The clarity and ambiguity of autumn*

I started writing this piece on the first day of autumn and it couldn’t have been more enticing. I drove up to New Bridge, upstream on the Dart and enjoyed a blissfully solitary walk, enjoying the gently changing colours on the trees and ferns, and letting some of that lovely autumn sunshine warm my skin.DSC_1517 I love this time of year – a feeling of quietening down, internally aswell as externally – I have a sense of being able to “breathe again” after the busyness of summer both at Retreat by the Dart and in the surrounding landscape of the South Hams. Now a week later, autumn has set in with a wet and windy familiarity, and I’m trying my best to complete and post this blog as I hear the rain pelt down outside.

I last wrote in May, it’s hard to say just why that is. Health wise I was struggling, in one of those recovery moments when I felt there was more backward movement than forward. A friend pointed me to a Chinese medicine practitioner. And I pointed myself towards some time off up in Scotland at my favourite place on the Moray Firth. I went for r&r, immersing myself in the rhythm of the place – morning and evening meditation, walks to scope out wildlife, enjoying the views from a comfy chair, reading, and some gentle reflection. The tears I shed at the end of my stay reflected just how unbelievably supported and cared for I felt.

Inquisitive otter at Staverton Bridge, early one Sunday morning

Inquisitive otter at Staverton Bridge, early one Sunday morning

Red squirrel in the garden at the Coach House, Kilmuir, Scotland

Red squirrel in the garden at the Coach House, Kilmuir, Scotland

A whisper of a thought early on in that time away turned into a stronger urge to take a longer break. But that’s easier said than done being like Alice’s Oswald’s birch trees in her Radio 4 commissioned poem about autumn, Almost as Transparent,  “into its last fluttering of its branches indecisions”.  I can’t count how many times I’ve changed my mind, with conflicting inner pressures clamouring “You can’t close, it’s not good for business”, “if you do, no-one will come in 2018”, and on the other side “I need a break” plain and simple. It started out as a need for more recovery time, chronic Lyme Disease syndrome still holding me in its bacterio-virussy grip. But thanks be, I believe the Chinese medicine has helped (acupuncture and herbs), along with a renewed determination to prioritise nutrition that will support my recovery.

My favourite bird on the river Dart

My favourite bird on the river Dart

Decision made, then another wobble with a later thought, “Recovery is going well, why do I need to take a break?” You’d think someone who runs a retreat space would know better, but it appears not. As a friend reminded me, “It’s not just about your recovery, it’s also about having time to explore what else is cooking for you”. Because as much as I love the work I do, I’ve had very little energy left for anything else.

Writing  about the birch trees Alice says they “could not have been more tree-like, no human could grow the more upright the less certain”.  But indeed it’s that uncertainty that has propelled me into this break. So here we are at the end of September and tomorrow as the last guests depart I will start a period of retreat and reflection immersed in the “clarity and ambiguity of autumn”  to explore as Alice says of the trees “all those half finished, half beginnings of forms” and attend to that “inward occupation” that I wrote about in May.

In the garden at Retreat by the Dart

In the garden at Retreat by the Dart

So whilst the “light is slanted”, with later sunrises and earlier sunsets and as the leaves fall and prepare a space for hibernation, Retreat by the Dart will be closed til March 1st 2018 (enquiries from February 1st). At least that’s the decision for now…..

*The title of this blog and all words in italics are taken from Alice Oswald’s poem “Almost as Transparent”, which you can hear on Radio 4 Iplayer under Four Seasons (Autumn Poems)

 

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Inward Occupation

Well it’s now the end of May, and it’s time to put this blog to bed before June starts! It’s been a period of great contrasts, on the one hand frustrated with my seeming lack of progress health wise but on the other enjoying some lovely weather and fabulous sightings of new life around me.

Young foal on Dartmoor

Young foal on Dartmoor

Early April I travelled to Yorkshire to meet up with family friends and visit old haunts, it was nourishing to reconnect with my Yorkshire roots but I seemed to spend the rest of the month recovering. As the month went on into May bluebells abounded accompanied by first primroses, then ransoms, yellow rattle and red campion and all around that fresh vibrant spring green burst out on trees everywhere.  Early May must be one of the most extravagant times of the seasonal year.

Gorgeous bluebells and ransoms in Hembury Woods

Gorgeous bluebells and ransoms in Hembury Woods

I still walk early Selkie every morning, and just as I was wondering when I might see new life on the river, I espied a female goosander with seven ducklings. I have tracked them throughout the past two months, seeing them at different places along the river bank and watching them grow til they are now almost full sized. On my first swim in the river this year  I saw them down at the river at the same time as a pair of mandarin ducks with 19 young! Just yesterday morning I saw the mandarin family for the first time after the heavy rains of a couple of weeks ago – I had worried what their fate had been. They were feeding at the leat bridge along with the female, and the male keeping watch above. I counted about 12 young this time. Still impressive.

