Feeding Time

It’s that time of year again when each walk around the wetlands across from my home has my pockets bulging with food for the birds and red squirrels: seeds, nuts and fruit, meal worms and dried duck food pellets, plus a couple of coconut halves filled with suet and other tasty bits. We have a couple of trees that we hang these upon in Borthwood Lynch, swapping them for fresh ones every week. We also take fat balls and hang them upon the big oak in our little grove and place food in the hide at Alverstone Mead Nature Reserve.

At the hide today there were flurries of blue tit, great tit and chaffinch around the hanging feeders and several red squirrels, their bright red coats now dulled to a winter brown. The squirrels are much braver here than at most other places on the Island; the rewards of food have taught them that the risk of getting close to one or two humans is worth it. Amongst the goodies on the feeding shelf were almonds in their shells. These proved to be a real favourite. The squirrels would agitatedly sniff out the almonds and then scamper off with them. We watched one squirrel secrete almonds between the logged fencing of the high wooden walkway that leads into the hide, only to gallop down the walkway, past our feet, up onto the ledges to claim yet more. They were in a playful mood, chasing each other along the roof and performing their wonderful acrobatic leaps from hide to tree, spiralling at high speed around the trunks.

A large buzzard glided out across the water meadows scattering into flight the black-headed gulls that were sat, one each to a post, along the fences that edge the fields next to the river. The reeds were brown and had collapsed into boggy heaps but the rushes were a vibrant green, their spiky tufts coverings the wet ground that stretches out beyond Borthwood Lynch. It is a beautiful place and these days a very rare habitat that needs to be protected. A great deal of work is going into managing the wetlands at Alverstone Mead, ensuring that this precious and abundant habitat continues to flourish.

Walking back along the old railway path, the flooded meadows reflected the sky’s darkening and the moon – slowly swelling to fullness – brightened and sharpened as the sun began to set. All this incredible beauty feeds and nourishes me; I am tempted to want to squirrel it away in some place where I can keep it safe and unchanged but I know that this is not possible or even desirable. I have watched this landscape over the changing seasons now for almost three years – it never stays still, although the joy it gives me is constant. I guess this is a lesson in itself that despite our coming to terms with the inevitable changes of our lives, joy and nourishment are always there to be discovered. There is a balance to be kept between the preserving and shedding; nature knows this well and is an expert; I on the other hand am still learning.

Love, Life and Dancing in the Rain

Yesterday, my lovely Yoga teacher Julie gave me a beautiful Christmas card that she had made herself. In it she wrote a quote which I really like:

Life is not about how to survive the storm but how to dance in the rain.

Opening up Julie’s wonderful card which she created with love, and her incredibly apt choice of words, made me cry.

We had finished our Yoga lesson with some candle gazing, sitting in a close circle together in the dark, focusing on the light of the flame and after some time, closing our eyes and visualising the flame in our Ajna or third eye Chakra. Then we visualised moving the flame down into our Anahata or heart Chakra, feeling its glow and warmth there. We then held hands and visualised sending this golden light out from our hearts, down our arms, feeling it pass from our hands to those next to us and around the circle. It was a lovely, intimate moment. We each silently affirmed love and well-being for ourselves and for the whole group.

I returned home, opened my card, and sat on the bottom step of the stairs, not being able to stop the tears. Julie’s kindness and thoughtfulness touched me and the words she had picked for my card couldn’t have been more well chosen. If I could sum up what I believe my major life lesson is then this sentence would be the one that would express it best. I have spent so much time and energy surviving storms but I am coming to realise that when we engage with our hearts – with that Anahata centre – survival strategies are a poor substitute for dancing in the rain.

There is a wonderful book by Anodea Judith called Wheels of Life: A User’s Guide to the Chakra System (Llewellyn). She writes well of Anahata and its connection to love:

Love is not a matter of getting connected; it is a matter of seeing that we are already connected within an intricate web of relationships that extend throughout life. It is a realisation of ‘no boundaries’ – that we are all made of the same essence, riding through time on the same planet, faced with the same problems, the same hopes and fear. It is a connection at the core that makes irrelevant skin colour, age, sex, looks, or money.

