…Little I’d ever teach a son, but hitting, shooting, war, hunting, all the arts of hurting…

Wilfred Owen – A Terre

My country is the world, and my religion is to do good.

Thomas Paine – Rights of Man

Watching the distressing events in Mumbai, I wonder at what point a spiritual path embraces the ‘arts of hurting’ and why? The blurring between the spiritual and the political, between ideology and religion is a complex and potentially alarming issue.

For myself, I am pleased to live in a secular society that gives me the freedom to follow the spiritual path of my choice. I feel comfortable with the notion that there are many paths to God, and uncomfortable with the marrying of state and faith. Having said this, I also recognise that my own personal politics help to shape the way I view my spirituality and vice versa; they are interwoven. For instance, my understanding of our current climate crisis and economic problems is that they are rooted in the dominant ideology of the west (i.e. free market Capitalism); I am uncomfortable with the way Democracy and Capitalism are lumped together as if inseparable; my politics are liberal and green, and as such feed into my Pagan spiritual path very easily (as I understand it). However, I am also aware that, despite my misgivings, I am a part of the problem, benefiting from the troubling ideology that is shaping my culture’s identity. Because of all this, the world appears a complex and paradoxical place, all the old certainties having become inadequate anchors. There is much in my spirituality that I feel the world could benefit from, but I have no desire to evangelise, feeling that a sharing of ideas is more productive than a wholesale take-over bid. Fundamentalism frightens me.

Perhaps the world has always been a choppy sea, and we rudderless. It is easy to see how tempting it is to yearn for solid ground; fundamentalist beliefs – whether religious or political – suggest that we are in control; we might assume that such rigid certainties are a magical shield against our deepest fears of social or personal disintegration. There is a comforting simplicity in fundamentalism: no grey areas to complicate decision making; no troubling pluralism to challenge our sense of self, our sense of rightness.  Taken to its extreme, it makes killing easier and justifiable. Maiming and murdering in the name of God or ideology is not a modern phenomenon.   

It is not only the senseless taking of innocent life to assert an ideological or religious stance that disturbs me. The radicalisation of young Muslim men has exploited the glorification of martyrdom as its prime weapon; shadowy (and presumably older) characters persuading and training a generation of young men to sacrifice their lives, whilst maintaining their own. This sounds depressingly familiar; history is full of old men sending the young to violent ends. It appears to me an abominable distortion to take youth, with all its associated idealism and anger at social injustice, and twist it into an instrument of death, when it should be a vehicle for hope and transformation.  And yet, of all the potential young men and women who might be radicalised, not all are. So what is happening here? Why do some succumb to darker interpretations of their faith? Behind the wider, complex and often baffling political, social and religious dynamics lie the equally complex and baffling psyches of individuals. When the personal collides with the political, there is always the danger that unresolved personal issues become grafted onto collective problems; the lines blur between our own inner pain and societal anguish; what appears to be a political battle might actually be a personal one externalised. Add all this to the fear of an uncertain and ever changing world and things get truly disturbing and murky.

I feel so extraordinarily inadequate in my grasp of what a solution might be; I am not even sure I understand the causes clearly. It is a poor truism to say that it is a tragic and deeply worrying situation that we face. My own stumbling thoughts urge me to strive for an embracing of the uncertainty that grips our world at present. Rigidly trying to uphold the status quo because we are afraid of what change might demand of us, can lead to yet more fundamentalist thinking. Humanity has to resist trying to find safety in unbending certainty. No one is safe in a fundamentalist world, no matter what the dominant ideology or religion; when there is no room for difference we are all at threat. We have to stay open and willing to find solutions that bring understanding and healing; surely this is a great part of what a spiritual journey should be about? Our spiritual paths are a tool to gain access to Spirit/God; we should not confuse them with Spirit itself. If we allow our search for God, or justice for that matter, to divide us or cause pain and havoc, then that search will have diminished our humanity, and when that happens, we are truly lost. Tom Paine’s quote–although he wouldn’t have had much truck with the search for the Divine- is a sentiment worth working towards.

 

 

 

 

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Amarcord

All art is autobiographical. The pearl is the oyster’s autobiography.

                                                                                                            Federico Fellini.

 

One of my all time favourite films is Fellini’s Amarcord. The title translates as ‘I remember’ and is Fellini’s own memories of growing up in Italy in the thirties. It is funny and moving, and, as in all of his movies, there are magical visual moments, where the true power of an image bypasses our rather feeble attempts to analyse it. We are left with the sense that we have momentarily gained access to a place within us, beyond the shifting and limiting constructs of language, breaking through to a more lasting emotional or psychic truth. One such scene of a peacock fanning its feathers in the falling snow still makes me want to cry inexplicably. Such ethereal moments are contrasted with a wonderful earthiness, and the everyday joys and tragedies of living take on the glow and draw of the extraordinary. Fellini has an incredible knack of reminding us that the ordinary is anything but.