One of my first sightings of the goosander family

One of my first sightings of the goosander family

So that’s a brief summary of what went on externally, on the horizontal axis if you like. Part of the reason for delaying writing is down to lower energy levels but I also had a sense of something else going on internally. Initially I was hardly aware, then I wasn’t sure what “it” was, and now I have a bit more clarity as the end of May is upon us. It really started with the exhaustion post-Yorkshire. I realised I needed to pull back from some commitments. I’ve written before about my propensity for busyness, so I was surprised to notice that this was as much a desire as a necessity. It was the desire that made me question what was going on, as it felt unfamiliar.

Goosander female keeping watch

Goosander female keeping watch

When I was researching  the quote on the seat, I bought a book of Rumi poetry, which included the full poem from which the quote came. I started to dip into it and one morning, I came across some words which “zinged”:

“Beg of God the removal of envy,

that God may deliver you from externals,

and bestow upon you an inward occupation,

which will absorb you

so that your attention is not drawn away.

As the days went on, and it became clearer that I would need to readjust my living pattern yet again, I was more and more drawn to the phrase “bestow upon you an inward occupation”. I realised that’s what the desire was about – an inner, Divine led desire which seemed to coincide with the outer need for less activity.

The mandarin family at the leat bridge yesterday

The mandarin family at the leat bridge yesterday

I mentioned a Gurdjieff course last time, and in one email Cynthia Bourgeault  had written, “the sheer pace of life keeps our attention outwardly focussed” and went on to say “Holy desire is not something added on by an ego-agenda; it emerges from the core of your being so powerfully….”

As a practice she suggested we reflect on “what am I here for?”. Oh, I thought, that’s easy, I like this sort of activity, and even better, I already know the answer!! And on a walk in the woods one morning, I revisited the words I heard 30 + years ago about being called to be a friend. And I posted about it to the group. Then I read what she said in a follow up email, “The goal of “self-realisation” as its widely misunderstood is not simply about my private enlightenment (oops!) it’s the willingness to make your life a conscious laboratory of transformation”.

One stranded mandarin duckling (it found its way back!)

One stranded mandarin duckling (it found its way back!)

I now believe that the desire, and the need, to be delivered from “externals” is about exploring this. I have loved the work I do with the group that reflects on the gospel of Thomas, but have decided to draw this to a close. I want to see what emerges as I take some steps back from what I thought I was called to do, to see how the “laboratory of transformation” on the vertical axis might take shape. It’s not easy, we are so strongly defined by what we do, and it’s painful to let go of these self-images, especially the ones we feel come from a sense of calling. But the good news is that there are no wrong answers – it simply doesn’t matter what we “do”, if we can grasp that, I sense there is a wider and deeper well to draw on.

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Sit, Be Still, and Listen….

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Marion “modelling” the new seat

March has been overly busy in an all too familiar sort of way. The porch was completed, and the hall redecorated all of which took up time and energy even though I wasn’t doing any of the work.  And of particular note for guests was the arrival of the new swing seat in the garden.

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The view from the seat

I am delighted with the seat, it fits perfectly into a space above the topiary and rose “celtic spiral” with views down the garden towards the Dartington Estate. It is fun to have a gentle swing on, lovely to sit and sip tea on, and I can vouch for the restful lying down position too! Deciding on an inscription took a little more time. I wrote to a few friends for inspiration, and what came back was an avalanche of stunning quotations. There was a thread to many of them, and I ended up with an extract from a Rumi poem called “The Edge of the Roof”.  The full sentence, (I learned after I decided upon it) is, “Sit, be still, and listen, because you’re drunk and we’re at the edge of the roof.”

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A carpet of anemones in the woods by the river

Not really having a clue what this meant I Googled the quote and according to one interpreter, “ We seem to be filled with our own thoughts and agendas, yet they drive us. They are mechanical and we act them out like a machine or sleepwalker.

As I reflect on the month there are two clear strands. One is my familiar mechanical preoccupations with “stuff” to do with the house and garden which drive me on incessantly. The other almost opposite strand was being immersed in two e-courses based on the teachings of G I Gurdjieff. Cynthia Bourgeault describes him as “an enigmatic Armenian born spiritual teacher… Growing up in a melting pot of Christian, Islamic and Shamanic influences, he early on became convinced that human beings had fallen into a collective kind of amnesia, forgetting both their purpose and their responsibilities in the greater web of planetary life. He also became convinced that there were ancient schools of Wisdom still in existence that preserved the true roadmap.” You could link “collective amnesia” easily to being “at the edge of the roof”.