More than anything, love is the deep sense of spiritual connection, the sense of being touched, moved, and inspired to heights beyond our normal limits. It is a connection with a deep, fundamental truth that runs through all of life and connects us together. Love makes the mundane sacred – so that it is cared for and protected. When we lose our sense of connection with all life, we have lost the sacred, and we no longer care for and protect that which nourishes us.

We are that love. We are its life force, its expression, its manifestation, its vehicle. Through it we grow, we transcend, we triumph, and surrender to grow again ever deeper. We are renewed, cut down, and renewed again.

In the Chakra system, we ideally express ourselves through all our energy centres but it is the heart that balances and connects these various energies, ‘the central wheel of life from which all others turn’. To close any part of ourselves down will cause pain but to close the heart causes the greatest pain of all.

When we stop trusting in life, when we have become overwhelmed with fear or have contracted with hurt, the true route to healing is ultimately through the opening of the heart. It’s not about being brave; it’s about feeling oneself a child again.

Home Sweet Home

There was a report on the news this morning about the worryingly large percentage of people in the UK living in substandard accommodation. They showed a couple living in a damp and cramped room with poor heating and facilities. My heart went out to them and the report gave me a little knot in my tummy because the room looked just like the one we used to live in.

Laurie and I spent many years in what might be termed substandard living accommodation. We lived in multiple occupancy properties for twelve years. It actually shocks me to read that back to myself; I can’t believe that we stuck it that long. We were struggling musicians and cherished a very romantic view of what it meant to follow ones dream and be true to oneself. I still believe this to have been a worthy aim but poverty can undermine even the most resilient and idealistic ambitions.

We once lived in a single bed-sit in a large Edwardian house in Southsea. On the plus side our one room had a ridiculously grand marble fireplace. Your eye would move along its elegantly angled mantle but the illusion was rather shattered by the plastic coal effect, two bar electric heater in the grate. There was a mango and brown sofa which had supported many a bottom but had long retired, its seats plunging low enough to expose a long wooden bar of pure back torture that would eventually leave even the youngest and fittest with muscle spasms. Because of the sagging cushions it ate anything and everything: hairbrushes, money, items of clothing, books, magazines…self respect…

The first night in our little room we spent hunched over a Baby Belling cooker with a single hot plate, staring into a pot of mushroom soup that took a mere hour and a half to heat up. There was one shared bathroom and one toilet for the whole property. Technically there was a second bathroom but this amounted to a small cupboard big enough for a tiny bath with a boiler that had obviously taken lessons from the Baby Belling and took half a century and a week’s wages to heat. We had an ancient meter that only took five pence pieces. We would need sack loads of these once the bar fire and boiler over the sink were on – the wheel on the meter frantically whizzing around. Landlords could make profit from meters by charging more per unit of electricity. It is true that the poor cannot afford to be poor! Some settings bordered on illegal. In the shortest time possible the meter would fill up to capacity and we would be left without heating or electricity until we could contact the landlady to come and empty it. The room was only meant to be a temporary home until we could find something better. We soon discovered that, financially speaking, there was nothing better. We ended up in that room for almost a year and a half.

In the basement lived a well-known local heroine dealer with his steady stream of ‘visitors’. After we left, he moved up from the basement into our room and not long after died there from an overdose. Most of the house was occupied by a group of men who worked the fairground rides at Clarence Pier. They were all in their late thirties but would bring home extremely young girls that they had picked up on the waltzers (some of them clearly hadn’t even left school), flattered by the attentions of these men they obviously were not fully aware of exactly what was being expected of them – they were incredibly vulnerable.

