen

The Cambridge dictionary’ s version is pretty poor: relaxed and not worrying about things that you cannot change:

Don’t worry about doing the right thing with your baby – be more zen about it and you’ll be happier.

I tend towards the Urban dictionary version and it’s pretty much what I felt when I began this blog. Walking a tightrope is a powerful metaphor for the way my life is; ages back, someone suggested just letting myself fall. It scared me; it still scares me. My collection of essays from this blog, Depression and the Art of Tightrope Walking, is my account of my discoveries and explorations of a life dominated by depression; my recent collection of poems A Box of Darkness is intended as a treasury of what I have found in that darkness.

I thought of the blog title several years before I began blogging; it sprang to mind instantly. There have been a number of blogs using Zen in the title; many are using it in a very different way. Some reflect the philosophy of Zen and the Art of Archey, some Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (reviewed here). But I am proud of my blog. This, by remarkable coincidence, is my 1000th post here. Z is indeed for Zen, and it’s also the end of this A-Z not-a-challenge. I hope you have enjoyed my meanderings and excursions.

<departs left, pursued by a bear>

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X is for X-rated

X is for X-rated

Not so long ago, I shared a very interesting post about writing to a Facebook group for Christian writers; the post contained some strong language and I put up a content note so that people could avoid if they chose or to read it later as it was something one would call NSFW (not suitable for work). I’ve never had much of a beef with strong language; the use of so-called swear words is for a writer a fine line between realism and personal sensibilities. For someone of faith, it would seem it’s the biggest, most heinous of crimes, judging by the reactions I saw then and at other times. I’m not going to go into the theology of it; that’s not my bag and despite what people say, the evidence that the use of strong or even foul language is forbidden in the Bible, is weak, flawed and based on simplistic thinking, poor understanding of the texts and ambiguous translations.

Words are just words. The use of culturally taboo words in our society serves a very valuable function, when used wisely. If you are not someone who peppers their speech with “rude” words, there is a powerful endorphine boost if they are used in moments of extreme need (pain, grief, shock etc) that is diluted if you are habituated to using them; it’s the breaking of taboo that gives that rush that will relieve pain, give sometimes a rush of energy (to lift the car off your foot) and allow feelings that have become blocked and frozen to flow again.

What are truly obscenities in this world are not the f-word or the c-word, but rather the abuses of war, rape, famine, cruelty, political greed, alienation and a hundred other things that in my book are far more to be recoiled from than the occasional ripe phrase ripped from an honest, hurting heart.

S is for Spring (s)

S is for Spring (s)

S is for Spring(s)

I’ve written a lot about springs over the years I’ve been blogging. Indeed, I wrote an entire novel about a very special spring, the waters of which heal broken souls and mend damaged psyches. (see Strangers and Pilgrims)

But a spring is a magical thing. Water welling up through deep layers of rock and earth, bursting into the light in torrents or trickles. For early peoples as much as modern ones, a spring was somewhere both practical and supernatural. The symbolism of the well-spring is embedded deeply in both my creative and my spiritual life. When I have visited famous springs like the Chalice Well, or the White Spring, I have felt myself to be in the presence of a divine mystery, a holy thing.

Yet for all that, my creative flow and my spiritual journey have dried up, become fallow and unfed by springs flowing within my soul, within my self. Sometimes springs do dry up; sometimes they reroute. Some only flow in certain times and seasons, like the Swallow-head Spring that feeds the river Kennet in Wiltshire close to Avebury. I would like to hope that the period of dryness will one day end but whether it ends with a torrent or a mere trickle, I do not know.

O is for Ordinary

O is for Ordinary

O is for Ordinary

When I taught English as a foreign language, one of the lessons I did covered the subject of Love. Inevitably it had to touch on romantic love ( and Romeo and Juliet: yuck!) but there was a short poem I used too. I can’t recall the poet offhand, as I’d seen the poem only in a collection of poems from Penhaligan’s (they did a range of scented books, of which I had three) that had a theme of LOVE. The poem was these few lines:

Same old slippers

Same old rice

Same old glimpse

Of Paradise*.

I wanted to get across the power of the ordinary, the familiar, the comfortable, in a relationship. Too much emphasis is put on the initial stages, on falling in love and that heady experience that too often leads to heartache and not to real, deep love. People talk about the glow going out of a relationship when in fact, they are settling into the deep reality that does not rely on romantic gestures to be truly nourishing to each partner.

In much of life, novelty and unfamiliarity are seen as the epitome of what we must seek, whether it’s in relationships, experiences or in what we look for in our entertainment. And in the pursuit of the new, the exciting, the different, the exotic, we lose sight of the ordinary beauty and wonder around us. Simple things like sparrows become invisible. Yet a sparrow is intensely wonderful. We just don’t seem to see them, and flock instead to see the fire-crest, blown off course and lost.

