A Delicate Balance

This morning, the heat was already shimmering in the fields and now it is too hot to think. I have finished a project and am weary to the bone after a broken night’s sleep. Yet I feel I ought to keep on going: I am lucky to have work, I am fortunate that I can easily work from home. But right now, I simply crave the sea and that sense of stillness carried on the breeze at the shore.

All around Britain, people are flocking to the beaches, and who can blame them? If you and your family have spent most of this year locked in by an invisible disease, wouldn’t you be keen to escape outdoors too? However, I probably won’t be joining them just yet. Not until the crowds lessen.

Much at the moment seems to be a question of balance: of the numbers of deaths, loss and potentially life-changing aftereffects from this terrible new virus offset against those suffering because of cancelled medical appointments and delayed treatments; of livelihoods gone and the futures of the young put in jeopardy; of oceans polluted by waves of PPE; of the price of loneliness set against the risk of infection.

To find our way in this altered world, many of us seem to be adopting a form of doublethink, holding others accountable for breaking the ever-changing rules while protecting ourselves with justifications for doing the same. The challenge is to remain self-aware; in retrospect, I think I can see where I’ve projected anger and frustration onto those who didn’t altogether deserve it.

This isn’t going to be easy – tiptoeing our way into an unstable future; finding the balance and how to live in the world. While 2020 is turning out to be a year of plague, fire and flood of biblical proportions, nature itself is neither inherently good nor bad; it just is. It doesn’t sit in moral judgement of us. If Nature is a goddess, she is indifferent to prayers and responsive to actions. After all, why should she be any more moved by our petitions than the clicking of a beetle, or the roar of a lion? However, we humans do need to be morally accountable, both to this planet we inhabit and to each other.

At least I know that the sea and the breeze will still be waiting.

Brave New World

How have the last couple of months been for you?

We all have our own lockdown stories to share – of challenges and kindnesses, break-ups and reconnections. In my own case, I found myself taking on responsibility for the wellbeing of my mother-in-law, an independent lady in her nineties who has recently survived cancer and chemo, and whose health remains fragile. While there has been lots to cherish, it’s not been an easy time.

One thing is for sure, whenever we do all finally emerge into the world, we will find it changed.

While I haven’t used lockdown to learn a new language or master a fresh skill, here is a (very) short story…

***

Imago

It started at night. She found herself standing in the yellow light of the fridge, her chewing mouth crammed full of bitterness. She realised she was holding a packet of spinach that had been ripped open, some of the leaves spilling to the ground, where she bent to pick them up and eat them.

In the morning, she woke and wondered at her dream. Muzzy-minded from sleep, she opened the cupboard to retrieve her favourite mug, and stepped on the discarded plastic bag on the kitchen floor. For a second or so, the craving returned. She blinked and it was gone. She made herself two slices of toast and went about her day.

The next few nights were much the same, only now she knew she wasn’t dreaming. She would roll out of bed and grope her way along the inky walls to the kitchen. On the third night, she paused in the hallway. In the dark, she could smell the pot plants on the windowsill. Her fingers plucked greedily at the plump leaves and pushed them between her lips. The taste didn’t bother her; only the urgency to eat; to fill herself up.

When she went to the supermarket for her weekly shop, she filled her trolley to the brim with salads, fruit and vegetables. The teenage shop assistant with the piercings nodded his approval.

At home, she ran out of space to store everything. But it didn’t matter. She simply eased herself down to the floor among the unpacked bags. And started to eat.

She couldn’t have said how long she was there, moving about and munching. She knew the phone rang once or twice, but it wasn’t important. There was nobody she wanted to talk to.

Evening fell; the shopping bags were sagging, crumpled and empty, and the fridge door hung open, the shelves stripped bare. She felt very tired. All she wanted was to sleep.

She wriggled and stretched and crawled till she found herself high up in a corner of the ceiling, her skin sticking to the Artex. There was a not unpleasant sense of splitting as she turned herself about, and settled down, tight and snug, light as paper.

Everything that had been was ending. A sensation of dissolving, liquefaction and release. Ready, now, slowly, slowly, to begin again.

 

 

The Voice is a Bridge

I’m used to silence – it’s virtually part of my job description – but even I have been struck by the quiet that has settled over the village where I live. No trains, no planes, little traffic; just the occasional boy racer flooring it and annoying the neighbours as he returns to a house-share up the lane.