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The river flooded again, blocking our regular morning path

The first course takes extracts from a commentary by Maurice Nicoll on Gurdjieff’s teachings on self-observation.  He says, “Essence is what you’re born with, personality is what you acquire….. personality must gradually become passive to let essence develop.” Another word for essence could be “True Self”: that part of us that was there before we were conceived, and the overlay of our parents’ personalities and subsequently our own learnt behaviour built up to create the person we think we are. But Gurdjieff teaches that we need to separate ourselves from this personality, the one who has such fixed ideas and opinions, aversions and desires, in order that our true essence can emerge.

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Female goosander on the river, early one morning

As I’ve started to work with this material (and I’m not really doing it justice by dipping the tip of a toe-nail into it), I have caught a glimpse of my personality as she repeats over and again habitual patterns in a drunken amnesiac sort of way. And it’s the “collision” of the two monthly activities that has brought this into sharp focus for me.  As the commentator on the quote goes on to say, “Rumi is suggesting that we might want to wake up and that we might want to do it before we “fall of the roof”.

I interpret the idea that we are drunk and at the edge of the roof as that state of unawakened-ness, where we can do so much damage not only to ourselves but to others around us, aswell as to the planetary web of life. Now more than ever we are conscious as Cynthia says in the second course more oriented towards our global responsibility, “the causal links between cutting of the rain forests, unrestrained fossil fuel consumption, the rising of sea levels, the warming of the ocean, the death of species. We understand that our planet is not simply a passive backdrop for our ambitious schemes….”

As I’ve immersed myself in these two courses I am catching glimpses of  the gap between my own acquired personality and the “drunken” attachments that go with it and the greater calling to which I am drawn.

Rumi gives us the key to all of it – IMG_0452

If you’re interested in learning more about Gurdjieff Cynthia Bourgeault offers two course through Spirituality & Practice  www.spiritualityandpractice.com

 

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Spring Stirrings @ Retreat by the Dart

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Selkie & the Snowdrops

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Dipper singing its heart out

This year the snowdrops along the river bank have been stunning, as unlike last year, we’ve got through the month without any major flooding. And there has been a noticeable change in activity on the river, with pairs of mallards and goosanders very evident, and dippers dashing up and down. I saw a couple of them “dancing” on the river – not sure if it was a courtship or territorial ritual, either way it was a delight to watch. On the home front I’ve been delighted to discover masses of frog spawn in the garden pond.  Yesterday, there was even more excitement as I saw a little “wriggle” in the water. Two years ago, I wrote about a murderous robin who dive bombed the froglets and ate the lot. So let’s hope it finds another source of food this year…..

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Kingfisher on the River Dart @ Dartington

And to cap it all, I’ve been blessed with some stunning sightings of kingfishers. They have been evident along the river on morning walks, hearing their distinctive call, and occasionally seeing them whizz along the river in a flash of vibrant colour – all the more exciting in this still dull tree colour time. One day I watched a kingfisher sit on a high branch for some while up at Hembury Woods. Then last week walking at Dartington, I managed to capture an image, admittedly not quite in focus, but you can at least see what it is! I watched it sit and then dive into the river and emerge with a small fish, and then repeat the activity on the opposite river bank. Pure delight.

You might think I do nothing but go walking with Selkie, but the fact is that this past month has been rather busy. Retreat bookings have been the best ever for February, with new and repeat bookings, guided and personal retreats. Alongside that a porch is being built off the main house, and some long awaited decoration is going on in my bedroom. And I’ve ordered a “swing seat” for the garden: it’s a lovely gentle swing, and will have pride of place at the top of the garden near the rose bushes, the scent in summer I’m told wafts its way to where the seat will be.

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Female Goosander on the Dart @ Hembury

I continue with my weekly retreat days, getting a sense of what it’s like to be on retreat here!  I was reading back on February’s days and they vary a lot, and sometimes don’t feel to be “going anywhere”, but there are golden threads of learning weaving their way through.

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River Reflections @ Hembury

I try to start each day with a slow walk to the river and last week I “found” a stone which looked for all  the world like a skull. It was so striking, that I brought it home. The gospel reading for that Sunday was Jesus’ well known words “Therefore I tell you do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear…. Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns…”  I always struggle with this, attached as I am to love of clothes, of colour and beauty around me, and reflecting on it got me nowhere. By contrast the “skull” stone reminded me of a book by Thich Nhat Hanh, in which he offers a meditation on death. Not your average Sunday afternoon activity,  but I was drawn to give it a try.

I  found that imagining my death I was very concerned that there wouldn’t be anyone there who knew me. Duh! And I laughed out loud when I envisaged myself in a coffin, as I found myself saying “Let me out!” Clearly there’s unfinished business! Thich Nhat Hanh says of this exercise, “When we can envision and accept our own death, we are able to let go of many ambitions, worries, and sufferings. In short, we are able to let go of all the things which keep us so unnecessarily busy.”