Above us, there was a tiny attic room whose size would have challenged most people’s sanity if they had been forced to live in it for long.  It was home to an alcoholic called Sam. He was a bouncer by profession and would stumble home in the early hours and proceed to jump up and down on our ceiling, screaming at the top of his voice – over and over – that we were ‘fucking bastards’. This happened almost every day that we lived there. He would pee out of his tiny window letting it drip down on top of our bay window below. He loved Bat out of Hell, playing it at ear-splitting levels at three in the morning. Despite yelling at us through the ceiling on a regular basis, if we met on the stairs, he would be perfectly civil. We christened him ‘Flat Foot Sam’. For a time, his girlfriend and their baby joined him; one of our most awful memories was hearing him regularly beat her.

The shining light in all of this was a guy called Nick who lived on the same landing as us. He was a six foot Goth bedecked in black and red silk with full Goth makeup, his dyed jet hair backcombed to within an inch of its life. He was a total joy to be around, one of the funniest people I have known and made living there bearable. We would take refuge in each other’s rooms when the house kicked off – as it often did. On one such occasion, the young man who occupied the other tiny attic room had what we presumed to be a bad acid trip or some kind of psychotic episode and proceeded to destroy all his furniture, punching holes in his ceiling and throwing a double deck music centre through a closed window, letting it fall four storeys to its death. His rather devastating finale was to kick over his bar fire whilst it was still on and thereby set fire to his carpet. He was in such a frenzy that night, bits of plaster were falling from Nick’s ceiling! Nick went on much later to become a dot.com millionaire! The twists and turns of life never fail to amaze.

When we left that room, we went on to another M.O building where we spent the next ten years. There are so many stories from that time in my life, some that make me smile and some that knot my stomach even now; no one really wants their life to be a series of anecdotes and the frequent coming and going of souls in M.O s – a great deal of them, damaged and struggling – inevitable means that you collect more than your fair share of tales.

In my honest opinion, no human being should have to live in an M.O. Cramming that many human beings in such a small space is wrong but what is worse is that it lowers people’s expectations of life, their sense of confidence and aspiration can be eroded as they start to believe that this is all that they are worth. I had some shocking landlords, ones who openly called their tenants ‘scum’. One woman used to freely let herself in to people’s rooms and snoop around their stuff while they were not at home. I caught her one day. For her it was her right – it was her property; she had no concept that it might actually be someone’s home too.

There is no doubt that many folks who live in these places are on the fringe but I am of the opinion that if you leave these folks in what is effectively a housing ghetto, the fringe is exactly where they will remain. Many disreputable landlords make a great deal of money from the benefits system by filling properties with as many people as is legally possible and doing as little to the property as they can get away with. I have come to have little respect for these kinds of landlords but I think that MOs encourage this behaviour. If I ruled the world, we would kiss goodbye to them – they are Dickensian.

Everyone deserves a home; warmth, shelter and food are basic human rights. As a society, we should feel that we are failing if we believe that MOs are adequate housing. Some of my ancestors lived in the cramped tenements buildings of Tooley Street in view of Tower Bridge. These were built to accommodate the vastly overcrowded slums that backed on to the docks at the turn of the 20th Century – the ‘warren’ as it was then called. My ancestors also lived in the slums of White Chapel and Stepney in Edwardian London – life in the East End at that time being shockingly cheap. As is so often the way in our own time, the poor were blamed for their own predicament then too. It wasn’t acceptable then and it shouldn’t be now. Home and dignity are intimately linked – no one should find themselves forced to live without either.

Beauty is Boundless

Driving along the top road out of Ventnor today, Laurie and I were treated to the most stunning display of sunrays breaking through the clouds in a perfectly symmetrical fan, each beam a spotlight brightening the ocean’s surface. Such unexpected beauty fills me with both joy and yearning; joy because the world is such an amazing place; yearning because I am acutely aware that these moments are transient. And yet, nature is so incredibly generous. I have lost count in my life of the times I have stood, breath held and heart pumping; those skin shivering times that – although brief in span – have something of the eternal about them. Such abundance leaves me grateful and humble. I have been feeling so physically low and exhausted, horribly cut off from my spiritual centre of late; those beams of light piercing cloud are thankfully never far away. When I am truly open enough to see, I am always a little taken back at how full each moment is. Boredom and emptiness are really illusions; they come when we veil our sight, when we stop touching or being touched by the world and others. I awoke in the middle of the night with a sensation of heat in the centre of my chest; a calming warmth that lasted for about five minutes. The sun’s light on the ocean today made me remember it; fire and water – love is both. 