It feels strange not to connect in person with the people I love and like, to keep my distance – as if we are all caught up in a weird social experiment. Which, in a way, we are… because of a virus that is casting a fearful shadow over human beings around the world.

In these days of social distancing, family, friends and colleagues have been in touch more often than usual – reaching out over the phone and on screen. Through modern technology and fibre optics, the voice creates a bridge from the heart. In the midst of so much fear, disease and devastation, many of us, myself included, are rediscovering the power of connection, speaking and listening to each other again instead of texting or typing.

So here is my voice to you, in a slightly tinny recording, reading a poem by a writer who was used to solitude and to keeping her own company, and who wrote when she  didn’t necessarily expect anyone to read her words: ‘Hope is a Feathered Thing’ by Emily Dickinson.

Flight from February

I seem to have spent most of the past few weeks either stuck in front of my computer, working, or taking the dog out for a trudge in the mud, wind and rain.  I’ve taken my imagination for a walk too (although in nicer weather). Here is a short story, a flight from February:

 

Bodhi Farm

It’s difficult to know when it began. Perhaps with the dreams that came in the heart of winter, when it was hard to rise in the morning and the water in the pigs’ troughs was frozen solid. Or with the sense of knowing, the unease that would wake me in the middle of the night; I’d put it down to the change or the usual worries. Had I shut away the hens? And, if the snow returned, would I manage to find all my sheep if they huddled under the walls and got covered by drifts? There is always something doing on a farm, anyone can tell you.

By the time the sky cracks red, I’ve usually been up for hours. The lighter mornings come as a blessing with the thaw. Even so, days are no easier. Over the years, I’ve got used to shouldering most of the work alone. When the lambing starts in earnest, I hire Graham, a lad from the village, to come help. But he wasn’t due to start for some time yet. So when I saw his Land Rover on the track leading up here, I was surprised.

The vehicle rattled over the cattle grid then stopped. When it drove on, it pulled away to reveal four slight figures picking their way. Three of them were wearing what looked like long orange and red dresses under anoraks, while the fourth was dressed head to toe in black.

Graham parked in his usual spot in the yard. When I opened the door, he was shaking his head.

‘You’ll never believe this,’ he said.

‘What?’

‘Bunch of weirdos to see you.’

‘Well then send them away.’

‘No doing.’ He pulled a face. ‘Said you wouldn’t want it, but they won’t listen. Come a long way – that’s what they say.’

‘Where’s a long way?’

‘Somewhere foreign. Only one of them as speaks any English. And then you can’t tell half of what he’s saying.’

‘Look at them, what are they doing?’

The three foreigners in robes formed a little procession. The one at the front was swinging a round, glinting object, while the one at the rear banged on a flat drum. The three of them walked slowly, despite the wind tugging at their skirts. The figure in black lingered a little ways behind, as if embarrassed. Weirdly, though, the sight of them stirred something deep in my belly.

‘Better get a brew on,’ I said.

Graham gave a snort. ‘A woman’s answer to everything.’

I gave him one of my looks and he grinned. Cheeky so-and-so.

The water was squeaking up to a boil when there was a knock at the door. I got Graham to fill the mugs while I answered it.

The man dressed in black stood in the doorway and gave a stiff little bow. He looked at me nervously, almost expectantly, then glanced over my shoulder as if hoping to find somebody else. His skin was the colour of polished wood and his features were Eastern. Unlike his fellow travellers, whose heads were shaven, he had a crown of thick black hair and seemed much younger than them. The other men reminded me of monks, the sort you see on postcards and calendars, though what they would be doing turning up at a hill farm was anybody’s guess. The younger man cleared his throat.

‘We are here for the baby,’ he said.

I laughed. ‘There’s no baby here. Not even if it’s a lamb or piglet you’re after. Not this time of year.’

He turned and spoke quickly to the others, huddled behind him. They shared some words, sounds like singing, but it seemed like they were disagreeing with him; the man in black shrugged and turned to me.

‘The child. It is important.’

‘Look, you’d better come on in. You’ll catch your death out there.’ I gestured and they filed past me, into the kitchen where they stood around looking confused. ‘Take a seat, go on.’

Once they were all sat down around the table, Graham handed out mugs of tea and a plate of biscuits, which the foreigners fell upon like birds at the grain. ‘I’ve seen it all now,’ he muttered.

