1.5.18 Dicentra in the garden
I am learning new things about love. When it's needed. When it makes the biggest difference to a life. I am learning it through my son's life, my plants' lives, and my own.
We are used to needing and offering care through suffering. There is an expectation that it is required and deserved, then. Our innate sympathy for pain turns us to it, often despite ourselves, when we witness the sound of it. We know its healing comes from kind-hearted love, and as human beings, we are good at providing that, whatever anyone says, however lost we all say we are. Perhaps some of us deserve more than we receive, but if we can be open and honest with our pain, love and help will often touch our lives in small ways, if we have the eyes to see it and the courage to let it in. I believe we are all drawn to care for each other like that. I love that we are.
I have been loved through suffering, kindly and patiently. What I am learning is that the need for love doesn't stop when you find hope, potential, goodness. If anything, your need for it intensifies.
I am cradling new things just now. I am growing a book. I am growing a new relationship. I had anticipated and looked for neither, but now find I can't help but steer towards their promise, hungry despite myself. They have collided and aligned, unexpectedly, intensely, and I feel more vulnerable, more exposed, and more terrified than I think I ever have. It is a painful joy. A devastating hope. Some days, it's shaking me raw.
When times of suffering come, there is a kind of ease in hardening, in self-protecting. We get to pull to safety, into withdrawal and retreat. But when it is time to put suffering aside, or at least turn down its clamour, which we always must if we are to stay fully alive, we must do the opposite. We must unclench, unfurl. We must shed all our skin and become new baby things, ready to start again, terrible and bawling. Harder still, we must turn, move our feet, reach towards the things that suffering may have told us aren't meant for us at all, because it does that, doesn't it? It whispers that its lands are safer than that bright, unfamiliar place, full of risk. How much simpler it would be sometimes to stay in that hunched, dark place where everything hurts. How perversely comforting and affirming it can be, to let the world confirm what we always feared, deep down: that we are no good anyway, and so should stay right here. There is pain in it, excruciating, but there can also be, underneath it all, a safety, a rightness. Life does make some sort of hollow sense here.
I know this trap. I know its lure. And how much harder it is because it is rarely, if ever, a case of happiness and growth barging into your life and burning up suffering in one bright, magnesium flash. It is never that convenient. Instead, we have to make space for it next to us, still suffering, still bleeding, still secretly convinced of our unworth. This is the only way to live. This is the only way to live. We don't get to leave anything behind. We must simply heave it onto our shoulders and take it into light, and knowing this, realising this, is a new terror. We must be our same broken, flawed selves in a new life. We must show ourselves to it, to everyone. God help us, we must.
This is why we must love each other when things start to go well, or could do. This is the point we must not turn away from each other, and yet we do - oh how we do - out of envy, resentment, out of our own pain and insecurity or our simple disinterest. It seems to get worse with age. We are less indulgent of second chances, third choices, somehow, our generosity worn.
I tell you: we need to be loved, with joy and patient care, through new beginnings, every time. Perhaps, if anything, we need to be loved more each time, more loudly, more uncompromisingly, for it is now, in these tender first steps all over again, with the weight of our pasts on our shoulders, that we are most likely to panic and shut down, to self-sabotage, to decide we can't, we CAN'T, we don't deserve this, we're not good enough, we'll only fail again. It is love's job to say, firmly, delightedly, hopefully: you can, you do, you are, you must try.
I watch my son with his piano teacher on Saturday mornings: his open, nervous, hopeful face as he fumbles the notes for the dozenth time and looks for reassurance, and his warm teacher responds with unabashed, patient praise, with the subtlest of guidance, with pride, and I know that this is a time ripe for love. I know this is a time that love will make every difference to his future.
My friends ask me gentle, hopeful questions now. They make space for my new things. They let me talk about them, eager and embarrassed, frightened and fumbling, and I feel more love now than any kind word achieved in years of heartbreak and pain, because they believe I am worth more than where I was. They believe these new things are mine to have, that I am worthy of them. I know that if these new seeds of things get to grow into something strong and beautiful, it will be because I have been loved through these shaky beginnings.
And so, I guess, this is an instruction. We tell each other to care for suffering, as we should, but all I can think of today is to ask you, to beg you, to let love be bigger than that. Let it be braver. Let us remember to love each other through our fragile, risky, ambition. Let us love the hope of each other. It will take nothing from us. Don't let the wounds in you convince you otherwise.
