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.

The Bull on the Path and the Summer Solstice

The festivals of the Wheel of the Year are the foundation of spiritual practice for many Pagans. After almost twelve years of the turning of that Wheel in my own life, I am still discovering fresh perspective on each of these seasonal celebrations. We can initially favour certain festivals over others, perhaps because the themes of such reflect something of our own personalities and life experience. However the joy of this beautiful, elegant system is that ultimately it encourages us to strive towards wholeness, integrating the lessons and wisdom of the entire Wheel within our beings.

I think perhaps I am a bit of a Samhain gal by nature. Fascinated by the shadows and the power of transformation, my life journey has also brought me into contact with the issues of death and release many times. However, it is not healthy for any of us to become stuck in one season of being; life cannot thrive in a perpetual autumn (or for that matter perpetual summer!). The Wheel teaches us to engage with the changing face of nature and the flow of our own lives, reaching deep into the season of any moment to grasp it essence, seeing its manifestation both in the world outside and deep within us.

Here in the Northern hemisphere, we have just celebrated the Summer Solstice. It has taken me many years to really grasp this particular festival. I understood it intellectually and enjoyed the celebrations that I shared; however, the deeper meaning eluded me emotionally until a couple of years ago.

Although the Solstice signals the longest day – and therefore the beginning of the slow descent back into the darker days – it is a festival of blessings, pleasure and fullness. The Divine Union of Beltane is now united in wholeness, those complimentary and interwoven energies of the Goddess and God building to a peak. At the solstice, the blessings that this union produces are all around us; life swells into the sensual abundance of summer; the earth’s blossoms, colours and perfumes vivid and plentiful.

I like to think of the Goddess at this time as the Mother of Sweetness, the ecstasy of the earth, who opens us to her joy and fulfilment, brightening our cells with the strength of her love and pleasure. Here on the Island I see her as the rich red earth – the fertile ground of my being – the explosion of life, colour and joy that, if I let it, can enrapture my senses and feed my being. The Mother of Sweetness on this beautiful Island is the heady scent of honeysuckle and rose; the cool peace of forests; the exhilarating skies of downland; a field of poppies and corn chamomile. She is the vital rains, lush rivers and wetland teeming with life; the deep wells and springs. The hem of her gown is the ocean that encircles the Wight, its salt water cleansing and healing our deepest wounds. The Mother of Sweetness is the keeper of the abundant and overflowing chalice of life that renews and nourishes, and her cup is the place within us that can never run dry. Each animal and plant, each drop of water, each clod of earth is radiant with her spirit.

The God is the delight of our creative power, opening us to the energy and inspiration that enables us to live our time here fruitfully; as Father of the Solstice sun, his heat makes fertile the body of the Goddess; his light sparkling upon her surfaces and energising her depths. He is the sun to her moon; the fire to her water. Together they nourish, nurture and bring all life to fruition. From the chalice of the Goddess all blessing abundantly pour, each one shining with the God’s golden spirit.

We can be blinkered to the blessings around us. There are times for all of us when our own emotional turmoil or confusion dulls our vision; perhaps we are hurting or grieving and this is making it difficult for us to feel that our lives are full. That’s ok too. The Wheel teaches us that all things pass. It is helpful to check in with ourselves regularly in order to gauge which season is moving through our lives, trying to honour these as best we can. However, there are times in our day to day living when we can forget to show gratitude for the blessings that we each possess. The summer solstice reminds us about the deep connection between gratitude and our ability to experience joy and happiness. These qualities radiate from within; they are not found in circumstance itself or received from external forces as we sometimes mistakenly assume. Certainly there are events and relationships that bring us joy and happiness, but our ability to benefit from these is largely dependent upon our inner state; if we constantly focus on a perceived lack, we fail to recognise the good things that come our way. More importantly, we cannot afford to rely on these external influences for our continued joy; their transience is a reality for all of us. Happiness can appear to be so elusive because we shape it into a future event, one that is always just in or out of reach. We can also fear our own capacity for joy, limiting it via guilt or a lack of self-worth. The ways of self-sabotage are many in life. The Summer Solstice can remind us of the simple pleasure of being fully present in the moment. The equation is actually quite a simple one: the more gratefully aware we are of our blessings, the happier we feel in ourselves.