I have to say they looked a bit better for having a hot drink inside them and something to eat. I folded my arms and glanced round. ‘So now, what’s this here business you’ve come about?’

The translator gave a little nod. ‘My companions have been searching for long time. They come many thousands of miles. Following signs.’

‘What’re they in search of? What signs?’ Graham wanted to know. I frowned at him so he huffed and leant back against the dresser.

‘It is difficult to explain. We are looking for a child. My brothers believe the child is born in this place.’ At this, one of the other men leant across the table, said a few words and tapped the translator’s forearm.

The translator continued, ‘Has a child been born here?’

‘Yes,’ I said, and all the men turned to me, expressions bright as if somebody had lit a candle. ‘Yes, the last child to be born here was me. Fifty-odd year ago.’

The translator relayed this fact and there was more conversation, some of it heated, and they batted away Graham’s offer of biscuits from the packet. After a few moments, they settled back down. One of the monks folded his arms, while another heaved a large bag onto the table. It was colourfully embroidered and decorated with little yellow and pink pompoms and tassels.

He carefully retrieved a number of items, reached across the table and placed them in front of me, very deliberately, as though he was performing a ceremony. The bracelet on his wrist winked in the light, and without thinking I went to touch it. His arm turned still as rock and he looked hard at me, dark eyes narrowing under beetle brows. I pulled back my hand slowly.

‘I’m sorry,’ I said. ‘Don’t know what I was thinking.’

He sat back and nodded. Then, without saying a word, he removed the bracelet and placed it alongside the other objects. There was a loop of brown beads, the flat drum I had seen earlier, a little pair of patterned bronze cymbals, a flute that looked like it was made of bone, an incense burner on a long chain, a scroll of some sort, a large golden amulet and a simple wooden bowl. Those are the things I remember, there might have been more. The monk with the beetle brows spread his palms, as if inviting me to consider the display.

‘What does he want me to do?’ I asked the translator.

‘Choose.’

‘All right!’ exclaimed Graham. ‘Go on, I know what I’d pick–’ One of the monks jumped up and turned to face him, surprisingly agile for an older man. Graham puffed his cheeks. ‘Just saying.’

The monk with the beetle brows spoke. ‘Choose.’  All four of the visitors were watching me, and it felt as though I was being invited to play a game where I only half remembered the rules. Only the game was as serious as anything I had ever done.

I took a breath and found myself picking up the bracelet, then the drum and finally the bowl. I placed them close to me. There was a sense of release among the monks, as if I had passed a test. But I wasn’t finished.

‘This belongs to you.’ I gave the scroll to one of the monks, who bowed his head and accepted it. ‘This is yours.’ I handed the cymbals to the second monk. ‘And, little brother, this belongs to you.’ I reached over to the monk with the beetle brows, and poured the rosary beads into his cupped hands. His eyes were brimming with tears. He nodded.

‘These were mine,’ I gestured to the objects I had chosen, ‘and this is a trick.’  I pushed the amulet across the table. ‘The other things don’t matter. None of it truly matters.’ I realised with surprise that my own face was wet, that I was crying even though I didn’t feel sad. Not at all. I caught a glimpse my reflection in the window and laughed. It was ridiculous: a middle-aged woman with greying hair and a kitchen crammed with exotic visitors, like a pigeon perched among goldfinches. When I laughed, the men started laughing too, thumping laughter, as though we had all finally understood the punchline of a joke at the same time.

 

***

Of course I went with them when they asked. I was away for seven years in all, and now I am back on the farm, I find I miss how the mountains create stepping stones above the valley mist; the fierce blue skies and glare of sun on snow; the echo of the tonqin horns among the peaks. But these things will always stay with me. They are part of me and all that I take with me and give.

Graham has made up a bed for me in the box room. He and his partner have my old room and their two children have the others. He offered to move out but I told him no, there is no need for any of that. This farm is his now, in good hands. And I won’t be here long.

My time in the monastery has helped me remember all I need to know, and I am ready. I have changed out of my old farm clothes into my robes and I have a torch to help me pick my way through the lower pastures, up the rocky slopes, over the stone walls (in good repair, I’m pleased to see). Sheep scatter, taking one or two paces, eyes red in the torch light, before they realise that I pose no threat and stand to watch me pass. Higher up I go, up to where the wind whips and boulders balance precariously, visited only by ravens.