Same with plants. A spring time verge in this country is golden and glorious with dandelions, as lovely as if they were planted, yet we overlook their beauty (and use, too) for things we have to nurture and protect to get them to bloom.

Seek the wonder in the ordinary. Enjoy a cup of coffee in your own garden, back yard or balcony, breathing in the scent and wonder at how such a brew came to be in your hands. Take a peep at the wild flowers and birds around you, and see them with new eyes. Embrace the ordinary, and it will hug you back.

*I looked it up: William James Lampton.

Lammas at the Cave

Lammas at the Cave

Lammas at the Cave

The morning birdsong is over by the time I leave the cave; I have not had the energy to rise at dawn to see the sun rise as I should. I have slept in, lying on top of my bed-roll most of the night, for though the cave is cool, the nights have been humid, sticky and oppressive. It has been difficult to get anything done, for movement other than the most languid kind leaves me exhausted and sweating.

Cooler air greets me, laden with the scents rising from the forest below, redolent of the soft rain that fell last night, and of green growth and flowers and a hint of ripeness. I do not farm up here, so there are no grain crops to gather in, but other things are coming to the point of harvest. A willow basket is hooked over my arm as I head slowly down the path that leads steeply down from the ledge where I live. I do not know what I am going to gather, but it seems to me that I should take a basket just in case. For what seems like the longest time, I have lost interest in my home and my life; though I know the forest to be coloured with the most vivid of shades and hues, all I have been able to see has been an endless mass of greys.

Under the canopy of trees, the path is dark and were it not for the white rocks placed at the edges here and there, I might easily wander. That’s dangerous, for on my mountain there are precipitous drops that you can’t see till you are almost falling over them. It’s not a place for careless meanderings, yet again today I let my feet guide me, not my mind, and I find myself at the stream that tumbles down the side of the mountain. The path follows this, and the air is heavy with the cool moisture and the song of the stream.

I have to tread carefully for the path is narrow and hard on the feet, sometimes becoming slippery and I wish I had not come this way; I consider turning back. But I trudge on, shouldering the empty basket, tripping sometimes, which leaves me breathless with shock and fear. Eventually, the ground levels out, and I find myself somewhere I have no memory of having been before. A great basin of rock, wide and deep, opens out for many yards and the stream fills it before leaving at the far end, the water draining away in a series of beautiful little waterfalls no more than five or six feet in height. The noise of falling water is deafening, yet I do not move onwards. I put the basket down and find somewhere to sit, cushioned by lush moss, and dangle my sore feet into the water.

It’s icy and refreshing, and I realise I am sweating with the effort and with the heat, for the sun is now high overhead. I had not felt how time was passing, and passing so swiftly, that my morning is gone. The water is inviting, so I strip off my clothes and slide in, gasping with the shock of the cold. The pool is deep enough to swim in, though if I put my feet down, I touch the rock. I swim for a little while before dressing again, and sit back on my mossy seat, damp and chilled and panting. I do not want to leave here, either to go back or to go onwards. Despite the noise of the water, it’s a very peaceful place.

A dash of brightness catches my eye, flashing past and dipping into the water, a brief vision of intense, shining blue that reappears on the far side of the pool, its beak full of a silver wriggling fish that disappears down its gullet with little difficulty. I search my memory for a name: kingfisher. I watch it dive for another, and another, and the fierce, brilliant colours are like lightning in the night of my mind. Then, full of fish, it flashes away downstream, out of sight and I am left alone.

When I come to pick up my basket, to my surprise it is full of fish. Much larger than the ones the kingfisher was catching, these are salmon and trout, and they remind me that if I do not grow grain here, I must still eat in winter, and I lug the basket back to the cave where they can be prepared for drying and smoking.

As the sun sets, I sit out at my fire, and eat freshly roasted salmon, burning my fingers a little as I pick pink flesh off the bones, and feel the blessing of the fisher of kings.

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A Vessel of Ashes

A Vessel of Ashes

I’ve been in a grim place for so long it feels like there’s been no end and no beginning. It feels like this is all there is and all there was and all there ever will be. Needless to say, it feels horrible. I’ve been trying to make sense of it all and failing, and trying again and failing again. The results of the referendum have left me devastated, repeatedly; there seems a massive disconnect and breach between those who voted leave and those who voted remain. One side cannot understand the other and the vitriol hurled has been… caustic and damaging beyond belief. I have given up trying to explain why it is all so hurtful but the consensus of rejoicing Leavers is “Suck it up, suck it up,” and I have left it at that. The utter powerlessness I feel is probably felt by millions and we are told, that’s democracy.