In Buddhism, we call it mudita. It is joy in another's joy: a wholehearted, honest, generous love, underpinned with a compassionate knowing that joy is rarely simple, rarely clean. It is considered another of the sublime states, not because it is easy, but because it is not. It takes courage and a generosity that doesn't come easy to our wounded, parched souls, and yet we work at it because it matters.
Perhaps all joy, all brave growth, all bright achievement that exists in the world was built on love like this, once: this mudita. Perhaps that's one of the reasons it's so deeply important.
We get nowhere alone, I think that's what I'm realising from this tender, wonderful, terrified place. We get nowhere alone.
21.3.18 Deep breaths at Aston Marina
It's World Poetry Day and in celebration, I thought I would cut short my own words and instead read you one of my favourite poems. I hope you enjoy it.
15.3.18 Evening light
There are some who would say I've been unlucky in love.
I have loved in my time, fiercely, tenderly, faithfully, but whether through fate or habit, when I have, it has rarely found its mark in a soul who was able to give it a full home. I have been loved, beautifully and kindly, but always somehow guardedly in return. Always an if, always a but. Always something held back, a distance or a mismatch or a line that can't be crossed. Them there. Me here, willing them closer. Them unable or unwilling to. Always that gap.
I have still treasured it, oh how I have. I have still valued it. Often it has caused them as much pain as it did me. The best they could give was given and the rest was just the way it was. I love the love that has been shown to me, the careful shapes it has taken, and I always will.
There have, of course, been long, dark times when something inside me has pointed to this unaligned love and whispered over and over, "You're just not good enough. That's why this happens. You're not worth more" and I have believed it. There are still days when that whisper echoes off every thought, but not so many now. Not so many.
I heard a song today and a refrain in it made me stop. It went:
But I couldn't love you more
That's what all this love is for
It's always an open door
What else could it be?
And I thought, yes, yes that is how I love. That is how I want to love. Fiercely, tenderly, faithfully, my whole heart open to it all and expecting nothing in return. Love as an invitation. An open door to walk through, only if, only if that's right. Always always.
And I thought, I have loved well. I still love well. I don't need to change a single thing.
13.3.18 Beginnings of a new cardigan
I knit in a way that changes the world. It is silly and wonderful, and I wanted to tell you about it, but first, we have to go back. Back to something special to me.
In Buddhism, we have a concept called the four sublime states. It is one of my favourite teachings; four states of mind that represent that very best of human feeling. They have other beautiful names: the four immeasurables; the four limitless ones; the four divine dwellings. These states of mind are always possible, inexhaustible, and you make the world better just by feeling them. They are also deeply ordinary, radically challenging, and, I'll be honest, often delightfully uncool. It puts a warmth in my belly just to think of them.
They're like little seeds we all carry, and watering these seeds a little each day, letting them grow strong, is one of the cores of Buddhist practice. And so that is what I do. Every day, I try to water my seeds.
Maybe I will write about the others another time, but the first of these seeds is called metta, or maitri, which means loving kindness. It is a state of unconditional friendship; a kind of relaxed, open way of smiling at everything and everyone; of saying, "hey, I see you and I wish you well." It doesn't leave anyone out, and it doesn't leave anyone behind. In Buddhism, it's considered the most important state of all, because without a kind of gentle friendliness, nothing else we work for is really possible.
Rather than be a vague, groundless kind of goodwill though, maitri has a deep power at its heart. The radical nature of maitri is that it has to start with you.
In order to give maitri out to the world, wholly and freely in that sublime, impossibly glorious way, you must first make it strong within yourself. You must let that seed grow deep, deep roots, and to do that, you must turn inward to the ground of you. You must be that smiling, relaxed friend to everything you are, everything you feel. That is how you begin to water your seed. By being kind to yourself.
It is the hardest and the best thing you could ever do and years into my practice, I still have to work on it every day. It is worth it though, and I will tell you why.
When I turn maitri inward, when I relax enough and remember to treat myself in that friendly, "Hey, I see you" sort of way, I see that already, inside of me, there exists fields and fields of loving kindness, all ready to give. I see that I really do carry a sublime state, an immeasurable, limitless one. When I can get of the way of all my pain, all my fear, all my neurosis, all my self-loathing and everything they shout at me to focus on instead, I can see the truth of me: that I am full up to the brim with love. I am good.
The deeper truth breaks and mends my heart in the same instant, every time. Because when you look deeper, you realise that all that goodness, all that loving kindness inside you doesn't exist in spite of your pain, it exists because of it. Pain and fear and anger, bitterness and loss and craving and every other feeling that ever made you feel bad, that made you feel less: that was the soil in which your seed grew. That's where maitri comes from.
