High Places and Holy Ground ~ Sacred Spaces in the City

High Places and Holy Ground ~ Sacred Spaces in the City

One of the greatest perks of my job working as a courier and tour guide is that I get to visit places I’d perhaps never normally go to. People say when I am off to Paris, how exciting, aren’t you lucky and things like that, but the truth of it is I am not a city person at all. I find cities hard to deal with, and one of the things I do when I don my uniform on the morning of departure is also to put in place what I call my “game face”, which goes deeper than merely my face. I have to adopt a mindset where I can cope with the problems I experience with frenetic places crowded with thousands of people, and the attendant sensory overload that can afflict me. It’s a good job it’s time limited because I can only do it for so long before the cracks start to show. Usually by the time I get to my hotel room at night, I’m longing for solitude and silence like a parched traveller seeking a spring in the desert. It helps when the group are pleasant and the teachers friendly, but even so, I’m so relieved to shed my shell along with my uniform.

But cities have places where the numinous peeps through, and my tours usually take in a few of those. Sacre Coeur in Paris is one of those. Set like a fairytale castle on the top of the Butte of Montmarte, the shining white basilica draws the eye from anywhere in the city. Ascent is either by hundreds of steep steps or, if you wish, by funicular railway. There is no parking up there, so while you can get a car up there, this is simply for deliveries. The stone it is built from secretes calcite constantly, renewing the whiteness in a city of ten million souls and almost as many cars. Built between 1870 and finally consecrated in 1919, the basilica was aimed at expiating the excesses of the Third Empire and the chaos and death of the Paris commune, the church is maintained solely by gifts, and is run by an order of nuns who have had their convent up there for many years. They also have a vineyard that makes very fine wine.

When you go inside, the atmosphere hits you even before you have a chance to look around. Light from a thousand candles flickers, and the scent of hot wax fills the air. Incense has a ghostly remnant of scent. The architecture of the building, the vast mosaic in the central dome, and the hush of people trying to be silent add to it. One night we came in while the nuns were singing night prayer; it was just how you might imagine angels singing.

I take school children there, usually teenagers, and before we go inside I explain that whether they have beliefs or not, they need to be silent and respectful. The guardians will eject anyone inappropriately dressed or who talk loudly after a first warning. Photography is forbidden. Usually I put on a scarf out of respect for older traditions of covering my head. There’s generally not a lot of time so I explain before we go in how long they have. Some walk in and round and then walk out. Others…..well, it has an effect. Once we are outside and on our way, there’s always a kid who comes up to me and says something along these lines: “I’m not religious at all….but…..” and then they grind to a halt and start stumbling over words and similes. During the time that follows, others usually confide in me that they felt something they’d never quite felt before. It also generally defies definition and explanation.

I had an excellent conversation with one of the kids about it, when I was in Paris on Thursday and Friday last week. She thought that the fact that you couldn’t chatter and take photos really made the place extra special, because you could do that everywhere else. Another child told me it was the first time she’d felt safe enough to let go her clutch on her bag. This place is set aside from normal activities. People are at prayer all around. Behind the high altar, the Host is kept, the communion that the faithful believe is the body of Christ. Statues of saints keep stony and stern watch, their faces human and flawed.

Notre Dame, in the historical centre of Paris has a different atmosphere. You can take photos and quiet talking is permitted. Even though it is a far more ancient church, dating from the twelfth century and built upon an older cathedral, itself built upon a Temple to Jupiter, in turn built upon a druid site, it’s atmosphere is not so dense. I’ve never been in while a service was being conducted; while you do see people praying, there are fewer, and those who light candles are often doing so just for the sake of lighting a candle. There is a shop for souvenirs in the main body of the church while at Sacre Coeur the shop is tucked away, in a side room, and not constantly open.

I cannot begin to explain what creates the overwhelming feeling that Sacre Coeur gives to many visitors but I think some factors can be listed. Sacre Coeur is only accessible if you make the effort of climbing the steps. It has a community who live and work there and who also work to aid the many beggars you see in Paris. It guards the sacred space from mindless chatter and the flash of cameras. It was built as a gesture to make right wrongs of the whole city, not to glorify the wealth of one man (Notre Dame was commissioned by Archbishop Sully). And it is a place of constant prayer; open day and night, there is always someone from the community present and at prayer.

