Ways of Seeing

When I lived on the Isle of Wight, I wrote much upon my own Blog about the island’s beauty and the yearning for rural spaces. Pagan spirituality is often associated with wild, natural places, Pagans seeking to experience the Divine at its heart. There is a strong thread of Romanticism that runs through the Pagan worldview. The Romantic movement grew out of the increasing rise of industrialism and the expansion of urban environments that were perceived as dirty, overcrowded and soulless; a place where God was absent -Blake wrote of ‘those dark satanic mills’. The polarisation between the natural world and the man-made urban space could well be seen as a reflection of Monotheism’s own internal split between God and Satan; God and his natural order pitted against Satan’s creation of – through the hubris of man – a world of smog that mocked nature and brought about the destruction of the rural idyll.

Of course, the rural idyll is a myth in itself. Most of our natural, wild places (in the UK at least) are not wild or natural at all. Britain’s truly wild landscapes are few, most places sculpted by farming or mining; humans shaping the landscape, and nature adapting to those changes.

Having recently moved back to a densely populated city, the notions of perceived beauty in both natural and urban worlds have been apparent to me. Living in Portsmouth for twenty-three years before I moved to the Island, I had always seen myself as a rural lass trapped in an urban landscape, yearning for the green open spaces of my childhood woodland and downland home. In fact, yearning for even wilder, lonelier places to dwell. I harboured a dream to live on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, believing myself to be ideally suited to the isolation and peace, a great part of me feeling kinship with those starkly beautiful coastal places. The opportunity to move to the Isle of Wight – although a softer, less bleak environment – thrilled me.

I can’t deny that the natural beauty of the Island is magical. However, the isolation of island life had its impact and I quickly learnt that my Lewis dream was an illusion; beautiful surroundings are not enough if one’s internal landscape is a psychological wasteland and one’s soul tribe is scattered.

What has surprised me is the beauty of the urban environment I am currently reacquainting myself with. Having left and now returned, I am seeing the city through fresh eyes. The film of weary familiarity has been swiped clean – I have been falling in love with its shapes and colours, the composition of tightly occupied vistas, its business, its full-on surge of human life and activity. What once had appeared dirty, overcrowded and ugly has now taken on a strangely magical aura. There is ugliness here but it dwells tooth by jowl with unexpected loveliness, the ugly possessing its own peculiar beauty when we look at it with neutral and open eyes.

The view from my partner’s flat shows lines of terraced housing, their gardens back to back; roofs in various shapes and shades of tile, warm browns, muddier greys; slate and brick and coloured rendering lashed together with washing lines stretching from house to garden shed, a scene that Stanley Spencer would have painted perfectly. These uneven structures possess their own emotional texture: friendly, warm, known, each a home containing countless lives and stories.

And then there are the moments when the drizzle at rush hour catches the neon, revealing the fine droplets carried in eddies and swirls; the wetness of the roads reflecting the headlights, the fine spray diffusing the light, softening the glare – the energy and movement of the busy streets contrasting and dissolving in the mizzle; hardness blurring at the edges.

Time and again, this surprising shift of perception shows me yet another angle by which to view this place that I have known so well but have barely ‘seen’ until now.

The truth is that the Divine  lives in every landscape; those heightened moments when the Awen floods in  and fires our senses and our souls, can be felt wherever we find ourselves.

I will finish with a useful quote from Arthur Schopenhauer which says much about the freedoms and restrictions of our ways of seeing:

Every man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world…

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Being Thankful

If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you; it will be enough.

Meister Eckhart

It can be so easy to lose touch with gratitude when we feel challenged by life. We can become distracted by the everyday minor irritations that we each deal with or – at those moments when major changes overwhelm us – we can feel in some way exiled from life’s sweetness, from the many blessings that we are touched by. When we look a little deeper, even at the most painful times, we can find that we are surrounded by a million unspoken kindnesses; within touching distance of beauty and joy; never far from a gift – be it a word, an act, a sight, that has the potential to enrich us.

I don’t do it nearly enough but I think a regular practice of consciously giving thanks is a simple but powerfully effective spiritual practice that anyone can do, regardless of religious belief or lack of, and it would seem, regardless of where we might find ourselves.

I have a lot of love and laughter in my life at the moment – despite the sadness of endings that are an inevitable part of this transitional time – and although I am not immune to that sadness, the depth of that love and laughter is something I am truly thankful for. It is something that enfolds me, comforts me, inspires and uplifts me.

