Sweet Tins and Love Letters

There is something magical about Yaverland beach in a high wind. The top layer of sand dries to lightness and is propelled across the surface in ankle deep swirls and eddies, smoke-like and ghostly, the ground hugging passage of earth bound spirits. Today the sea thundered in, brilliant turquoise and white foam; kestrels skilfully suspending their flight in the fierce south-westerly along the cliff’s edge, as if the wind were calm and they frozen in space.

Trish and I walked up to Culver cliff and back after lunch at the Roman Villa. Here they are conducting an archaeological dig on the southern side of the site. The villa is home to some impressive mosaics and sits at what once was the edge of Brading Harbour, overlooking Sandown Bay and the Downs. It’s a beautiful spot. Much of Brading Harbour is reclaimed land and marsh, the original Romano-British occupants looking out on a slightly different scene than that of today, the sea practically lapping at the door two thousand years ago.

Watching the layers being removed and sifted (the wheelbarrows all have names – my favourite is ‘Wotan’!) it is frustrating to think that we cannot excavate emotions and experiences in quite the same way; the thoughts and responses, the joys and tragedies of the people who lived and worked here, are only hinted at in the finds being washed and sorted, documented and filed. It is strange to think that so much that is significant to us – the less tangible substance of our life, its meaning and context – disappear so thoroughly from view with only bone and domestic rubble as comparatively poor signposts. And yet, we sense that our ancestors’ living was no doubt as complex and perplexing as our own; we share our humanity, a psychic bridge that fords the gap between the living and the dead – nothing new under the sun, the moon or the stars – a thought comforting and puzzling in equal measure.

With archaeological finds, so much depends on interpretation; fitting shattered pieces back to make a recognisable whole, doesn’t necessarily mean you grasp the point of something. The true function and worth of not only objects but also the people in our lives can be notoriously shifting and mutable. It’s a bit like using an old sweet tin to keep love letters in; for someone to dig up that rusty tin years later, letters long turned to dust – how would anyone appreciate the true story of that object, know of the intense love of one human being for another once held within it? Intended purpose is not always the same as actual function; equally our relationships with each other are not so easy to judge simply by the titles we or others might give them.

The strangely shifting nature of life and memory were strikingly apparent to me this weekend. Laurie and I stayed with some much loved friends, Van and Lou, on the mainland. By some weird twist of fate, Van and Lou are now living in our old house. At this point, when home has felt so not like home, it was a surreal and slightly unsettling experience to find ourselves sleeping in our old bedroom. When I left that house, I never expected to see it again, let alone sleep in it. We lived there for four years; it was a sanctuary during some awful times and the first place that we had lived in twenty years that felt like a real home – at last somewhere comfortable and nurturing. I planted a silver birch that I had grown from a sapling in the garden and was moved to see how big and beautiful it has become. And yet now the place feels like a stranger. Both Laurie and I noted that we had remembered it differently, the bedroom now seeming so much smaller, the familiarity that day to day living brings to a place, very much gone. This was our old house but it is not our home anymore.

Sitting on the bus on our journey back to the Island, Laurie and I discussed how incredibly rootless we both feel. The problems with the kids here have had such an impact on our ability to settle in, to feel at home. We are both suspended like those Kestrels in the wind; an uncomfortable freeze frame between an old life left behind and a new one wanting to emerge. It’s a confusing place to be but I suspect one of potential. What a tough job the archaeologist has to know the people of the past; I couldn’t recognise any part of me in the bricks and mortar of a house that I had called home only two years ago – where would the traces of me be in centuries to come? This brings up the issue of course that ‘home’ is not a building; it’s our body, our emotions, our being that we truly occupy; feel happy or ill at ease in. And yet, the bricks and mortar do make a difference. Our old home was a sanctuary when within me there was a much greater whirlwind of change and crisis than there is now. It doesn’t seem to necessarily follow that being at home within oneself equals feeling at home in your house or the reverse.

I have written on my Blog many times of the powerful sense of belonging I feel here in the landscape. Walking with Trish at Yaverland today, I felt that immense sense of connection, of being enfolded and welcomed. Things make sense out there.

Laurie and I face a challenge now. We have a decision to make. We have planned to sit it out until Winter Solstice, let the autumn bring what shedding it may. In the meantime we both hope to reach some clarity, to more clearly grasp what can and can’t be changed; life is too short to hold on when we should be letting go. The bottom line is simple: we could adapt to the situation we find ourselves in i.e. change ourselves; or we could move i.e. change the situation. We at least have a choice. I sometimes allow myself to get paralysed by the thought of making a ‘wrong’ or ‘right’ decision. I keep forgetting I am human. I keep forgetting to trust.

If anyone digs up my poor old bones, I feel a little sadness that they will not detect the peculiar story of my life from my remains. Going back briefly to an old landscape of my own, I am amazed at how much the vista has altered and in such a short time. No doubt the one time residence of Brading Villa would notice some changes too, the sea receded and their home now shadowy traces in the soil; their wonderful mosaics without the walls and roof that held so many lives together within a shared time and space.

It has occurred that all this longing for home of mine is a bit like wanting to be a big rock on the beach, not that wind blown sand shooting across the surface, its movement dictated by forces beyond its control. And yet even those big old rooted rocks are eventually worn down by the elements, unavoidably reshaped by the constant movement.

I think I am fighting the speed of the changes that have swept through my life in recent times; I feel exhausted with the pace of it despite feeling that the change has been necessary. I simply want some breathing space, to recharge, brush myself down, and yet it seems that the major changes are not yet finished with me. Sometimes I fear I just won’t have the stamina to survive all this; sometimes I am fearful of where it is taking me, of what more might be ‘removed’ from my life. Some days I curse the moment that I ever thought engaging with my spiritual life was a good idea because of course, once we do dig a little deeper, it seems that we activate those changes, magically setting in motion the transformations that many state are a common factor upon such a journey. Thing is, I felt compelled. To not want to engage with those deeper mysteries in life and in my self; to not answer that intense desire to reach for the Divine and for meaning in my existence; to not want to delve into the extraordinary beauty around me and find myself a part of it, was not an option I felt I had. To have denied that journey would have killed something vital in me. Now, I sometimes joke that answering that call might just kill me anyway!

There is a quote from The Dark Labyrinth by Lawrence Durrell that I find incredibly helpful at these times of deep tiredness and confusion:

Yet there is a merciful law by which nothing heavier than you can bear is ever put upon you. Remember it! It is not the burden which causes you pain – the burden of excessive sensibility –but the degree of your refusal to accept responsibility for it that sets up a stress and conflict.

It’s also about having compassion with yourself; it is so easy – when trembling beneath the weight of loss or the heavy consequences of our actions or decisions – to berate ourselves as failures or fools. We are fragile beings, and that bigger picture that might make some sense of the confusion is so often obscured or distorted by the limited angle from which we can view it. We should feel a tender sympathy for ourselves, a loving patience when we cannot always rise to the difficulty of the task placed before us.

At Yaverland in a high wind, just for a second the fierceness of the elements and the blinding sun on the sea combine to act like white noise; for one brief moment all this movement and I are all that exists, no boundary between us, not one thought or feeling to complicate it. It is the briefest of respites. At this point when all my strategies seem to be failing me, I turn once again to surrender. In that moment of release, in the movement of the loosening grip, I have to place my trust…

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