Whether you believe in prayer or not, many do, and perhaps the power of that collective belief also adds to the sense of the sacred, the awe-inspiring atmosphere.

You are not here to verify, instruct yourself or inform curiosity or carry report. You are here to kneel where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more than an order of words, the conscious occupation of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.” T.S Eliot, Little Gidding (Four Quartets)

If it is indeed prayer than creates and holds sacred space intact, then there are oases of sacred space tucked away in every city on earth. Many languish, becoming tourist traps like Westminster Abbey and St Paul’s, losing their numinous atmosphere with the tramp of feet and the mundane chatter and the flash of cameras.

One of my ambitions is to create sacred space in my own home, a place set aside to be a spring of quietness and peace. Perhaps one day I may achieve it. By carrying in my soul the quiet of places I have visited I can one day add my own measure of prayerfulness to the deep well that our collective awareness creates within the wider world.

That Mona Lisa Smile and Stendhal Syndrome

That Mona Lisa Smile and Stendhal Syndrome

 

A few weeks ago I got to finally visit the Louvre in Paris. A word of warning: this is the second biggest museum in the world. Even knowing this didn’t not prepare me for the sheer scale of the place. It is ENORMOUS. Unbelievably big. I’ve walked round the outside of it several times but it never sank in how huge it is. With this in mind, we planned to go to one exhibit first and see how much time we had after that. I’m glad we made this decision because by the time we’d corralled the group and walked what felt like about a mile (it may actually have been close to this) we were running out of time.

The exhibit was of course the Mona Lisa, by Leonardo Da Vinci. We walked past countless works of breathtakingly amazing art. I had to stop even glancing around me. I’m somewhat prone to Stendhal syndrome, that psychosomatic disorder where a person becomes totally overwhelmed by beauty to the extent they can faint or become otherwise incapacitated. So I focused on just getting us all to the painting.

I’m afraid I was underwhelmed. This is the most famous painting in the world:

It’s quite dull, behind bulletproof glass and a horde of people snapping away. To me, it had no atmosphere except that which the long walk and expectation created. It didn’t overwhelm me, even though I was primed to be knocked over. Worth billions itself and worth billions more through related merchandising, I just thought, “Meh!” and turned away. Call me a Phillistine if you like but it did nothing for me.

Later that evening, I finally had my portrait sketched at the artists’ square at Montmartre. The artists were doing good business and one offered to do mine for just 20 euros; I glanced at his work and decided to sit. Everyone agreed that he’d done astounding work for just fifteen minutes sketching.

Art and beauty are very subjective things but I’d rather appreciate something for its appeal to me than be swept along with the hype. 

 

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stendhal_syndrome

 

Making it to the very top ~ success in stages

Making it to the very top ~ success in stages

I’m scared of heights. Really scared, actually. It’s not logical at all but it’s powerful and paralysing at times. It’s not so much a conscious fear but more an experiential one. There are sensations I experience when in high places that are very unpleasant. Vertigo and nausea for a start. Sweating. Shaking. It’s not a pretty picture at all.

Two years ago, I was forced to confront the fear at work. I work as a courier/tour guide for my second job, and I take groups of English kids to Europe for educational visits. I’m the one on the in-coach microphone, giving a commentary about wherever we are. No trip to Paris is complete without a trip UP the Eiffel Tower, but until two years ago, I’d somehow managed to be the responsible adult who stayed on the ground with the couple of kids who didn’t feel they could go up. Two years ago I did a trip where the teacher in charge deemed that EVERY kid had to go up, whether they were scared or not, so I had no option. I went up, shaking and sweating, on the very brink of a panic attack the whole time. But I stayed in the enclosed capsule at the final stage and didn’t climb the final dozen stairs to the highest point the public can visit. I was unable to set a foot on that iron stairway and make it up.