So I have disconnected from the stream of life that flows in front of my eyes, in the form of social media, because I could no longer bear the hurt I see. I’m still around, but I am emotionally distanced. I’ve already lost one old friend from college days because I refused to allow him to pour his opinions all over my Facebook wall; he did not take it gracefully.

I have, however, been dreaming again. Having had a spell where I was unable to either dream or to recall anything of the dreams I did have, to have dreams coming through again is something of a relief.

I’d like to share a few with you now. The first is from a few days ago.

I am at a party I don’t really want to be at. I don’t feel I know anyone, but here I am anyway. I make my way outside into the garden, which is untended and unkempt, and walled by high brick walls. I am shocked to see that our old round table is out there, left out to rot; I look closer and I see that the table is broken, split almost down the middle as if by an mighty axe blow. It’s not quite perfectly in half, but it looks beyond anything but very skilled repairs. The chairs that go with it lie on the rough grass, with tufts of weeds growing through them, left where they fell when pushed back by those who had sat upon them. I feel sad and a little sick, and move to go back inside. As I walk back up the steps, there is a small child there, a little boy of somewhere between one year and three. He speaks to me, and I answer, and though waking I cannot recall what he said, only that it was words and themes so far beyond such a tiny child, I know I reply with complete seriousness and great care. He speaks again and then laughs and it is like the sun coming out from behind a cloud, and I am filled with sudden joy (in waking life, I dislike small children) and I want to hold him up. I put my hands on him to lift him but find he is far too heavy for me to lift, heavier than a full grown man by far. I realise quite suddenly that I am not to do this, not to treat him as a tiny child, and I step away and apologise for overstepping the mark. But he laughs joyfully again and I know I have not offended (for how could I have known?) and then the dream ends.

The next dream is from the small hours of this morning. I’ve spent much of the day pondering on it.

The first part of the dream I am visiting an aquarium belonging to a friend; there are lots of huge tanks filled with marvellous fish and sea creatures and we walk among the tanks (it’s like a Sea Life centre). But she’s packing up intending to leave and the fish know and are upset, even though she says I am to look after the fishes when she is gone. There are commotions in many of the tanks, as the fish become disturbed and frightened; one tank we see that a sea snake has become so upset it looks as if it is trying to swallow one of the bigger fishes, so we intervene. Hauling it out and uncoiling it, I see that it’s not a sea snake but a big Burmese python and it has its own tail in its mouth, as if trying to swallow itself.

The dream moves and shifts, and I find myself outside a sea shore cottage. In the dream, it’s a building I have seen and admired many times but in waking life, it’s not one I recognise. The cottage is built on a ridge very close to the sea, alone and with no other buildings nearby. It belongs to a nun, an anchoress, who invites me in to see the house. The inside is Spartan, and neat in a quirky, somewhat Bohemian style, and there is little furniture. I go to the window to see the view; it’s open and I see that the sea is alarmingly close to the house, and huge waves are crashing on the shore. I try to shut the window as the biggest wave yet hits the shingle, and some spray gets through before I managed to get it shut. I am asked to go and fetch water; the cottage does not have mains water but gets its water from a spring outside. I ask what do I collect the water in, and am shown at first a wide shiny steel serving platter, like a concave mirror, but that seems silly to me as it will not hold more than a few drops, and I rummage around and find a glass vessel, like an amphora, that I carry outside.

The spring itself is a very odd thing; it’s a sort of strange fountain, like it has been grown from volcanic mud or worn out from a termite mound. Water comes intermittently from different spouts, but never much and never with a lot of force. It will take patience to collect water here. I start, only to see that the glass vessel is mostly filled with ashes (I think they are human ashes, as if from a cremation) mixed with small stones, grit and sand. It won’t shake out, so I start adding water to it, to try and rinse it out. The ashes are packed down tight and need a lot of water to loosen them. I wake before the vessel is emptied or cleaned.

Escape to the Paradise Garden

Escape to the Paradise Garden

The word paradise means a walled enclosure or garden and has long been used to mean the place souls go to when we die or the place where God lives. The garden of Eden in the Old Testament is the example many of us think of when we think of the word Paradise. I’ve always loved gardens but health issues mean that my participation in the process of creating and maintaining a garden is limited. An hour of hand weeding leaves me in such pain for days that I rarely risk it. Yet my mind goes inwards, to gardens I have known and gardens I would have liked to create. During the early stages of labour I spent time reading a book on herb gardens and daydreaming about creating such a place for meditation and contemplation. Unless I become wealthy it’s unlikely to happen but I still dream. When I am feeling low and in pain, I go to my paradise garden, in my mind and it refreshes me enough to keep going.