It’s this last sentence that made sense to me. As I recover and find more energy within myself, I’m presented with a problem of a different nature: being too busy with “stuff”. Maybe because I’ve had many days and months of being alone, being quiet, not “doing” much, I am all the more conscious of discomfort when I feel too busy. It feels very familiar, but not quite right somehow.

Mahmud Shabistari, a Sufi mystic wrote a little gem of a book called “The Secret Rose Garden”, and reading it on a recent retreat day, the following words “spoke” to me : “All your life you have sought name and fame; this self-seeking of yours is an illusion, keeping you back from me. To glance at my face for an instant is worth a thousand years of devotion.”

Busyness is another way of “self-seeking”, seeing my own “needs” – for  recognition, for material comfort, for love, as the priority. This is not a hair shirt moment, a giving up of everything for the cloister, but simply a reminder of what is the “one essential thing”.

The journey goes on……

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Time to Start Dancing

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As if the river is on fire – early morning winter sunrise

Rooted is part of the  phrase that consistently “spoke” to me during the exercise I wrote about in December. I said to myself that it has more to do with “rooted in God” than “rooted in Staverton”. But as the days have gone on in January, and bookings have steadily come in (two years ago I had an empty calendar from January to May) I have the sense that it might mean both. I’ve lived here for almost 5 years, during which time I’ve had a number of health set backs, well documented, such that I feel I’m starting afresh this year with improved health both personally and in the bookings department.

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Selkie has an encounter with a swan @ Still Pool

“Rooted” is also a good word for someone like me who is a “7” on the Enneagram. Sevens are the “enthusiasts” – endlessly coming up with (what seem like) exciting ideas, we love everything to do with stimulating the senses, and are constantly on the go with new projects, finding it hard to settle on one. I suffered from a bout of “seven-ness” over Christmas and New Year when, too late for my well-being, I realised that my mind was way ahead of my body in the ideas department. So I have reigned myself in big time this month and so far it’s been a positive experience, simply focussing on being here in this place, and not getting into plans for travel or new projects.

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Winter’s day reflections on the Dart @ Hembury Woods

One other really positive outcome from the “give me a word” exercise, was being encouraged to decide on a practice that would support the deepening of the “word” in life. I decided I would take a retreat day once a week. I wondered if it might turn out to be a New Year’s resolution that ended up in the bin, especially as once a week seems a bit, well, enthusiastic, but so far it’s working really well. I just have to watch that I don’t go hell for leather the next day to “catch up”!

On my most recent retreat day I took the Lectionary readings for Sunday (29th) which had a clear theme of  God’s abundance and generosity – the story of Elijah being fed by the widow and the story of the wedding at Cana. I was drawn to the word “abundance”  which took me to back to an online course “The Wisdom Jesus” that Cynthia Bourgeault offered a few years ago. In a section entitled “The problem with hoarding” she says, ““Abundance” is not really a noun; it’s a verb. It’s an “abun-dance”: a dynamic flow that is engaged only when you get out on the dance floor and start dancing; ….Survival of the fittest is not the bottom line; the dance floor has been expressly designed to hold us up. Since this point is so fundamentally counter-intuitive for our anxiety-prone minds, it’s little wonder that Jesus takes every occasion to hammer it home. In virtually all his teachings the fundamental leitmotif is an “over-the-top” generosity…Think of all those well-loved parables – the prodigal son, the good Samaritan, the loaves and fishes, the water turned into wine…. It is not a question of “adequate” or “barely enough”, but of a fullness “filled up, pressed down, running over”. The trick is that we have to be willing to receive it – and having received it, to allow it to flow from us again. The problem with any kind of constrictive motion – taking, defending, hoarding, clinging – is that it makes us spiritually blind, unable to see the dance of divine generosity which is flowing all around us.”

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The first snowdrops I saw on the river bank, a couple of weeks ago.

It’s very easy to hook into the negative side of this – we are so familiar with the places where we hold back, withhold, cling on, and off we go, doing ourselves down for not being more generous, or getting more involved, or or…more something. Around here there are endless spirituality groups I could get involved with, and some I even think I “should”. And I’ve been berating myself big time recently in relation to charitable giving. It doesn’t get us anywhere, and if anything, the self-critic keeps us well locked into a spiritual blind alley.

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This week on Feb 1 it’s St Brigid Day, snowdrops are one of her symbols

So, rather than gird up my loins to do more and try harder (there’s always the opportunity for that), I had one of those little “aha” moments, as I was pondering all this yesterday.  I noticed the way in which I have been “abundant” in the development of the retreat space here.  In a heart felt way I chose to pour a lot of energy, ideas, time and money into the project – it was a gesture of “abundance” which I can truly say, for once, was freely given. And it helps that it is aligned with a sense of calling to offer this kind of space.