Of course it does, when you think about it. What else but pain would make you want to pour out kindness into the world. Without really seeing our own pain, our fear, our endless, hopeless fuck-ups, we can't really appreciate how much everyone else needs our loving kindness, our unconditional friendship, too.
When we start to really get to know our pain in that relaxed, tender, loving way, we remember that our suffering isn't particularly special. We know, deep down, that everyone else feels it too, or some version of it, and the bubble of self-absorption just sort of pops.
Seeing all the worst bits of ourselves, with that gentle friendliness, that's what moves us to give everyone else a break. We see how hard life is, and suddenly no one is the enemy anymore. We see that everyone is just as hurt and confused as we are, and we want to be kind. We want to move beyond our own suffering and make it a little easier for everyone else.
Now, whenever I can, I sit with every broken part of me and I cherish every wound. I celebrate all that potential I hold to know suffering and to love from the place of it, and I don't leave any of it out. I know that it all matters. I act like my own best friend.
And then I knit, and as I knit, I let all that loving kindness inside of me, all that maitri, out.
I do it by holding a person in my mind for a few stitches or a row, or however long feels right, and I say these words as I knit and purl, in time with my needles:
May you be happy
May you be healthy
May you be safe
May you find peace
I say it over and over. I wish the words gently, with my whole heart. If I feel myself habitually spinning off back into that narrow, blinkered place, tightening up, convinced that my pain is too big, that no-one understands, that everything is awful, I just turn the words on myself for a while and wish myself well, until I've found that place of maitri again and remember that we're all in this together. And then I hold someone else in thought for a while and say the words again.
May you be happy
May you be healthy
May you be safe
May you find peace
I have knit whole jumpers like this. I have put requests out on Twitter and repeated my prayer for hundreds of people, for people I knew and people I didn't. Not because I think it will magically turn their life around, but because I believe they deserved the words, deserved that wish, deserved to be loved in friendship, deeply, for a little while.
I don't believe my knitting will change the whole world, not really, but I do believe it matters.
I do believe it is sublime.
I have started knitting a new cardigan. If you'd like me to say my words of kindness for you, for whatever reason (and you don't have to tell me why), then you can leave your name in the comments under this post, or on Twitter or Instagram, or even email.
I promise I will include you, however long it takes.
10.3.18 Hibernation epiphragms (top), Mr Bailey (bottom)
My quietest housemate woke up today. For five months out of the twelve, my dear pal sleeps, retreating into his shell in late October and closing the door behind him until life warms up again.
I have written much about the esteemed Mr Gary Bailey, although not here. He was named Gary after SpongeBob's snail by my son, and Bailey after Elisabeth Tova Bailey by me, whose memoir 'The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating' left a lasting fingerprint on my life. In her book, Elisabeth describes living with the same combination of profound autonomic illness and chronic fatigue that I do. Curiosity saved her, much as it saves me. It seemed only fitting I should adopt a snail as she did and share my slow existence with it, and so I did.
GB is three years old now, a striking albino variety who has grown as large as my hand, and is the only person in my life that does less than I do. We spend the warmer months nodding to each other across my bedroom where he lives in a large tank and I have come to know every facet of his life: his sleeping and waking, his languid eating, his meticulous grooming, his inquisitive explorations, even his egg laying, for 'he' is a hermaphrodite and quite capable of producing offspring without a partner. And he, in his own way, has come to know me. To put him in my hand is to see him come alive with activity for he seems to know my scent while being nervous of others. We have a gentle understanding and I spend long hours in his company.
Today then was a joyful reunion. I have missed his expressive face and the soft sounds he makes. It was also a reminder of how much he grew through his active months last year. When snails hibernate, they produce an oyster-shell-like door to seal themselves away. Called an epiphragm (epi-fram), it is made from silvery mucus - the extraordinarily delicate yet strong concoction that lets snails live such remarkable lives. I kept last year's door, as I shall keep this new one, and laying them out side by side, I could see how GB has expanded his home since last winter, building new shell in a swirl so perfect, it would make a mathematician weep.
A clever, misunderstood companion is about the best kind to have, and he has woken up just in time to keep me company through a spell when I need to slow down and rest much more.
I'm excited. Isn't that daft? I'm excited to know him all over again.