Last week, I took a group who have so far never gone to the top. It’s always been closed for maintenance when the group usually visit Paris. Last year we went to the second floor. When we got there this time to change to the smallest lift, one child became so unwell with fear, a member of staff had to take him back down. So the die was cast and I knew I had to go to the top again. The final lift is quite small compared to the first one which holds about fifty people so my group and I packed in and held on. I shut my eyes. Stepping out, I was relieved to be there but knew going down is worse. The kids wanted to go to the final stage and I had no choice but to go as well. Reaching the circular gallery at the very top, I felt the full force of vertigo hit me, and I tried to dig my fingernails into the metal walls. Breathe. Just breathe. After a moment or two, I was able to steady myself and move, walking slowly and shakily round before descending again once another member of staff was present. A kind American girl took my photo so I have evidence that I finally made it to the top.

Many things in life are like this. The tip-top is so far away, we think we can never reach it, it’s like shooting for the stars. But if you break down a massive task into discrete, achievable chunks, each to stand alone as a powerful monument to your abilities, then you have an option of building on them and slowly but surely reaching the top.

After all, there’s only one way to eat an elephant: bit by bit. 

Bringing Dead Men To Life ~ a guest post by Richard Pierce

Bringing Dead Men To Life

( I  met Richard via Twitter and we got talking about all sorts of things, and when I heard about his new book Dead Men I was totally hooked. I’m a bit of a Boys’ Own sort of girl and any tale of heroism gets me interested. But the tragic tale of Captain Scott’s last days has always moved me to tears so I am looking forward to reading Richard’s take on the story when the book is released. I’m always fascinated too by what brings a book to the light of day and I asked Richard to explain this one. This is the result. Over to Richard. )

And I tell you, if you have the desire for knowledge and the power to give it physical expression, go out and explore. If you are a brave man you will do nothing; if you are fearful you may do much, for none but cowards have the need to prove their bravery.

Apsley Cherry-Garrard, The Worst Journey in the World

All that we experience we are. No biographer, no researcher, no novelist, painter or poet can or should be divorced from his or her experience, his or her life. It is what makes us, and we cannot stand in isolation from that which has shaped us. It informs our view of others, and others’ views of us. Biographers and historians especially should have to share their motives for covering their subjects. It might explain a lot. Interpretation doesn’t just creep up on us; we make it.

When I was a boy, an English boy in Germany, the text book I had to read to relearn English had a chapter in it about Captain Scott. It focused not only on Oates leaving the tent on the way back from the South Pole with the immortal quote I’m just going outside; I may be some time. It reprinted in whole Scott’s last, desperate scrawl, We shall stick it out to the end, but we are getting weaker, of course, and the end cannot be far. It seems a pity, but I do not think I can write any more. For God’s sake look after our people. For a boy struggling against his peers’ insistence that Messerschmitts were better than Spitfires, this seemingly magnificent act of heroism was an ideal way of standing up for a country he couldn’t even remember, to show how Englishmen had to be better than Germans, and that, anyway, we’d beaten them in two wars. How odd our childish defences are.

Almost forty years later, I was back to Scott, and Wilson, and Bowers, and Oates, and Evans. They had got under my skin, then, in the early Seventies, in a throwaway schoolboy fascination type of way, and burrowed their way into the core of me, but just sat there, unmoving, with no effect on my life, with no recollection of them on my part, even, because I never dreamed of following them, never thought of the Antarctic as a place I might go. And there were so many other things to distract me, growing up being only one of them.

We moved back to England when I was fourteen, and I made, at my father’s expense, very occasional trips to London. On one of those trips, I did find my way to the British Museum, and, by then fascinated by beauty and mystery, made sure I stared at Nefertiti’s bust for longer than I stared at the final page of Scott’s diary, though I bought postcards of both. And then I fell in love more often than I should care to recount, and forgot all about Scott and his men, all about Amundsen and his men, all about the imagined race for the South Pole that took place just two years after my father was born.

But I kept travelling, kept moving from one place to the other, not because of my parents any more, who, by now, were settled, but because some sort of restlessness drove me, in search of money and love, from England to Germany, to France, to the US, and back to my parents when my heart was broken too often for me to bear. On all those travels, there was one constant: the Olivetti portable typewriter my father had bought me when I was seven, because I’d always wanted to be a writer.