Reflecting on that  moment, it came with a strong sense of spaciousness within, which was aligned with a sense of freedom. This is because I now know it’s absolutely ok to let go of other “shoulds” and “good ideas” and so on, and simply concentrate on “dancing” this one project as well as I can. This I think is what I intuited when the words “rooted in freedom” called to me as my “word” for 2017. And what I love too is that the catch is, once again, in the willingness to let go. The world doesn’t come to an end!

 

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Doing December Differently

One year, probably about 10 years ago, I made my own Christmas chutney, mincemeat and the pies, Christmas cake, Christmas pudding –  you get the drift, I was “into” preparing for the festivities big time. I didn’t stop cooking, decorating, planning, preparing for the whole of December and, exhausted to a very short fuse, fell out with my brother a few hours after he arrived for Christmas….

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December colour along the river

I vowed that year to do things differently in future (and yes, my brother & I are friends again).

With the help of a friend   (who just says “bah humbug” to the season), and my own determination not to get caught up into the commercial pressure, however well meaning (yes, I know Jamie Oliver does the THE best Christmas ever) year by year I’ve done less. I even give some credit to the sneaky tick that gave me Lyme Disease. Not knowing quite how my energy levels will be from week to week, or day to day, it’s been easier to decide not to do things than to do them. So this year a couple of weeks ago I sent some cards, bought a few presents and that’s it. I even forgot to buy an advent candle which I “always” do.

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Colourful December day @ Start Point looking back to Start Bay

But rather than sit back and eat too many mince pies, slurp the sloe gin now perfect for drinking, or try and make up for lost time in the kitchen, I began to notice that there is something else going on underground as it were. I was aided and abetted by a strong urge to delay my travels North by another week  and a website called “Abbey of the Arts” which I subscribe to but don’t always read. As is often the case, the travel delay was an intuition that had no logical basis, but it made sense at a feeling level –  I positively wanted to be at home for longer.

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One of my favourite views of the Dart @ Sharpham, grey December day!

So in one of my many “spare” moments over the past few days – (and they are getting more frequent as even my “bah humbug” friend tells me she’s busy!)  I opened an email on Sunday from Abbey of the Arts entitled, intriguingly, “Give me a Word 2017″.  Our “online abbess” (Christine Valters Painter) writes “In ancient times, wise men and women fled out into the desert to find a place where they could be fully present to God and to their own inner struggles at work within them…The desert was a threshold place where you emerged different than when you entered. Many people followed these ammas and abbas, seeking their wisdom and guidance for a meaningful life. One tradition was to ask for a word – something on which to ponder for days, weeks, months…She asks “what is your word for the year ahead? A word which contains within it a seed of invitation to cross a new threshold in your life?”

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Spiders web delicately decorating an outside decoration

Well I am a sucker for these sort of activities, which she offers as a 12 day mini-retreat, and I’m well stuck into it, drawing, walking, reflecting on the past year and current dreams. And having discovered a word that keeps cropping up no matter what I do, I’m wondering is that the word, or is there another layer to go? This is so truly much more fun than online shopping, cooking up a Christmas storm, drinking vats of wine with people I only see once a year, or going to the most dreadful nativity play ever as I gamely did last year. I don’t feel “bah humbug” about Christmas: I honour the charitable giving, the honest attempts to give the commercial season a deeper meaning, and above all the mystical meaning of the return of the Light.

But I’m enjoying this mini-retreat, taking as much or as little time as I want or can find each day, to listen in a different way to the word that wants to be discovered. I already have an idea what the word might be, but that’s for another blog. If you like the idea, you can sign up here:  https://app.ruzuku.com/courses/18119/overview .

We can do December differently!

 

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Remembering Leonard

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The river Dart from Staverton bridge early November

I have a strong memory of lying by the fire on the sitting room floor at the house in the Yorkshire Dales I lived in from the age of 13. I was listening to a Leonard Cohen LP on our fairly recently acquired record player – I think it was “Songs from a Room”, given to me by my first boyfriend. More recently I got to see him live (Leonard, not the boyfriend) on one of his last tours, which is another strong memory – surging forward in the rain when he finished the set as people started to leave, to listen up close as he carried on with a few encores. Magic.

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Flooded river Dart at Staverton Bridge mid November

So, saddened as I was after he died, I read as much as I could online about his last days. A friend in the US sent me a piece from the NewYorker in which he said something that struck a big chord with me.

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river Dart at Staverton bridge late November

“I am ready to die, Cohen said. He was already suffering from a number of health problems. “At a certain point, if you still have your marbles and are not faced with serious financial challenges, you have a chance to put your house in order. It’s a cliché, but it’s underestimated as an analgesic on all levels. Putting your house in order, if you can do it, is one of the most comforting activities, and the benefits of it are incalculable.” (New Yorker Nov 10 2016)

I read this almost exactly at the same time as I made the decision to cancel a 4 week course I had signed up for almost a year ago. As I started to think about packing I came down with a heavy cold and simply couldn’t get my act together. The decision itself was actually a relief.  I realised my mind had been running ahead of my body for about two months, and I had to acknowledge, yet again, that I’d been doing too much. It’s such a familiar state, but in the “Lyme Disease recovery programme”, it’s completely unhelpful.