If you'd like to learn more about Gary Bailey and his remarkable life, then may I recommend you buy a copy of Letters from Wonderland #6 in which I share his whole wonderful story.
8.3.18 Matchbox museum
A few weeks ago, I dreamt up the idea of a matchbox museum.
"I could fill a matchbox a week, a month, with the smallest things I can find, label them and stack them high, drawing each one out from time to time, to arrange and photograph as if priceless.
A record of life in diminutive, overlooked, broken things - I'd like that."
I ordered some empty matchboxes that evening and have been slowly filling the first box ever since. My foraging grounds are not places of natural beauty, full of impressive naturalists' treasures, but I have enjoyed it all the more for that. Prettiness was not required. I have been a magpie on the school runs, scanning littered pavements and dirty gutters, sending my son to scoop up things I couldn't reach. On days when I couldn't do that, I have worked my way slowly round the paved back yard to see what its shadows held. I assumed that if I found it, it mattered, and that was that.
Here then is the first official exhibit of the Bimblings Matchbox Museum. Magnifying glasses are available at the door.
We hope you'll stay awhile.
24.2.18 Supermarket daffs
Make peace. You have to make peace. I've been saying this to myself all day today. Peace isn't going to be handed to me whole and solid, a brand new house to step into and bury myself in forever more. I'm going to have to make it around me and even then, it will be something fragile. I will have to care for it and renew it, every day, over and over, patching it up and smoothing it out. I believe that good things are more likely to come from a place of peace. I believe it is worth the work.
I thought I might as well make a start today, all over again, and so I tried to make my peace wherever I could. Whenever I could feel myself start to battle, in aggression or in defeat, whenever I started to make war with myself or my day, I tried to make something peaceful happen instead. I let myself rest when I needed to. I made good food and ate it very slowly. I watched the sun on the moss on next door's garage roof. I said "that's enough of that for today" when things stopped working and let myself change paths. I was a peacekeeper and a diplomat and the kind of person who tells themselves good stories - the kind that heals.
It felt like the opposite of giving up. In fact, it was the closest thing to victory I've felt in a long, long while.
23.2.18 Doxey Marshes
No words today, but pictures aplenty. I made it up the footpath to the edge of the marshes just as the afternoon sun found its perfect height. I brought tea in my thermos mug and got my legs to the bridge to hang, bold, over the water.
This is my soul's place: the place I go to meet myself and remember who I am.
21.2.18 Embroidery progress
I slowly seem to have found myself in a very boring crisis this week. My crises are never particularly interesting if I'm honest. Less dramatic plot twists and more just me failing to do embarrassingly basic things. Ever so often now, I seem to slip a little physically like this, so it's nothing new and nothing to be especially worried about, at least not yet. It's the nature of lifelong illness. Some months and years you win, and some you lose.
When something changes in my life, I'm always surprised and amused by my instant need to make it a big deal. There is this feeling I should issue a statement: to myself, to others. I should immediately proclaim what is happening and what it all means. I should define it neatly, claiming this new state as my territory now. Hi, new thing, I am you now. Look world, look, I'm this now.
I'm not sure what I think it will achieve, but the risk to me is that suddenly everything becomes filtered through its lens. It's like I've cast myself in this particular role and now everything has to fit. I'm not just making a sandwich, I'm desperately trying to make a sandwich because my body is failing. I'm not just resting, I am confined to bed because that's my life now. If I'm struggling, then obviously everything must be a struggle now, mustn't it? Else it doesn't make sense.
No wonder everything seems so bleak. I spend all day playing a disaster movie in my head.
It's a habit I'm trying to break, this catastrophising when things don't go to plan or I don't feel well. Truth is, I don't actually know everything that's happening right now. That's going to take some wait and see and some time to see the bigger picture. I'll have a clearer idea in a week, a month. Hell, even tomorrow might bring something new. I don't need to start writing the chapter heading for my biography right now.
And although my days involve some very hard things at the moment, they're not all bad. Or at least, they don't need to be, if I can let go a little and give some other things chance to share the stage.
To help break the cycle, when I realise I'm falling into that state of prophesying doom on every corner and turning everything into a new scene in my disaster movie, I've started to make myself do something mundane and undramatic. I make myself stop struggling. I stop doing all the things that might help prove what I'm up against, all the things that best show me against the odds, and instead do something really dull and unimpressive instead.
Today I did some embroidery. It turns out it's very hard to be dramatic when you're satin-stitching an acorn. It made me laugh at myself and feel better.
To tomorrow then, hey. Who knows what it will bring.