I learned a great solstice lesson from an animal that I actually have quite an ambiguous relationship with. I have always been rather afraid of bulls. Being a keen walker, I encounter them often. Farmers seem to take great glee in placing them in fields with footpaths. We are told that when they are with the herd they will ignore people. Having seen a man cycling across a field full of cows being chased by a bull, I am not so trusting of this assumption!

With most things we fear, there is often an equal fascination. The very same qualities that alarm me about bulls – their awesome physical power, inscrutability (can you tell what a bull is thinking?) and strength – have a powerful draw for me too. They are quite extraordinary and beautiful but they get my heart seriously pumping, my flight response on red alert.

Just before the summer solstice, our first year on the Island, I had the opportunity to come face to face with my fear. We were making our way back after a nice walk along the narrow woodland path at the north base of Tennyson Down. There is a steep, wooded climb to one side and a fence closely running along on the other. He appeared suddenly – a large, muscular black bull. His bulk took up the entire path and he was plodding with an unstoppable determination towards us. I was genuinely terrified. My instinct was to try and climb the steep wooded bank but within a couple of feet I was caught up in brambles, unable to move any further. He passed me on his steady climb up the path, so close to me I could hear his laboured snorting and the heaviness of his breathe. I was so afraid I couldn’t look at him, praying that he would just pass, which of course he did. I knew that he could only get so far before he met the impassable ‘kissing’ gate. I started to frantically shoo everyone down along the path, fearing his return. Within a few paces we were stopped by an old lady with her dog. She asked us if we had seen a lone dog on our walk – some holiday makers had lost theirs and having to return to the mainland without finding it, this kind lady had promised to continue the search for them. By this stage the bull had started to bellow, obviously having met the gate that prevented further passage through. Soon he would turn and come back down. His gut churning bellow was like the gates of Hades opening; a noise of knee trembling proportions. I tried to explain to the lady that there was a bull on the path (could she not hear him?!?) but she either didn’t seem to be listening or was totally unconcerned. When I finally got through to her, she asked me if the bull was black. At last! Yes!! ‘Oh’ she replied ‘he’s no trouble’.

I will never forget the sight of this tiny, frail old lady in her pink beret, wondering off merrily into the path of the beast from the abyss. For her, the bull was a ‘sweetie’ and I felt rather silly stood there with the cold taste of fear in my mouth, fighting an overwhelming desire to run.

Safely ensconced in the pub with a welcome pint, I relaxed enough to feel rather pleased about my close encounter with the bull. Moving to the Island after such difficult times, I had realised how crisis addicted I had become. As an antidote, I was making a conscious effort to embrace the abundance of this new life that I had been gifted with. It felt ungracious to respond any other way. I had made the decision to psychologically lay down my arms, take my focus away from the pain and struggle and reconnect to my joy. How apt that I should meet face to face with this great symbol of the life force and its awesome fertility and plenty, just as I was taking the plunge to tentatively trust life again. My lovely black bull seemed to be saying ‘Hey! I am life in all its awesome wonder and power – time to face me – no turning back, deal with me!’ Without doubt, my fear of him – of his potentially destructive power – says a great deal about my own fear of life’s ability to inflict pain, and yet, life is so full of blessings too – abundantly full (those enormous balls swinging between his legs let you know just how much!). We can’t let fear stop us from living.

My bull taught me that life is many things; it brings us sorrow, loss and pain along the way, even danger and fear, but we should never allow these to blind us to the gifts we receive; to the sheer delight that living can bring.  To say a daily prayer of thanks enables each of us to open more fully to life’s abundance; in gratitude there is power and the strength to weather any season.

Old 'Sweetie' himself!

Old 'Sweetie' himself!

Coasting the Thermals

Common Buzzard - Andreas Trepte

Common Buzzard - Andreas Trepte

We had seen eight buzzards in five minutes! Nature so often speaks to us when we need guidance and She seemed pretty insistent that day with regard to the wisdom that those wonderful birds of prey can convey. Personally, when I see them they remind me to lighten up, to cost the thermals of my own life with a greater ease and skill; taking in that bigger picture but remaining joyful regardless of what that picture might reveal. Watching them circle high in the sun’s light or rising in a vast, clear sky is an inspiring sight, a message from life that its blessings surround and uphold us always; that life is about play and fun too.

 

We had just been turned away from the Garlic Farm Restaurant. Despite its relatively remote setting, the farm’s new café was doing extraordinarily well – not one spare table. The farm is situated in a beautiful valley at the foot of the downs, not far from Newchurch. It is so very sheltered and peaceful here. It looked and felt perfect in the spring sunshine. Driving up the narrow lane, the banks glowed with celandine and primroses; the leaves on the big willow at the farm’s entrance just starting to unfurl in the warmth.