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Three’s company – goosanders pairing off

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Three’s company – mandarin ducks pairing off

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The river Dart @ Hembury early November

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River Dart @ Hembury late November

But as is often the case with these things, it’s been a gift to have 4 weeks with nothing specific in the diary. It has simply been a time of “putting my house in order”. In slowing down, looking around, taking note, I’ve found things I needed to catch up with, as well as other unfinished business as it turns out. I became aware that my grief for Jeanne, long term spiritual friend, is still with me. I’ve now had time to put up a painting of hers that I took as a memento from her flat. I’ve had time to catch up with a pile of “stuff”, rifle through odd drawers, take stock of clothes, and potter in the garden for a while. I’ve been able to attend a local meditation group which recently started.  And just this morning I bumped into someone local I’d like to get to know, and we had time for a coffee. It’s not all a bed of roses though as I’ve also had to deal with a difficult situation that I was hoping to avoid til the New Year!  There’s  something important though about having more time to allow things to happen or emotions to arise that might not otherwise. As Leonard says in that classic line, “There’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”

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River Dart @ Hembury late November

But the most important moment, the climax if you like, came on Sunday, quite out of the blue as I was having breakfast and listening to the Sunday Service. My ears pricked up at the title -“Hear the Call” – although it wasn’t actually very inspiring. But something about the state I was in – relaxed, attentive, open – I felt a physical “dropping down” inside, a state which usually happens in meditation.  In that place I feel centred, spacious, detached from all preoccupations. The best analogy is that it was as lovely as an unexpected orgasm. Both states are impossible to hold on to, but the sweetness of the experience is an encouragement to continue on the path.

And at the risk of pushing it, to continue the analogy of “la petite morte” as the French describe it, it reminds me yet again of the words of Cynthia Bourgeault’s teacher Rafe, to “die before you die”. It’s not just physical death that puts us in mind of putting the house in order.

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Beautiful late autumn colour @ Hembury

And now 50 years later, I can light the fire, and lie on the sitting room floor and give myself the permission I didn’t need back then, to listen to Leonard Cohen.

 

 

 

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A slightly different take on Hallowe’en

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Early October morning light at Hembury Woods

Flying back in to Gatwick last week, expecting to see bare trees and a cold, grey landscape I was amazed as I looked down at the stunning colours on the treetops, a rare event in late October, when autumn winds and rain have usually stripped the leaves by now. And my delight has continued as Selkie and I have re-acquainted ourselves with walks along the riverbank. Some of the images reflect these past few days of glorious colour and early morning light.

I’m back to my usual last minute blog writing, the past 6 weeks having been unusually busy with travel for various events – a 60th birthday party, a memorial service, visiting a close friend I hadn’t seen for a year, and, finally, a holiday on Menorca.

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Early October morning with Selkie

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Same spot late October morning

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On the back foot again, fortuitiously  the date gave me a perfect opening, as I was remembered something Cynthia Bourgeault posted last year as an alternative approach to Hallowe-en. She calls it a “Fall Triduum” (Triduum meaning “3 days” in the Catholic tradition – and hopefully I will post this blog before the end of these 3 days!). In the Catholic tradition the Easter Triduum is the three days before Easter Day, from Maundy Thursday to Easter Saturday.

She writes “Both spring and fall Triduums deal with that passage from death to life which is at the heart of the Christian mystical path, and in fact, all mystical paths. …. At Easter the days are lengthening, the earth is springing forth with new life, and ….resurrection is sort of a no-brainer, …In the Fall Triduum the movement is more inward, against the grain. The days are shortening (literally as of today), the leaves are fallen (well, as we’ve noted not quite yet), and the earth draws once again into itself. Everything in the natural world confronts us with reminders of our mortality. ….In this dark and inward season there is little that encourages us to somersault over death right into resurrection; we must linger in the dark…. These fall Triduum days are an invitation to do the profound inner work: to face our shadows and deep fears, to taste that in ourselves which already lies beyond death, then to move back into our lives again, both humbled and steadied in that which lies beyond both light and dark… What better tilling of the inner soil for the mystery of Incarnation, which lies just ahead.”

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Early morning sunrise in a field close to the river

 

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Heron watching for fish, early morning by the river

One way in which I “till the inner soil” is with a group of women who meet here fortnightly to ponder, reflect and meditate on a saying from the gospel of Thomas. We’ve been meeting for 3 years now, and the group is fairly constant. So there has been a real deepening of insight in these sessions, as we’ve grown to trust one another. It’s a live “wisdom group”!