Fast forward twenty years, and I fell in love with a Norwegian, married her, had four children, and a year after the fourth was born, decided to move to Norway. Neither Scott nor Amundsen resurfaced, even then. Nor did they fight their way into my waking conscience when I drove past the Fram Museum on my way to fencing training in Bygdø. I was more interested in working my way up the Norwegian epee rankings than in history I’d forgotten. Shortly after that, my Norwegian wife decided she didn’t, after all, like Norway very much, and that we should move back to England. I, by then, was in love with Norway, and tried many subterfuges, none of which included Amundsen or Scott, to stay in our gorgeous wooden house near Fredrikstad. We left in April 2006, over a metre of snow still on the ground.

Settling back into England was heavy going, and the Antarctic was further from my mind than ever in my homesickness for the -28C of my first Christmas in Norway, my missing of the mountains and the sea I used to pass on my almost-daily run, my longing to roll the Norwegian words round my mouth again and talk to my friends in their farm garages, surrounded by half-built tractors and oily work benches. And then Sir Edmund Hillary hit the headlines, with his criticism of the lack of British support for the preservation of Captain Scott’s expedition base at Cape Evans on Ross Island, and the rest is history, history that means the world to me. Because I was lucky enough to be asked to spend some time in the Antarctic, and to help with the work on Scott’s Hut.

That’s when the reading started. Anything I could get my hands on. The first book on Antarctica I read wasn’t even about Scott’s expedition; it was Kelly Tyler-Lewis’s The Lost Men, sent to me by the New Zealand Antarctic Heritage Trust, all about Shackleton’s Ross Sea Party who were supposed to lay depots for Shackleton’s Imperial Transantarctic Expedition in 1914, the ten men left stranded on Ross Island after the Aurora broke free of her moorings in a gale and was carried back out into the pack ice. Three men of the party were lost (contrary to the popular misbelief that Shackleton lost none of his men on that expedition), and the other seven lived what they afterwards called the “life of troglodytes”, mainly in Scott’s 1901-1904 expedition hut in McMurdo Sound. It opened my eyes to the sufferings of all those who ventured south during what is now so easily called the Heroic Age of Exploration, to the unsung heroism of those whose names all but a few polar historians had forgotten.

I inhaled the Antarctic, through research on the net, through the accumulation of what became a considerable Antarctic library. I have always been more of a fiction man than one who easily reads biographies and non-fiction narrative, but my heart and my mind were captured by these books, by these men (and their women at home), by the incredible bravery of facing the dangers not just of sea and mountain, but of tooth-breakingly cold temperatures, of crevasses and the madness of cabin fever.

And then I bought a copy of The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard, and lost my heart to it. It is written in such achingly perfect prose, with such soul and compassion, with such blinding clarity, that it must be the greatest travel book ever written. When I was a child, I always wondered how people could read books which had no pictures in them, and, even as an adult, I marvel at the strength of our human imagination, to be able to see pictures in books with nothing but words from cover to cover. And here was the perfect example. Cherry’s descriptions of his inner life and the outer scenery and dramas are nothing less than addictive, wondrously elegant and eloquent. The lines of his quoted at the beginning of this piece, lines I copied into the front of journal I started to keep for the whole of my Antarctic journey, made me cry, left an indelible mark, because he put his finger on a universal truth, that, deep down, we cowards can all be heroes. Just as he was.

In November 2007, I flew down to Christchurch, New Zealand, with great expectations and not a little trepidation. I left an envelope with a friend, with a letter in it for my wife, just in case something happened to me. For, even if I was to be not much more than a glorified tourist, the Antarctic was, and remains, a dangerous place, a part of the world not to be trifled with, one which will kill you off as soon as welcome you. I saw some wonderful things in Christchurch, including Canterbury Museum’s Antarctic Collection (which includes Frank Worsley’s logbook from the Endurance and that trip from Elephant Island to South Georgia, and Frederick Hooper’s diary which contains the harrowing description of the discovery of the bodies of Scott, Wilson and Bowers). I went to Lyttelton Museum and sat on a saloon bench from Terra Nova, Scott’s ship which came back without him, and which was scuttled years after the ill-fated South Pole expedition. I stood on the hill that Lyttelton sits on and looked across Lyttelton Harbour to Quail Island in its centre, where Scott is said to have trained his dogs and ponies. Much of the countryside and buildings I saw here was destroyed in the February 2011 earthquake, which makes me miss it even more keenly.