There is a beautiful wooden carving in the Botanic Gardens at Ventnor. It is a Green Man and he is rising up and reaching towards the sun. The style is reminiscent of one of William Blake’s figures. Carved around it are the words From light and water all life flows.

Green Man, Ventnor Botanic Gardens, Isle of Wight

You Whom Care in Prison Keeps, and Sickness Doth Suppress

In one of  earth’s tranquil haunts a man may lay his head on her green pillow…There is a hand on the hot forehead. He meets death with the absence of morbidity – almost amounting to indifference – which you find in the gay short-lived citizens of wood and meadow. Death is no longer either the supreme disaster or the supreme desire, but an incident – the swinging back of the gate on the skyline. He begins to link himself with the Beauty that lies in and beyond the beauty of earth, like light in a flower; an intuition begins to dawn on him that this Beauty, or Love, is not only above all things, but in them, permeating them; that he and the very germ of disease that destroys his body abide in it as inevitably as the world abides in the invisible air. When each breath is drawn in this eternal atmosphere, now and forever are one; today and in a million years, here and beyond the uttermost star, we are in the heart of God. 

Mary Webb –  The Spring of Joy

Learning to Love the Limitation

There have been some lovely meditations upon Awen (the Druid understanding of inspiration) on Philip Carr Gomm’s Blog of late. The most recent of these has got me thinking about the subject of limitation, not merely with regard to our creativity but to our wider lives and how we make peace with limitation and accept it as a necessary fact of life.

Those hardy souls who have followed this Blog for some time, will know that I have written before about my struggle to find some healing with regard to my menstrual cycle. My periods have always been very difficult but moving through my forties they continue to worsen, the symptoms having a considerable impact upon my life. Over the last year I have been prodded, poked, examined and fed hormones, all to no avail. The biggest blow was my cervix being too small for the Mirena coil; I had begun to pin all my hopes on the Mirena which, on paper, looked like a saving grace. This disappointment was followed by a rather disastrous experiment with Utovlan, a synthetic progestogen that mimics natural progesterone. It was given me in an attempt to lessen the flow which has become worryingly excessive. It merely prevented me from having a period at all and plunged me into a pretty awful mental state: manic whilst taking it and in stopping, feeling as if my mind were unravelling.

After the Utovlan fiasco, I have been sticking my head in the sand. This only works so far as a strategy because I still have to deal with worsening symptoms. I have hit a bit of a low point with it all in the last few days. My last period I bled for almost two weeks, a worrying new record; it was exhausting. I made sure to take extra iron but it still knocked me completely flat. Having bled for half the month, my next period has come around alarmingly quickly; I am dreading the possibility that I am going to be on for another couple of weeks. I had just got back into the swing of things physically and then this week brought horrible PMT, extreme tiredness, skin sensitivity, emotional swings and that awful vague, confused state that has me feeling cut off from life and physically clumsy. For four days I felt like something was surging beneath my skin and now today I wake up to blood, pain and feeling exhausted yet again.

On the plus side, I am so grateful for my Yoga; it is a blessing and helps me to hold on to a positive image of myself and my body. It can be tempting to descend into self-loathing – stuck in the middle of all this, it is hard sometimes to feel attractive and lovable as a woman; it rocks my sense of who I am – the me that loves to move and enjoy my life feels submerged and trapped, waiting for it all to finish so I can get on with being me. I am so lucky to have a partner who is patient and understanding. My yoga teacher has been a great help in advising me about restorative poses, being gentle with my body when I am going through the worst parts of my cycle. My dear friend Tracey has been incredible too. She suffers in the same way and it is an enormous help to have someone there who truly understands what you are experiencing. I so often worry that people think that I am making it up or exaggerating. It is culturally a taboo subject and so people don’t talk much about what they endure. A friend of mine once confided that she had looked rather disdainfully on women at work who took time off for period problems. It was only when she herself started to develop severe pain and heaviness that she began to appreciate that, at it most extreme, menstruation can be genuinely debilitating. 