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Liquidamber tree, cornus and white birch in the garden today

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The colour of the leaves on a tree outside the garden

This week we looked at logion 24, part of which goes like this “Light shines out from the center of a being of light And illuminates the whole cosmos. Whoever fails to become light Is a source of darkness”. Some of our initial pondering centred around behaviour, or what we do or don’t do. But as we deepened our understanding through meditation, we started to see it more as a call to become our True Selves – which means we have to address the false self or shadow before we can land on that shore. It’s not about “getting rid” of the shadow self:  if we look at it in a unitive way, we never lose our shadow, we just become more familiar with it, so that we begin to know when we are acting out.

Another insight was that light is not a fixed property, it’s rather a process, which one of us said felt right for her – it’s the process of transformation that is the journey we’re all on. That also reminded me of a story Cynthia tells to illustrate this: an unlit candle is tallow and wick, it can’t light itself, the light only comes when the wick is lit and the tallow burns. It’s something we have to allow, not something we can engineer.

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Autumn colour reflected at the weir this morning

So maybe rather than tut tut about Hallowe-en, or get caught up into frantic activity around it, there is the possibility of keeping these 3 days for a kind of “rite of passage” as we journey into the darkness, using Hallowe’en as a time to acknowledge the false self, our dark side, then to allow ourselves to be in that thin place between heaven and earth on All Saints Day, and to return, remembering along the way loved ones no longer with us, prepared to live more deeply and courageously knowing that the same inner light is in every human being.

As nights draw in early, and fires are lit, I might light a candle over these next three days as a reminder of this season and the interplay of light and dark at this time of year, all the time being at the ready for the trick or treaters knocking at the door!

 

 

 

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How do Feathers Fly?

If anyone’s noticing, I’m writing this piece way early this month. Really with the idea of “getting ahead”  as I can’t see many free days now til the end of the month. Somehow I’ve got busy again, and I’m not sure I like it.

There is no question that I’m delighted to be feeling much recovered from  chronic Lyme disease which has bugged me (sorry!) for the past year.  But – I feel alternately frantic to be getting on with projects that I’ve had to shelve for many months, and anxious that I won’t be able to sustain it. Neither is a good state to be in, and I then start to wish…. no, not really. But it’s strange to discover that having energy is as challenging as not having it! My brother has always told me I take too much on, and now that my energy levels are closer to “normal”, the challenge is no different  – how to find the Centre on a daily basis, from which to live.

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Dappled sunlight in in North Woods

I woke early on Sunday morning to a bright, sunny, morning with a cool edge – a hint of autumn. I usually have a short walk with Selkie on a Sunday along the river bank towards the bridge. Today we just kept walking. I found  myself crossing the bridge and going up into North Woods, where there is a warren of footpaths meandering sometimes close to the river, sometimes in dense woodland. Selkie and I were both following our noses. Along the way I espied moorhens at the weir, female mandarin ducks and just the hint of an otter diving, from the bridge.

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Still Pool from the opposite bank

Before we set out I happened upon a quote attached to an image of Hildegard of Bingen: “I am a feather on the breath of God”.  It struck a chord, and on the walk I thought about it some more. What it chimed with was the first part of my 30 day retreat when I described a numinous experience as “gentle and tender as the touch of a feather”. As I’ve written before, it was a pivotal moment in my life,  a point of true conversion – to a Relationship I’ve been seeking for many years. But it wasn’t anything I would have expected, no flashes of thunder, or voices from heaven. Just a very intimate moment of knowing and being known.  It is the place from which I desire to live, so long as I don’t get too consumed by well, consumption.

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Early morning dip for this dipper @ Still Pool

We walked as far as Still Pool on the pebbly river bank opposite the sandy bank where I swim from regularly. It was a lovely view, with the sun dappling through the beech trees onto the river. And a dipper delighted me yet again doing what it does best, dipping in and out of the water, drinking delicately, quickly diving  under and back to shake its’ feathers dry.

On the way back I picked up a feather, a visual reminder of the image I started the walk with. I was aware then that this spontaneous walk had reconnected me with my Centre, a spacious place, where nothing is pressing, and the “to do” list is in the right perspective. As Hildegard says  “The feather flew, not because of anything in itself …. ” There’s the rub, because it’s almost impossible not want to put our activities and effort first.

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A cormorant gently flapping its wings on the river close to home

Back through the woods,  over the old bridge and just as I was walking back along the river bank,  I espied a cormorant on a mound of river debris, gently “airing” its wings. No-one knows why they do this, but it’s a lovely sight. As I crouched down to capture it on photo, a kingfisher flew by, too quick as usual for the camera.