And so the story of Captain Robert Falcon Scott and his men began to unfold in front of me before I’d even set foot on the Antarctic. I learned more about him, his comrades, and their quests than I could have if I’d done no more than read the books. But this unfurling of the tapestry of history was borne also from great frustration; day after day after day we were what they call “bumped”, our flight south put off by bad weather, including extremely poor visibility and wind gusting at well over 60 knots. Night after night I’d look at the forecasts and the webcam images from Ross Island, crossing my fingers and everything else that it would improve and we’d get out there. It wasn’t to be, and after a week we had to admit defeat and return to England.

Other things I saw in that week in Christchurch were the New Zealand Antarctic Heritage Trust’s store rooms, including the freezers in which they keep those artefacts that have been found in the Ross Sea huts and around them, and which are too fragile to defrost, but too valuable to leave to the vagaries of the weather out there, influenced more and more by global warming, a weather of extremes with warmer summers and colder winters, a signalling to the rest of the world that the abuse of the world cannot go on, that it must stop soon, for it threatens not only the blue planet’s heritage, it threatens its future, too. In one of those freezers there’s a reindeer sleeping bag, which may or may not be Cherry’s. I hope it is.

It was in that November that the mystery of Scott’s last ten days first scraped at my consciousness. It was not something I’d ever been aware of. How much do we learn at school of real history? That’s another question, because we can only ever scratch the surface of events we’ve not lived, and of their implications and outcomes. But it was only then I learned that science has shown that Antarctic blizzards can last no longer than about three days, that they normally raise the temperature, and that they are normally followed by a period of calm. My poet’s mind latched on to this, but even more so the tragedy of men dying far away from their wives in a time when there was no instant communication, when news took months to travel from remote regions to the populated reaches of the Earth, when wireless transmission was in its infancy. Scott could not, as he lay dying, make a satellite phone call to his wife to tell her one last time he loved her, before the last of his life was snatched from him by the cold. Such calls have been made in recent times, from the summit of Everest and elsewhere, and who knows what comfort they have given, and who knows what mysteries they have solved. If Scott had had a satellite phone, there would be no mystery, and hundreds of books would have remained unwritten.

But there’s more to this story than just that. On the second day of January 2008, I was on my way again. Because the trains from Suffolk to London had suffered yet another irretrievable breakdown, I drove across to Cambridge, caught the train down to London from there, and made my plane with a few minutes to spare. That was the only hiccough. From there, I arrived in Christchurch, to be met by the New Zealand Antarctic Heritage folks, ready with the bags I’d packed in November 2007, and walked from International Arrivals straight into a USAF briefing about flying to Antarctica. I listened while getting changed, and, before I knew it (and after having managed one cigarette after a 36-hour trip), was on a bus headed for one of the far-flung corners of Christchurch Airport, on course to board a C-17 Globemaster for the very first time. Six hours later, I landed on McMurdo Sound, on a few feet of sea ice, was driven from there to Scott Base, a modern man retracing the story of the Heroic Age of Exploration.

http://www.ducknet.co.uk/general/title.php?titleissue_id=612

 

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Dead-Men-Richard-Pierce/dp/0715642960/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1330590902&sr=1-1

 

The Year in Review: highs, lows, triumphs and tragedies of 2011

The Year in Review: highs, lows, triumphs and tragedies of 2011

 

It’s the very last day of the year and I thought I might do a quick run through of how the year has been for me.