Pondering on limitation, I realise that this is a limitation that I have to learn to accept. It has been there for most of my life. My first period was deceptively easy and short. My second was not. I remember being afraid and confused by the pain; of being twelve years old, curled up in the rocking chair crying and my mum very knowingly bringing me a hot water bottle and some soup. She had suffered all her life with terrible periods and it must have hurt her to know that her child would suffer too.

I feel sad that I miss out on so many things I would like to do. There have been spiritual retreats and events that I would dearly love to have taken part in but so often my symptoms get in the way. The last major event that I attended was a Brighid Retreat in Glastonbury 2006 – typically I came on during my time there and it was clear then that my worsening symptoms were becoming increasingly hard to manage whilst away from home. I miss terribly being involved in these events and now that the timing of my periods is becoming increasingly erratic and unpredictable, I am unsure about booking ahead. I have lost count of the events that Laurie has attended without me, of the time spent worrying that people will misunderstand and think less of me for having to cancel.

I am a person who likes to search for positive solutions to problems; I feel that if I can rise to the challenge then I will be ok but to be honest I feel a little afraid of where this one is going. My options seem to be dwindling and the thought of a hysterectomy just feels so horribly drastic. What keeps me buoyant is the knowledge that this will not go on forever, the menopause will make sure of that and yet I don’t want to be here wishing my life away, my ‘now’ being swallowed by some longed for future event.

I am struggling to embrace this limitation that is a fact of my life but I guess I really need to find the best way to do just that. It is hard because today I feel poorly and tomorrow I will probably feel less than great again too; in fact, for the next few days this is going to be my reality. I should remember that many others suffer far worse fates and I have so much in my life to feel grateful for. If anyone out there in a similar condition has any positive suggestions, I would love to hear them.

She’s Got a Ticket to Ryde (but didn’t quite make it).

One of my most favourite things is sitting in cafés on my tod, drinking coffee, pondering and scribbling in my little notebook. Sometimes I even throw in lunch! Today, I did just that. After an abortive attempt to take the train into Ryde, I ended up in Sandown in one of my regular café haunts, watching the world go by. I love these suspended moments when all I have to do is think. I love trains and buses for the same reason.

Today the windows of the café were clouded with steam; I watched the world passing through the odd patch of clear glass that remained and felt myself easing and slowing into that dreamy state, wondering why anyone would want to deny themselves this simple pleasure.

A very lively group of Welsh ladies came in. The great thing about living in Sandown is that the holiday makers keep coming all year round. In winter, coach upon coach of OAPs arrive and depart, and these ladies were some of this weeks visitors. There is something rather wonderful about constantly being around those on holiday. Folks who are taking time out of their ordinary lives – finding a place to be themselves – are generally a pretty joyful bunch to encounter. There is something incredibly infectious about happiness and the Welsh ladies had it in trumps! They fell through the door like a bunch of giggling school girls; one of them had just walked into a post, despite the fact – they told me – that this post had red and white ribbons tied around it and was ridiculously easy to see! They sat examining the bump on her forehead, cracking jokes and setting each other off into fits of giggles. Their ease with each other, and the joy they so obviously experienced by being together, was lovely. The café hummed with their presence.

I love this coming and going of humanity in cafes; of sitting and finding oneself a part of an ever shifting and changing scene. I find it a great way of ordering my thoughts and getting those creative juices flowing again. I feel incredible settled and at home in myself in those moments. You can be feeling blue and another’s happiness will feed and lift you; it’s one of those magical things that humans do for each other, often without even being aware that they have. My friend Tracey and I were recently talking about how people’s faces are transformed when they smile or laugh; lost in thought, faces can often look so serious or sad. When you smile at someone and they return that smile, it is amazing how beautiful a face becomes, regardless of age or sex. Much is said about anti- aging creams but joy on a face is an instant facelift; laughter takes years off.