I share the following extract with no comment about its origin or intention:

Dressed and shod in light sandals, she made her way down the garden, her morning pilgrimage. The leaves were almost fully open now, and the grass was thick with bluebells, their smoky smell rising fresh and clean as she passed them. The blossom on the trees was at its peak, the first few petals starting to drop now. If there was a heavy frost now, there would be little fruit that year. Birds hopped from branch to branch, largely ignoring her now; she had begun hanging fat-balls and seed-filled feeders on a bird table near the house, and the birds seemed to appreciate the extra help. She took it as another sign of welcome that the birds did not react to her presence much now; at first there had been alarm calls and a mass exodus of the flocks of goldfinch and long-tailed tits each time she or Alex had gone into the garden.

Her daily exploration of the little wilderness that was her garden had begun to form paths through the long grass; Alex had offered to strim paths for her but she said to wait. The contact with the earth was her way of finding out what the garden held for her and what she could bring to the garden.

It had been the garden that had been the reason for moving here, though the house was precisely what both of them had wanted. They had spent months house hunting, and had begun to despair of finding the right place, before this one had come up. In need of serious renovation, it had charm and was in the right location but it wasn’t until Ginny had taken a walk through the jungle-like expanse of green at the back that it had become clear to them that this was where they were to live.

The estate agent showing them round had wanted to gloss over the wildly overgrown walled garden, explaining the extent of the grounds and mentioning a few days with a gardening company and a skip or two. Ginny had ignored him and had pushed her way through the thigh-high undergrowth with scant regard to the integrity of her clothes. After a few minutes, Alex heard her shout in excitement and had followed.

He found her standing in a dank clearing, close to the archway in the wall that held an ancient and forbidding looking door. Trees almost touched above their heads and at mid afternoon, it seemed they were in a green cave. Moss clung to the worn surfaces of the old bricks that made up the wall; the air felt moist and cool and he could see that the ground cover here was made up of ferns and mosses and other damp-loving plants.

Can’t you feel it?” Ginny exclaimed. “Close your eyes and listen!”

Obediently, he shut his eyes and tried to listen. It was faint but he could hear the movement of water somewhere close to them. He opened his eyes and looked more intently at his surroundings. The ground near the gateway was boggy, waterlogged even, and as his eyes became accustomed to the dim light, he saw that there was a tiny metal grille, almost rusted to one piece, set below the threshold. He moved closer and saw that it protected a slot cut into the stonework and a dark oblong was visible. This close he could see the water trailing into the slot, draining away. Doubtless beyond the door, the water flowed away in a tiny streamlet.

Ginny pointed back to the marshy area and he took a few careful steps that way. The spongy ground seemed to whisper, a wet mouthing of sounds, and when he bent down, he could hear a faint bubbling noise from the wettest area, where moisture puddled, in the middle of the clearing.

It’s a spring,” he’d said, his disbelief and joy clear to Ginny, though to another his calm face wouldn’t have betrayed much.

They’d put an offer in on the house that day, and when it was accepted they had commissioned the work needed to make the house habitable. During the work, Ginny had not allowed anyone to touch the garden. She had taken Alex down there, each time they’d visited while the renovations were in progress, and they had excavated the area with painstaking gentleness. The removal of the mud and debris had revealed a stony basin, placed there centuries ago, that the spring filled and then spilled out of into a rill that travelled under the door and out into the woods beyond. Once this water had been perhaps the only source of fresh drinking water for this area; Alex kept talking about having it tested for purity but Ginny just shook her head. The revelation of the spring had brought greater numbers of birds and small animals to the garden.

As she reached this private sanctuary, she saw that a pair of goldfinches were splashing in unrestrained enthusiasm in the spring and she stopped to allow them their bath undisturbed. Birds had started to nest weeks ago and she suspected there were many eggs and chicks hidden in the trees around the garden. If she woke early enough she would stand here and listen to the chorus that greeted the rising sun. Mixed with the trickling of the water, pure and clear, the music of nature blocked out the world beyond the garden walls.

After a few moments attending to their plumage, the tiny birds flew away in a bright sunburst of colour and she was alone.

I’m never alone. Not truly.

She took a few more steps and reached the bench Alex had made for her from two slices of a fallen tree and a section of the wood made into a rough plank. It was redolent with the beeswax he’d coated it with, and the surface was starting to achieve a sheen on the lightly smoothed surface. He’d not attempted to polish it, just to render the wood usable without getting splinters. Every day, rain or sun, Ginny sat here for a few moments at least. Some days, she would be here when Alex came home in the evening and he would never be sure if she’d been there since he’d left that morning. When he asked her once what she was doing, she was silent for so long he had to ask it again.

I’m listening,” she had said and did not explain further.