Travel: countless trips with students to London, Cambridge, Norwich and so on. Enjoyable, as I get time to wander off, as well as get to know some of the teachers, visiting leaders and students better, not to mention colleagues. For the travel job, I’ve done only the four trips this year. Paris in January, Austria for ski in February, Poitiers and the Futuroscope in April and Bologne and Northern France in June. All eventful. I blogged about my failure to learn to ski, and also about being detained at Border Control because of stowaways under our coach.

Teaching: the school moved in March and so I had to start cycling to work. Not something I enjoyed much at first but it got easier. I don’t know how many kids I’ve taught this year but I keep in touch with some of the special ones. Next year, I don’t know how much work I will get as there are serious issues with the location and also because the Olympics are ruining the summer school (long story)

Physical Health: after starting the year in hospital hooked up to a drip of anti-biotics, I guess things could only get better. They’d only managed to excise half the wretched thing that was causing me to go into labour every month and bleed like something from a horror film so in May, they finished the job. I’m still getting silly amounts of pain, but nothing that makes me pass out or need opiates to cope, so a win. I began having terrible migraines too this year, on a far greater frequency and severity than before, and was sent for a brain scan. I am happy to report that they pronounced my brain normal! I tried several medicines before finding a natural remedy that I take daily that has reduced the migraines back to former level.

Family and friends: this year my daughter managed to finish her degree in History with a high 2:1, and starts her Masters in February. Very proud of her. My husband continues to work hard at both his day job, his kung fu and also as assistant priest locally. My parents seem frailer than they used to; something to watch and pray about. Friends? Well, I lost a dear friend this year but not to death. I do not understand why and it hurts me still. Being as I am, I need closure and the abrupt, unexplained ending of what had been for me a meaningful friendship of several years leaves me anxious and worried that I have done wrong somewhere. Endless searching of my mind has not resolved this. Perhaps with time, I will. In the place of that friendship have come a host of others, and for that I am deeply grateful and I look forward to getting to know these new friends better as time goes on.

Mental health: I’ve suffered more lows this year than usual, and corresponding but brief highs. The last couple of months, I have found it increasingly hard to socialise, both online and in real life. I’ve found it hard to reply to comments here, which is sad because I love getting comments and often treasure what my readers say. There is something wrong in my head, and I am feeling very tired and hopeless at times. So I apologise if I have failed to respond to a comment or even an email.

Books: this year, in June, I put my first published book Strangers and Pilgrims  onto Kindle and was delighted to discover that is has sold quite well. Not a best-seller, but a steady seller. It’s been on various of the top 100 lists on Kindle, including literary fiction, spirituality and it spends a lot of time in the top 100 for personal transformation, which amused me as I put it there by mistake not realising it was for non-fiction. Considering I’ve always said the Wellspring is a real place, I do think this is apt. I also put out a book of meditations, using fragrance, and made this free to download. I intend to add to this and put a version up for Kindle next year. In October, I released my second book, Away With The Fairies, originally entitled Fish Out of Water, and was gob-smacked when it sold a copy before my Kindle dashboard told me it was LIVE. This has appeared on the top 100 for Women’s literary fiction several times. Again a steady seller, but not a best-seller in the true sense. It ought to be available as a paperback some time soon via Amazon. I’m preparing a couple of things for publishing next year: a novel called Square Peg, which is based on our experience of Theological college, and is also the first appearance of the inimitable Isobel from Away with the Fairies. I am planning also three collections of writings with the Tightrope theme, using material from this blog. I’m at over 600 posts now, and I plan to collect the short stories into one volume, poetry into another and the essays into a third. While most of the material is available here for free, finding it all collated into volumes where you can find what you want quickly appeals to me. All I need is to figure out how to do a Kindle book with a table of contents and we’ll be off.

Writing: I finished the third book in a series back in April, and have been stuck ever since, nibbling away at two other novels, one a sequel to Strangers and Pilgrims. I’ve written a number of short stories, poems and a lot of articles, but it feels like the joy and delight that writing novels brought me has gone away. Some of this is down to the heartache of this year, some to my baseline depression and some is down to the sheer grind of trying to promote my books. It takes up a lot of energy, not automatically time, because shouting about my books, my achievements does not come naturally to me and I hate doing it. This is why when someone writes a review of one of my books I am doubly delighted. Even were I to be published traditionally, a mid-lister like me would be expected to do a lot of the promotion herself.