 

Being turned away proved fruitful. Returning to the car I spotted a buzzard low above us, spiralling in that languid manner that is such a characteristic of their flight. It soon became apparent that the buzzard was not alone. To my absolute joy there were five, circling low above us; close enough for us to see the stunning patterns of their feathers; near enough to witness their beaks opening, their mewing cries filling the silence of the valley. They performed the most elegant of spiralling dances, at times weaving intimately between each other, then breaking free and rising on the currents, layered in successive circles, one above the other, drifting free in parting directions only to be irresistibly drawn back together. Each time we assumed they were leaving, they lazily spiralled down to fly over us yet again, the feathers of their wing tips spread like fingers, the grace and ease of their cruising so beautiful and moving.

 

I could have watched them forever but dragging ourselves away, we drove back along the downs to Ryde. Turning a corner we were greeted by yet more of these wonderful birds – a pair shooting out across the road just above the car, and then barely a minute later, the sight of a crow fending off a lone buzzard just above the tree line of the woods.

 

At one time you could not hope to see buzzards in this part of the country. They have a history of persecution but thankfully their numbers are now rapidly rising, so much so that the south has seen their return. I remember my first sighting in Cornwall, wondering what the hell this enormous bird was sat on a gate post looking at me. I fell in love then. Living on the Isle of Wight is such a joy because it is home to an abundant buzzard population; sightings are frequent and often at excitingly close quarters.

 

Falcons are like Spitfires – they have speed and energy; in comparison, buzzards are B52 Bombers, rumbling along at an unconcerned pace! They always appear so unfazed, completely laid back even when defending territory. I once had a ‘died and gone to heaven’ moment watching a peregrine hunting on Culver cliff, the impressive speed and agility of its stooping exhilarating to watch. It was eventually interrupted and forced to retreat by the subtle intimidation of three buzzards (I didn’t think the day could get any better!) who launched into view over the cliff edge. To me they appeared on a Sunday stroll, their wing spans stretched into cruise mode. However, the peregrine found them threatening enough to move on.

 

Buzzards hunt from perches. They can be quite lazy hunters and would just as willingly scavenge on carrion. It would seem then that their coasting of the thermals is not necessarily vital for their survival with regard to food; for me they look like they really enjoy it. It’s fun! It’s thrilling! I like to think of them up their gazing down upon all this beauty, feeling the strength and movement of the air carry them, loving every moment, relishing how great life is.

 

When life is challenging us – when we are tackling our own difficult or painful issues – it is easy to become a little stuck in one gear, our range of emotions stiffening and becoming less flexible. After years of feeling our defences up and ready for the fight, we can forget about the simple pleasure of having fun, of playing, of being silly and merely enjoying ourselves for no other reason than because it feels good. Our emotional lives can feel a little like being trapped in a Werner Herzog or Bergman movie: intense and introspective. Such moments of inner searching and confrontation can be tremendously productive and necessary and yet it’s important to let such periods go when life calls for us to do so. There can be a great comfort and familiarity in angst; sometimes it feels a whole lot easier to achieve than joy, and yet it is so vital to experience the balance and the contrast. Perpetual crisis does not reflect the flow of life; we can’t stay stuck in one emotion any more than we can stop breathing; if we try, we do damage to ourselves. Pain teaches us about compassion, depth and empathy; joy and happiness are all the more powerful when we have known the sting and cut of pain. Without contrast we become emotionally one dimensional, missing out upon the diversity of feeling and experience that life offers to us all, no matter what tragedy might befall us upon the way.

 

During the tough times of these last few years, I have been so guilty of getting stuck myself, letting the feeling tone of sadness or crisis become my default position. It feels good to have this challenged by the presence of others; it feels good to challenge it myself. It takes practice; it takes remembering and reclaiming the things that give us joy, throwing ourselves wholeheartedly into them until we stop thinking and just enjoy.