I am also very grateful for my beautiful little flat. Steve and I regularly talk to a homeless man in our local shopping area. Steve has bought him food and cigarettes on occasion and we give money when we can, chat and say hello. I cannot imagine how tough it must be not to have a roof or a place of safety and comfort that you can relax in. This man has no family and spends much of his time alone. A hard life indeed. It reminds me that what I have is a palace and a blessing – ‘there but for the grace of God go I’ is a saying that none of us should ever forget.

Perception is everything – how we choose to see and interpret our lives is ultimately the deciding factor in how our lives are shaped. We might not draw the outline – plenty of external stuff impacts on us too – but we select the colours that fill those lines; the tone and the texture are ours to create. The wonderful thing about gratitude is that it transforms the world into a magical place, full of meaning and depth. And so, say thank you. The more you do, the more you will discover to be thankful for.

Maiden Flight

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This Blog has been woefully neglected over the last few months. The demands of adjusting to my new life – putting in place all those things necessary to survive such as supporting a home and working at a new job – have taken more energy than has felt available. Times of transition can be exhausting; they bring both pain and joy. The excitement of newly discovered potential being given the chance to unfold and flourish is something to be treasured but there has been a good deal of shedding and sadness that has accompanied this leap of faith so recently made. I am as tired as I have ever been.

Being single again after such a long married life has meant engaging with some tricky logistics regarding finances. Separation leaves many people in reduced circumstances; money is undoubtedly tight but I am learning to support myself. This brings a sense of achievement but hovering on the poverty line also brings some strain and worry too.  My current job scores low on satisfaction and pay, high on boredom, repetition and compromise. This is an extra drain and has the double whammy of not even paying enough to truly compensate for the time and energy it takes. Despite this, I have to remind myself that it is serving a purpose – a short-term strategy; one necessary step on the route to better things.

It has all rather felt like I have been balancing upon a plank set on top of a ball, shifting my weight constantly to keep upright, always in motion, never still. I have longed to step off for a bit, feel some solid ground beneath me, but for now that is not an option. My partner reminds me to be patient, be proud of the positive achievements I have made so far; it is sound advice but then patience was never my strong point, and once you have walked off a cliff, there is a longing to fly. I am a clumsy fledgling, my wings in need of strengthening. Time and practice are everything when we are learning new skills and this is no less when it comes to the skills we need for living. These change as our lives change and so we are required to keep learning.

This place of beginnings is a curiously vulnerable one. I feel as if all my known ways of responding and coping have become oddly redundant and I am forced to acknowledge that I have become a novice overnight. This is an uncomfortable feeling at the age of forty five. Shouldn’t I have cracked this living thing by now? Shouldn’t I be comfortably well off? Well established in a career? Apparently not. Life has an uncanny knack of mutating just at the moment that we assume we have it licked – not that I ever felt entirely convinced that I did.

All this reminds me of those feelings of cluelessness as a child, believing that every adult knew just about all there was to know and I was at the start of a long journey of discovering some arcane knowledge; in a dim, distant future I would finally be initiated and all would become startlingly clear. Of course, that never really happens. As an adult, I realise that the old cliché about the longer you live, the less you know, has a good deal of mileage left in it. I am still clueless! Perhaps we all walk round with a certain amount of puzzlement and uncertainty, even if we are particularly good at bluffing. Perhaps a good few of us pretend that we know the rules, the requirements, the solutions and the point, convincing others and even ourselves?

What seems certain is that we will always come to that edge when the urge to fly stirs, when we sense that it is time to become a little more of what we were meant to be but find that we can only flap and stumble. Life can then act like a firm but knowing mummy bird pushing us from our nest. We might never feel ready, and left to our own devices would remain in the place that offers the most comfort and the least challenge. Doing that, of course, has a higher price than we might initially suspect because without taking those plunges, we never truly live.

And so (not for the first or last time in my life) I am a fledgling once again: stuttering and ungainly, my plumage dishevelled and faintly ridiculous, being prodded relentlessly by some unseen existential beak. It can be very tough on one’s self-esteem to be in that place of cluelessness but I have lived long enough to know that along with feeling foolish and untutored, along with all the risks and pitfalls that surround it, comes the opportunity to accomplish something wonderful. These things take time but the key moment is the first trembling step – full of danger and anticipation, fear and doubt. That faltering step launches us off the edge into our true element.

I have already begun…