Spirituality: I started the year with a retreat at the Julian Shrine, which helped. I think I need to do it again! I’ve been to a fair few places on mini pilgrimages and have been finding synchronous events and meaningful coincidences that give me some hope of a better future. I want to spend more time meditating in the various ways I find work for me and also learn more about my own soul-journey.

Anyway, there’s a brief summary of some of my year. I shall write a post soon about my hopes for 2012.

I’d like to wish all my readers a very happy New Year and every blessing for 2012, and also to thank you all for the support, the kindness and the love I have felt from you. I am conscious of being really quite withdrawn the last few months and just want to say how much I value all my visitors, both those who comment and those who stay silent.

Thank you.

Lost #4

Lost #4

There are no paths. All around me, endless shades of green, with some brown and red and orange as counterpoint, and no opening, no indication that anyone has ever come this way before. I sag against the trunk of the tree I have just climbed, the memory of those distant mountains burned into my retina like the after-burn of lightning flashes, and for a few long minutes, I want to curl into a ball, and bury myself in the moist leaf-litter and return to the earth.

But somehow I square my shoulders and take a long deep breath. I gaze around carefully and I spot it: not a path as such, just a thread
through the greenery. It’s probably a deer path but it seems to be
going in the right direction at least, so I begin.

The way is not easy; I cannot walk, but rather have to weave myself in and out of fallen branches, over rocks and heavy rotting trunks.
Sometimes, in the soft earth I see the footprints of the deer who use
this trail and sometimes droppings, but they are old, and I feel sure
the deer do not come this way often.

I merge with the forest, my mind slipping into its rhythms as the sun
climbs higher and higher. I sip water from a tiny rivulet that
crosses the path, scooping water into my mouth; it tastes earthy, a
tang of smoky peat teases my taste buds, making me remember something I cannot quite put my finger on. It’s not unpleasant, just odd. I eat leaves, to stave off the hunger, and the occasional berry. In the back of my mind, I wonder how I know whether something is safe to eat or not, and worry that perhaps I do not.

By late afternoon, as the sun has begun its decline to evening, I have
covered perhaps a mile in a straight line and am exhausted and
filthy. I’ve crossed and recrossed the same ground, and it was only
seeing my own footprints in the moist ground my a stream that told me I had doubled back. I never once thought they might belong to someone else. Throughout this great wide forest that seemed from the treetops to go on to the edges of the earth, I cannot sense another human soul. Only birdsong and insects disturb the peace here.

I can sense the sunset even though I cannot see it and I know I must find shelter for the night. I’ve nothing to keep me warm and I am dimly aware that the food I have eaten would be sufficient for a
family of field-mice to live on. Every limb aches with exertion and
my heart sinks because I know that those mountains are still as far
away as ever.

As I climb into a tree and try to snuggle as close to the trunk as I
can, feeling the living force of the sap slowing inside, I ask
myself, why am I heading for the mountains?

But I sleep before I can even start to answer that question.

(for previous episode see: https://zenandtheartoftightropewalking.wordpress.com/2011/08/12/lost-3/

Is Life a Labyrinth or a Maze? ~ a philosophical question

The two words are used synonymously but they actually mean something different. A labyrinth is a maze where all you have to do is walk and keep walking and you will reach the centre:

As long as you simply follow the path, you will reach the centre.

A maze on the other hand has false trails, dead ends and sometimes pitfalls. You have to explore all the turnings, even when many are ones that turn you back on yourself:

You can get totally lost in a maze: people have to be rescued from the famous one at Hampton Court. A labyrinth is different: you just keep going and follow the path ahead.

But if you get to the centre eventually, does it make a difference how long it took, or how short a time?

Is it the journey that is important or the destination?

Which is your life: maze or labyrinth?

Roseberry Topping ~ a poem about conquering fear

Roseberry Topping

(July 2006)

The last time I stood here,

I did not stand at all:

I crouched, turning my back

On the view I’d come to see,

Fingernails seeking purchase

On scarred beige rocks.