 

But what of the ‘truth’ of autobiography? By all accounts Fellini was known as being rather slippery on this subject. It has got me thinking about the narratives we each choose for our own lives; our memories carefully edited and sifted. We are each story tellers at heart; we like the shape of narratives to take us to a place of resolution. If Fellini was less than truthful, maybe he understood that lives are never so neat, that we tell stories to give shape and meaning, to defend ourselves against feelings of futility. In the creation of a story there is a striving to uphold a belief that our existence counts.

 

Upon the recent and unexpected death of his sister, my husband Laurie expressed the deep regret that he felt she had died ‘mid sentence’. Perhaps we all do to a certain extent. One of the hardest things to come to terms with is that we can not finish that sentence for people once they are gone. Lives are messy and potentially unresolved in their endings. The lack of a perfect narrative or happy conclusion cannot negate the inherent meaning contained within the moment to moment existence of even the most tragic of lives. Factual events collide with our subjective experience, producing a myriad of tales and perspectives. Some folks get stuck in self-destructive stories, some not even aware that they are, in the main, the author of their own lives. What stories we choose to tell about ourselves can be the make or break of us.

 

Whatever the ‘factual’ truth, there are ‘poetic’ truths to consider too. And yet as wonderful as autobiographical stories are, making sense as they do of the often chaotic, often barely held together, shape of our living, I get drawn back again to those images of Fellini’s, the ones that speak not of beginnings, middles and endings, but of timeless being. Perhaps we fret too much about what our stories have been or will be. When that peacock fans its feathers in the falling snow, in the very beauty and mystery of that moment resides the deeper meaning of all our lives. What it is, I do not have the words to tell.

 

Brown is the New Black

Of all colours, brown is the most satisfying.  Mary Webb

 

Before my Pagan journey began, for many years I hated the descent into winter; as life retreated and the darkness and cold encroached, my gloominess increased. Pathologically blinkered against the beauty of winter for so long, I remember the change as a kind of road to Damascus moment, and the lightning bolt that struck was not electric blue or dazzling white but good old dependable brown.

 

I had once called brown ‘boring’, an absolutely no thrills colour. Maybe as we get older, flashiness grates and we yearn for subtlety, the spectrum of our appreciation widening. Or maybe, life cannot bare anyone missing out on the full extent of its beauty and so gives us a swift but sharp poke when we succumb to ignorance.

 

When I started to really see winter, I saw brown as if for the first time. Suddenly I was seized by the inadequacy of the word. How could there be only one quiet syllable for what appeared to be countless shades? It started with dying bracken; I couldn’t stop noticing it; the warmth and depth of the colours that networked the lanes and fields, covering woodland floors. Then it was the ploughed soil itself, the mud that tenaciously clung to my boots as if to say ‘notice me!’. Soon every brown became a focus for my fascination, the contrasting tones rich and exotic to my newly educated eye.

 

I came also to appreciate how brown anchors the other colours of winter, giving our eye a more restful contrast to vivid sunsets, and yet strangely warming and energizing under the weight of grey cloud. In winter’s wet, earthy perfume, it is the base note that gives body and substance. Brown roots and grounds us, drawing our focus to that place of the dormant seed within; a colour of rest and patience and yet also the steady pulse, muted but indomitable, beneath winter’s still surface.

 

Just recently, around Samhain, we were driving through the valley at the base of Chillerton Down, here on the Island. As the road climbed southward, the setting sun crowned the downs. Small clouds passed swiftly over the rim of the hill, giving the sun a gauzy, cinematic light. The sky was vivid with the colours of sunset, the pale crescent of the new moon sharpening its outline as the sun descended; the browns in the fields, hedgerows and trees – not to be outdone – glowed burgundy.

 

The turning leaves never disappoint. It is easy to be swayed by the intensity of beech’s coppery orange – beech is one of my favourites throughout any season. And yet it has been the oak and its more subtle browning that has filled me with pleasure this year. Oak courageously holds onto its green longest; horse chestnut usually the most eager to transform. Oak is measured and takes its time; the colour brown knows and appreciates these qualities and so blesses this tree with one of its nicest shades.

 

And there is brown in me too – nature inside and out: my hair, the freckles on my skin, the birthmark on the back of my knee, even tiny flecks of it around my pupils… The words of Mary Webb speak well of brown:

 

It is the deep, fertile tint of the earth itself; it lies hidden beneath every field and garden; it is the garment of multitudes of earth’s children, from the mouse to the eagle…It is dim with antiquity, full of the magic that lurks within reality…There is that in brown which surely speaks to all who are ever born into the world. 