Behind a mound of stones, I find the pit. It has taken me three days to dig, hard labour and cracked hands, and I ease myself down carefully, sliding over the lip and in, then turn and settle, flat against the bumpy soil. The earth holds me tight, squeezing my shoulders, and the stars overhead blink white against black, constellations slowly turning through space and time.

It begins first with my fingertips and toes, the sensation that the skin is opening, that my capillaries are sprouting red to white, seeds unfurling. I am on my way, spreading into filaments, fine and hairlike, pushing into the soil, past stones and roots and waterways, along the slopes in all directions, under the farm, down roads, into villages, towns and cities; a network of knowledge, all that my lives and the lives of my others have gleaned, returning hope and wisdom and belief to this precious Earth, to nourish and nurture, to resurrect her with our love.

 

(c) Sue Belfrage, 2020

 

 

Small Treasures

I went to walk the dog at lunchtime and realised that sheep were grazing along the ridgeway where I had intended to take him. So I kept him on the lead and meandered along the lanes instead, past a clear, shallow stream and around a pond where we startled a pair of  ducks, hidden under the branches of willow.

Behind the hills, the sky was bruised blue, but the steep grassy slopes glowed in the winter sun. I paused and thought how lucky I am, to be here, in such a beautiful place.

Earlier in the week, a friend reminded me that happiness springs from gratitude, rather than the other way round – advice I intend to take with me into this new decade. I want to remember to use gratitude as an active principle, seeking out the good and then treasuring it.

In a year baptised in fire and flood, warmongering and violence, whatever else 2020 brings, I hope it brings you many small wonders to light the way through the dark.

Healing Words

Last week, I headed out on a blustery, rainy night to listen to poetry being shared in a warehouse. This spoken word event grew out of an initiative set up by Take Art, an organisation that promotes the arts here in the county of Somerset. Their philosophy is that we need to ‘keep believing in the power of the Arts to transform individuals and communities for the better’ – and that November evening was as good an example as any. The Rainbow Fish Speak Easy began life as a project designed to help adults with mental health challenges find new ways to talk about their lives, and now the events welcome everyone.

Besides readings by three professional poets, there were open mic slots in which members of the audience were invited to share their work. While the rain drummed down on the metal roof, ordinary men and women, young and old, overcame their nerves and got up to read their pieces. The themes were as varied as the people there – from searching for ancestors, learning to drive, dealing with depression and the joy of owning a key to your own front door. It was moving, entertaining, funny and thought-provoking, with lots of applause and loud cheers.

It struck me again how poetry not only creates opportunities to share and be heard, but builds windows that allow us to see beyond our own lives and understand the world as others experience it. Which is, of course, what the arts are all about, and just one reason why they are so important.

In an age of austerity and stretched resources, the funding for projects like this one is under threat as rarely before – although it is precisely in these difficult times that we need the arts and all that they offer. I wonder if one day, the Government will be puzzled why there are no world-class British artists, musicians or poets – unless perhaps Eton educated. But the arts should never be just a pursuit of the wealthy: as the events like the Rainbow Fish Speak Easy show, they are a vital expression of the lives and souls of us all.

 

Flakes of Gold

Last night’s half moon was a haze and today the woods seem singed, as though burnt by an exhausted, sinking sun, with faded greens and exposed boughs. Summer is passing – it’s back to work. Yet these past few months have felt like so much hard work, with juggling jobs and balancing the books. These are not comfortable times.

It sometimes seems like the easy option would be to say, Enough! Despite knowing this isn’t an option. Not really.

Instead, I’ve fallen back on looking for flakes of gold; finding the little glimmer that can light a whole day. For me, this has often meant searching for a familiar wonder: glimpses of glow worms burning like alien lights in the hedgerows. I’ve written about these beautiful bugs before, tiny neon lanterns, but this year they’ve taken on even more importance for me.

Last thing each evening after dark, I walk up the lane in the hopes of spotting a tiny green dot of light, almost talismanic. With each passing night, their numbers dwindle, like the lights going out along the front of a seaside town at the end of the season. Still I smile to see them so late on, now into September, my birthday month – a time of personal new beginnings.

I remember, many years ago, panning for gold in a water way – and the wonder at discovering tiny glints of yellow in the mud.

It comes down to feeding the heart with these scatterings. These splinters of beauty. Flakes of gold.