 

My beautiful buzzards know the wisdom of timing, their entrances always perfectly synchronous. And so with wing span fully and ecstatically stretched, the sun upon me, the currents beneath me…

 

 

Basking Lizards and the Gentle Arts of Kipping and Pondering

you-are-asleep1

I love sleeping. Once asleep, I can stay curled – half woman/half dormouse – for far more hours than I actually need. I am the undisputed queen of the sleep marathon but am woefully inadequate when it comes to the art of a good, short kip. In this Laurie excels; not only can he drift off for a perfectly timed half hour, rising refreshed and renewed, but his body cooperates by adapting to all manner of (to me) impossible sleep scenarios – trains, bumpy buses – even the unyielding challenge of a park bench poses only a minimal obstacle to a Laurie power snooze. I have tried but once asleep I am in for the long haul. To prematurely wake me risks, at best, my feeling lobotomised, at worst, my seething and festering in a post nap fog; breezy and recharged I am not. 

Sleep is so vital in our body’s ability to re-energise itself, central to the processing of daily events and challenges; it enables us to contact deep inner resources via our dream life, bridging the verbal and symbolic in potentially empowering ways. Having time to think is also a much neglected necessity.  Modern living is hostile to the benefits of sitting and being; a glorious hour or two lost in thought might sadly be considered wasteful or lazy. In rest, or in gentle pondering, we give ourselves the opportunity to connect to all that is marginalised within us by the goal oriented demands of our day; we slow down, unclench; psychologically speaking, our minds kick off their shoes and sink their toes into cool sand (if we are lucky, our bodies do this too!). With many suffering from stress related illness, working longer hours to sustain the unsustainable, I suspect that our culture might benefit from an ample dose of lizard medicine.  

I love lizard spotting. The Undercliff is a vast, ancient landslip positioned along the south-eastern coast of the Isle of Wight. A south facing ledge, it possesses its own micro climate. Nestled between the ocean and an imposing rock face, this lush and sheltered strip of land is energized by the sun. Exotic and tender plants thrive here, as does the heat loving wall lizard. These beautiful, iridescent creatures adore the sun, fuelling themselves with its warmth and light. They unashamedly idle away an afternoon, occasionally reading the air with their tiny forked tongues; motionless but for the barely perceptible movement of their breathing, scaly bellies pulsing to the rhythm of sun and hot rock. It is always a surprise to witness the speed of their movement after such blissful inactivity, yet in their stillness they are acutely aware of the world around them, primed to respond. When vulnerable, they know a thing or two about boundaries, slipping into the dark slits and cracks, the cool resting places. 

I am infinitely better at pondering than knapping, although this winter has found me slipping off for a quiet snooze and awakening in a sweeter mood. Perhaps it is age teaching me a lesson in surrender; perhaps it’s the cat in me letting go (just a little) of skittish, kittenish ways. Perhaps the lizards have worked their magic.

A friend and I talked this week about the regret we felt that successful lives are measured more by what is seen than unseen. ‘Progress’ is assessed by the material achievements and career advancements so lauded in our society. There are lists of ‘things we should have done by now’, age signalling not just maturity but progressive stages with accompanying achievements to master or status to acquire: job and mortgage in your twenties; kids in your thirties; significant promotion in your chosen area of work in your forties etc. My aunt once chastised me that, as a woman in my forties, I was not advanced upon any career ladder; she implied that I had wasted my life. I did wonder; it’s hard not to succumb to the pressure of expectation.

The quiet victories of having overcome or transcended difficulties; the ongoing challenges of surviving and thriving are less obvious markers of achievement and as such, honoured and appreciated far less. To possess an ambition to grow spiritually might actually be seen as a supremely self-indulgent act not a valued life choice. In such a climate it is clear to see why  having space to think – to take time out and simply be – is so low a priority for so many.

 A friend, who works very hard, mercilessly pushes herself. She longs to take it easy but feels immense guilt when she stops. The work ethic is strong and unquestioned in our culture. There have been some tiny breakthroughs, the Science of Happiness revealing that when we engage more with the intangibles, our quality of life improves. Taking time to smell the roses really is better for our health.

I guess it is all about contrast. After much frenetic doing and chasing, the soft receptivity of sitting and absorbing the world, or ambling around our own thoughts, can be a powerfully restorative thing. If it was all we did, perhaps the benefit would be lost. And yet, in the expanding and contracting of our daily lives – the relentless breathing in and out – we might miss that at the peak of each in and exhalation is a point of perfect stillness. When we just let ourselves be, without expectation, without judgement, we come to realise that in that stillness a spiralling universe resides. Those lizards are not just basking, they are star surfing…

Laurie basking at Blackgang beach

Laurie basking at Blackgang beach