Of Redwoods and Renewal

‘Nature often offers metaphors more elegant than any we can manufacture, and Muir Woods is no exception. Redwoods have evolved to turn disaster into opportunity. In these coastal forests, death produces life.’   Hope Edelman Motherless Daughters’

Along the roadside of the ornamental Rhinefield Drive in the New Forest is the ‘Tall Trees Trail’. Here you can wander through the vast Douglas firs. Unlike the majority of their kind who – betrayed by the profitable straightness of their trunks – are felled long before their time, these trees have been left to discover their true height. In the midst of English oak and beech has sprung up a little of the prehistoric, incongruously placed just feet away from passing cars. It is difficult not to be deeply moved by these beautiful trees; they stir a dimly felt primal memory of ancient forests, evoking feelings of both familiarity and strangeness.

Further along the trail is a grassy ride that ventures deeper into the woodland. A little way in from the road, standing like giant sentinels on either side of the track, are two redwoods. They are the tallest trees in the Forest and yet are still very young. Unlike the deep rutted thickness of the Douglas fir, the bark of the redwood is delicate. Such a thin skin belies the tree’s strength, and hidden beneath its papery exterior, its own unique powers of reproduction reside:

In the redwood ecosystem, buds for future trees are contained in pods called burls, tough brown knobs that cling to the bark of the mother tree. When the mother tree is logged, blown over, or destroyed by fire –when, in other words, she dies – the trauma stimulates the burls growth hormones. The seeds release and trees sprout around her, creating the circle of daughters. The daughter trees grow by absorbing the sunlight their mother cedes to them when she dies. And they get the moisture and nutrients their need from their mother’s root system, which remains intact underground even after her leaves die. Although the daughters exist independently of their mother above ground, they continue to draw sustenance from her underneath.

The above quote is taken from Hope Edelman’s book Motherless Daughters. In it she deals with childhood bereavement, specifically daughters who lose mothers.  Edelman, whilst out walking, had come across a charred stump of redwood surrounded by a circle of young trees.  She discovered that park rangers call these groupings the ‘family circle’.  For Edelman, who lost her own mother as a teenager, the invisible but strongly felt presence of her mother’s life and death had led her to conclude that  ‘Her presence influenced who I was, and her absence influences who I am. Our lives are shaped as much by those who leave us as they are by those who stay.’

 

When I first discovered the New Forest trees, my thoughts were drawn to Edelman’s redwood metaphor. My own mother died when I was thirteen; that charred stump of redwood surrounded by her offspring struck me as a poignant and touching image.  That invisible root system that entwines the lives of our psyches with that of a mother lost, can trigger a long journey, one that can be a taut struggle between wanting to hold on and wanting to let go; an inner battle to find a sense of one’s own autonomy and destiny, one that isn’t only linked to that original, momentous loss. Seeing those enormous redwoods and firs, given the space and freedom to become their true shape and size, stirred a great deal in me. And yet seeds grow where they fall, so many factors aiding or impeding that growth. We are one in a long line of mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, the bonds of which (or lack of) will shape our own experiences in ways we may only be partially conscious of, if at all.

 

It didn’t surprise me to learn that mother loss had been a common theme in my family. My great grandmother Lydia had abandoned her seven children, never to return; my great aunt Rose died at 104 still refusing to speak of her mother, the hurt and betrayal of that loss undiminished after almost a century. My grandmother and her siblings went on to lose their step mother in child birth too. After the loss of two mothers, my grandmother became pregnant whilst in service and was forced to give up her own child to adoption. My own immediate family struggled to recover from my mother’s death. My sister’s early and tragic passing has left a legacy of loss for her children too. When I began to look at my family history, it was hard not to feel a part of an ongoing collective striving; unresolved loss from the past was attempting,  by repeated patterns, to find its peace in the present, and if not then, through lives yet to come.

 

Families seem to have their own collective themes and challenges. As each of us are born and live, perhaps we are presented with opportunities to redeem the pain of the past, not just for ourselves but for all those who have gone before us and those that will follow. Our collective family narratives are powerful, and each of us is subject to their influence, to a greater or lesser extent. For some, being caught up in the unfolding patterns of an ongoing family dynamic can be confusing and deeply wounding, but I have come to believe that there is always the potential for healing, even at the heart of the most entrenched familial patterns. There is a fine balance struck, knowing that you are part of a group narrative that will have profound effects on your life and acknowledging that you are also an individual with your own life to lead. In honouring our own path, by finding our true shape and height, we can reweave the patterns; inject new life and perspective into our family story. It would seem that we are both forest and tree.

 

Nestled into the vast trunk of one of the New Forest redwoods, the span of my life seems remarkably short, as seemingly insubstantial as the fibrous red bark that I rest against, and yet this tree feels so solid, so strong…It has the power to bring forth new life from its own death. Below the surface of our lives, deep beneath our singular and collective skins, those tough little burls await their moment; out of the deepest sadness and loss they come to life.

 

 

Maria and New Forest Redwood

Maria and New Forest Redwood