Wild Garlic

There can be few places more beautiful than England in the month of May. Late afternoon, I went for a walk along a meander of the River Stour, which winds its way between the market town of Sturminster Newton and the village of Hinton St Mary. The water was slick with willow pollen and a little way up from the old brick mill, a couple of boys and a girl were splashing about in the ford, laughing and screaming at the cold.

The path took me past the house that was once home to the writer Thomas Hardy and his new wife, Emma. Some years ago, I used to receive acupuncture there. The sessions took place in a downstairs room that had been repurposed as a clinic, with a black treatment couch and charts of meridians and pressure points on the walls. At the time, I found it odd to think that some 130 years earlier, Hardy might have been sat at his desk in that same room, drafting The Return of the Native. What would his ghost make of the procession of semi-dressed strangers who visited now, to be pricked and prodded with tiny needles?

Further along the path from the house, through a spinney that floods in heavy rain, stand the ruined arches of the railway bridge, dismantled as part of the Beeching cuts. Here, a sports bag, clothing and a pair of shoes hung from tree. In the river below, two heads bobbed, shiny pink against dull green, like a couple of bizarre lily buds; two men wild swimming and scaring the ducks.

Beyond the bridge and the surrounding trees lie water meadows, now dotted with sheep and chubby lambs.

After the emptiness of winter, the fields have been repopulated, which means my young dog often has to stay on the lead longer than he might like, but there’s still plenty for him to sniff and enjoy. The path crosses the meadows into the tail end of Twinwood Copse, and here I paused.

The air was rich and heady, and in the shade of the trees lay a sea of stars, a pocket handkerchief; the fading white flowers of wild garlic lit by the sun. I let the dog lap from the stream while I drank it up; a sight to fold up and store in the memory; to bring forth when the warmth has gone.

Spring Slow

‘April is the cruellest month, breeding

Lilacs out of dead land’

T.S. Eliot, The Wasteland

 

The arrival of spring brings with it a certain exhaustion.

Days of sun followed by frost and snowfall; an hour vanishes as the clocks change. Gardens, fields and hedgerows are flecked with brilliant greens, yellows and purples; yet there’s a lingering weariness in the bones, tired from winter, not quite rested, newly unsettled by the changing season.

The contrast between all this fresh growth and life steadily progressing, one day at a time, can feel almost overwhelming.

I found myself sat in a kitchen chair, gazing at nothing, when there was a rumble of thunder and the sky broke open. Hail bounced off the road and rooftops. The kitchen skylight was pelted with pellets of ice, covering it in a layer of white. Then, as quickly as it had come, the storm passed over and the hail began to melt in the returning sunshine. Within a minute or two, only a scattering of glittering crystals remained. I watched them disappear.

When I went outside, I knew what I might find – the remnants of a rainbow, where the sun struck the dark clouds as they rolled eastwards. With all this spring busyness, an invitation to pause, look up, slow down.

The Air Sweet with Violets

This morning, I was walking along a wooded ridge when I spotted my first violets of the year, pale in the thin sun. As with the first sight of snowdrops, the discovery made me smile; spring flowers feel like a kept promise.

When I got home, I looked up the violet in The Language of Flowers; or, Flora Symbolica, by John Ingram, which lists the traditional meanings associated with plants.  I came across my copy, published in 1887, in a second-hand bookshop, and discovered that an earlier owner had pressed scores of dried flowers and leaves within its pages like fragile, antique bookmarks.

While there isn’t a pressed flower to mark it, the entry for the violet is much longer than for many of the others – somewhat ironic given that the violet is often associated with modesty, as well as faithfulness. Poets from Homer to Keats have celebrated it, and myths have been woven around it. According to The Language of Flowers, the Greek goddess Artemis transformed Ia, daughter of Midas, into a violet to conceal her from the amorous intentions of Apollo; while Jupiter caused the first sweet violets to appear as sustenance for poor, hapless Io, when she fled in the form of a white heifer from the wrath of Juno. So in this way the violet is linked to concealment, of beauty creeping beneath notice.

Yet with the arrival of spring, violets sometimes cluster in abundance on hedge banks and around the roots of trees in woodland; where one might be invisible, together they attract attention. They bloom all around the garden here – in paving cracks and flower pots, roots taking hold tenaciously; then, when the flowers are faded, their brittle pods scatter seeds far and wide. Small yet rich in colour and fragrance, they appear where it suits them; an unasked for gift.

 

Violet images (c) Sue Belfrage