Today I woke again in a mild panic about the busyness of this month. I chose to leave the long “to do” list, and take some time to explore the quote from Hildegard of Bingen further.  This is the whole quote :

” Listen ; there was once a king sitting on his throne. Around him stood great and wonderfully beautiful columns ornamented with ivory, bearing the banners of the king with great honour. Then it pleased the king to raise a small feather from the ground and he commanded it to fly. The feather flew, not because of anything in itself, but because the air bore it along. Thus am I ‘a feather on the breath of God’”

 

 

 

 

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What strands make up your life?

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Early August morning at the weir

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Swallows gathering close to the house

August has flown by, it’s been the busiest month at Retreat by the Dart since I started offering retreats 3 years ago. Yesterday after all the visitors had departed and washing was on the line, I had some time to reflect. It really is a good time of year for that – a transition time between summer and autumn, when birds get ready to migrate, blackberries and plums are ripening, the mornings are cooler, misty and dew filled, the sweet pea arbour is fading fast and my thoughts turn to ordering bulbs.

On September 1st 5 years ago  I moved to Devon. It was both an exciting and exhausting day, finalising the clearing and cleaning of Godsfield House, saying a tearful goodbye to my neighbours, and driving as fast as I dare down the A303 with a loaded car and two dogs to pick up the keys to a rental house before the estate agent closed. I was greeted by my close friend Jeanne who came to stay for a few days to help me unpack.

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Dippers have been faithful companions on early morning walks

Continuing the pondering, I then recalled how many major life events have happened since then  – acute appendicitis, a love relationship that didn’t last, a work relationship that didn’t well, work,  and more recently a year of chronic post Lyme disease during which time both my close friend Jeanne died,  closely followed by a more recent friend and spiritual mentor, Joyce Ferne.

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One of my favourite views of the river Dart @ Sharpham

Before you lose the will to live reading this, I then recalled the inspirational and formative events during this time – being introduced to Cynthia Bourgeault’s writings; attending three  Wisdom Schools with her; finding and buying the Coach House; being introduced to the architect/builder who brought my vision for retreat space into being; enjoying early morning river swims;  completing a training in Centering Prayer;  facilitating residential retreats and the gospel of Thomas sessions, now a fixture with a group of amazing women;  completing a 30-day Ignatian retreat which I can only describe as a profound conversion event.

Conversion to what you may well ask, and isn’t it a bit late for that? Well, I guess the answer is to a new way of understanding the spiritual life. As Richard Rohr said yesterday, “Religion is supposed to teach us the way of love. … The wise ones recognise that without a certain degree of inner freedom, you cannot and will not love. Spirituality is about finding that freedom.”

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We came close to a heron yesterday morning

I like the simplicity of this. A friend who describes himself as “agnostic” came to stay recently, and I was trying to explain something of what my line is on religion and spirituality. I could tell by the look on his face I wasn’t getting through! Rohr’s words sum it up very neatly. I hardly dare whisper it, but I have an almost evangelical need to share this, such is the strength of my conviction (oops!) after years of struggling in a spiritual wilderness.

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Selkie enjoying my birthday walk @ Sharpham

Another anniversary moment I recalled was 10 years ago when Jeanne and I spent New Year together in Cornwall. We always liked to take time to reflect on the year past and share our findings through drawing, writing and creating images. That time I wrote a poem called “Strands”, (which is pasted below). It was 2 years after I had quit the business of publishing, and although I knew I’d made the right decision, I was struggling to make sense of it.  On re-reading it after a gap of some years, the heart of the poem reflects the same idea – inviting the Soul to take the lead – which is really what inner freedom and the necessary “letting go”  is all about.

I’m struck again by this image of “strands” – threads like swimming that began when I learnt to swim as a child in lake Coniston, or friendships like Jeanne that began almost 40 years ago and will continue despite her physical absence, lovers who have come and gone but fan the flame of passion from time to time, and that ever present undefinable Thread that draws us constantly on to allow ourselves to be oh so gently unravelled and to allow oh so slowly, who we truly are, to be revealed.

This morning I read this quote from Rumi

“How could the soul not take flight

When from the glorious presence

A soft call flows sweet as honey, comes right up to her

And whispers, “Rise up now, come away.”

 

What shape and colour are the strands that make up the pattern of your life’s journey?

 

STRANDS

being “in the middle”     with no clear markers

upooted from comfortable home

familiar ego life

a scary place        tempted to return

to what seems safe   but still curious

and open minded, and just a bit excited

(with a thin line of fear – ‘will there be enough’)

letting the questions wait for answers

where will I emerge  how will I be drawn

from this not knowing empty place

rich with potential

the Creative Void

the strands already there gently drawing me on

inviting the Soul to take the lead

allowing time and space

(here where time stretches out)

for her to grow and strengthen

trusting in her beginnings

(so far back the thread is lost)

listening to her promptings

to take up my soul-skin  and return home to

what is true  for me

the experience is the journey

the outcome unknown  only a new awareness

that enlarges my world for ever

New Year 2006

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