This time, I stand proud,

Nervous still but upright,

Stray strands of hair

Whipping wildly in the wind

Like prayer flags in temples

Straddling the spine of the world.

My knees tremble, it’s true,

But it’s from the climb itself

And not the visceral terror

Of being so very high.

Ten years, near enough, gone by

Like days of sunshine,

And  I’m older, stronger, wiser,

And much less afraid.

Landlocked ~ a poem about craving the sea

Landlocked

When I wake, I want to feel

The sea breeze creeping cool

Through my open window,

Filling the room with the scent

Of the salt tang and the seaweed.

When I wake, I want to hear

Gulls, not rooks, calling raucously

Beyond my open window

And hear not the soft sough

Of the wind in the trees

But the hiss and gurgle

Of the sea lapping the shore.

On a winter’s morning

When the high winds have raged

Throughout the night,

I want to go outside

And find what the sea has thrown

Beyond the high tide mark

And sift the treasure from the trash.

I want to sit and watch

The sun sink beneath the waves

While a driftwood fire

Dances and crackles beside me

And the sound of the sea

Fills my ears with peace.

Making an Impression on the world ~ or why we can never be merely observers

Making an impression on the world ~ or why we can never be merely observers 

My most recent trip brought home to me in a number of ways how much of an impression we can make as individuals on the world and how easy it is to underestimate the impact our actions and inactions can have on others, even people whom we have had no direct contact with.

Coming through border control at Calais our coach was detained because while we had been parked up on a shopping trip illegal immigrants had climbed under the coach and were clinging to the underside of the vehicle. Now this was quite dramatic in itself but I’d rather pass swiftly on. The officials were marvellous and while we waited, they brought refreshments and reassurance to our group. I stood in the sunshine for a while talking with one officer and as I did so, a glint of metal caught my eye. On the ground by my feet was a small silver holy medal. I showed it to the officer and after some
discussion she told me to keep it as it might have been there for
months. It might well have been.

Some unknown person had dropped that little medal and had lost it forever. I have no way of ever finding the owner so I have kept it, as a reminder of our connection with those we never meet. A forensic
scientist would tell you that everywhere we go, we always leave a
tiny physical trace of ourselves: hair, skin cells, fibres from
clothing, fingerprints. We can never merely observe something, we always make some contribution, however tiny. This is also true of our non-physical actions. Each act we do, has consequences we will never see. Some are bad: the careless words that hurt the feelings of others, the distant issues of what we buy and where it is made, our car use and so on.  These are things that damage without us knowing we have caused harm;often simply by products of being alive and being human. The greater harms we cause in life, the hearts we break and the damage to the environment are often wrought through a mixture of ignorance and sheer blind selfishness.

But what about the good we do that we never know? How often do you find out later that your kind words have meant the world to someone who was thirsting to have some goodness and gentleness extended to them instead of harshness and cruelty? The things we teach our children need to include kindness and consideration for the feelings and well-being of others: we live in an increasingly me-focussed society where selflessness is seldom encountered and the dog-eat-dog model is followed ruthlessly.

It’s far from a perfect world. I’m far from perfect as a human being; some days I think I am a wretched specimen, falling so far from my aims. But aim high and while you might miss the stars you may still land on the moon, is a saying I sometimes think of. It’s not about being perfect but about trying the hardest to ensure that the harm you do is outweighed by the good.

Remembering that we are all connected, some say by only six degrees of connection, is a way of reminding yourself that you are never truly alone. The good you do will return to you, as will the harm. I’m not a believer in the full concept of Karma, but I do believe that somewhere along the line, we tend to get what we deserve.

Someone, somewhere in the world lost a small but obviously cherished medal. I cannot return it to them physically but what I can do is offer prayers for that unknown soul, wherever they are. And perhaps others elsewhere may be doing the same for me, remembering me as the person who helped them, however briefly, or simply as one of millions who have supported a cause like UNICEF, or as, I hope, a dear friend who has meant a lot to their life.

After all, Hope was the last thing left in Pandora’s box, and has been the finest of human allies ever since.