7.4.18 After the rain
There is a type of loneliness that fits perfectly with heavy rain and an open window and climbing back into your Saturday bed with coffee and an ache. With all these things aligned, none of it needs fixing, not the rain or the loneliness or the inactivity, or the pull that rests somewhere between your heart and your thighs.
All get to thrum together comfortably with the kind of intensity that feels like being held, despite everything. And when the rain increases its tempo in a slow crescendo, when the volume switch is turned, it is like the rise of a kiss, and my breath catches just the same, just the same.
3.4.18 Center Parcs neighbours
I've spent long months craving this and now I'm here, I don't know what to do with myself. 'Here' is a lodge with my family on the edge of a lake, under bare alder tree and pine. The air is wet and if you run a finger along any branch, you loosen a rain-shower. All is muted brown and green and grey; all is perfect. I can hardly bear to look directly at it.
It has made me quiet. The footpaths here run with loud, unfamiliar faces. I find I want to stay close to the house beyond even what my limited mobility necessitates. I retreat to corners to watch and test my place in things. I keep my gaze low, looking up and out at the overlap of branches only sometimes, after a deep breath. I don't know why I feel so small and vulnerable, but I do. Pain has been sharp and that hasn't helped. I feel like I must keep myself held in so I don't give myself away. It feels pathetic to describe it so, but there it is.
I think maybe I have grown too used to safe silence, to sparse beauty that is sought-out and peeked at, not this abundance of it. I have grown used to solitude. I am dazzled and noise-numbed, jumping at every cupboard bang and companionable bustle, even here in the lodge with the family I have known all my life. I smile through it and love through it but something in me is all flinch.
I find I need to be outside and alone whenever possible and when the others are happy and busy, I have taken to dragging a chair a few steps away from the house, leaning on it as I go, step by step through the muddy ground, until I am out and under the trees and there is nothing in my vision but bark and water, the public paths hidden and distant. The wildlife is abundant. Pink-footed geese and their Canadian cousins share our grass with almost-grown cygnets. Ducks snooze while coots and moorhens pick around them. There is always a squirrel on the patio table and a quiet pair of chaffinches, all watched over by rock doves, huddled in the trees.
It is the rabbits I love best though.
They live in the lake bank and have learnt a boldness. I pull up the chair to sit. Within ten minutes of me staying still, they are lolloping around my feet, and finally something in me begins to loosen. I have been sad, I realise. Sad and disappointed in myself. I wanted to embrace all this. I wanted to do better. To give more, to do more - I don't know - and now I'm here I can't. I can do very little but hunch and watch and try to love the things and people around me best I can, and I am trying to understand why.
One rabbit stops to wash itself, paws pulled rhythmically over nose and head, and I am tempted to copy, to pull at my ears until they stretch. To crouch till I shrink and finally, in the form I belong in, to burrow into the dark home of the bank and find soft, congruous fur against my flank, quiet heartbeats, pink tongues. I think then I would feel all right.
I so rarely know how to be acceptable. How to be unwild. We tend to love to talk of being 'wild' in human terms - as something exciting and sexy, the stuff of movies and pin-ups - but when you watch wild things, you begin to understand that this is not what wildness means. It is nothing so conveniently pleasing.
To be wild, truly, is to be skittish, capricious, trusting of few. It is to be pulled to home and warmth and the sensory comfort of familiar bodies, not to newness and excitement. To be wild is to be wary, heeding instinct louder than promise. To be wild is to want to be known only to those who see you for love, not for prey, and to not to have too many eyes on you at once. It is to crave simplicity - an undisturbed spot, a full belly, a body that knows itself. To be wild is to be drawn to sing one perfect song over and over and for that to be enough for you to belong where you are. It is to live close to death and change but not let it panic you into worse. It is to steer yourself endlessly towards the things that nurture you, to be unable to stop or deny yourself.
I am wild, and this is why I struggle here, struggle a little everywhere that does not fully feel like home. Out here amongst the other wild things, there is some comfort in that.
I have told the truth and written it out. That is what nurtures me most. In a moment, I will go to bed and lie down in the dark beside the sleeping shape of my son and I will feel good again.
I may not be able to enjoy this place in the same way as everyone else, but I will enjoy it in my own, wild way. It may not be the rakish, all-embracing, feel-good kind of being that seems most valued here and everywhere, but I bet if I tried to pick up a rabbit, it would bite. It knows itself and its limits. It trusts them, and I should trust mine.
I am enough, I am. And you are too, wild thing. You are too.
I had asked: "Please can you send me a pebble?"
Some days, I feel broken like a wave is broken. Not damaged, just scattered. The kind of lonely that makes you feel stretched so thin, you stop being able to see yourself. I see very few people week to week, month to month, and although I love my solitude, it is hard. One best friend lives half a mile away but two others live at long distances and I am stuck here, and so my days revolve around texts back and forth as we attempt to share days apart.
Joe lives next to a Cornish beach which he walks every day in all weathers, new freckles on his face each time I see it. Every day, he sends me photos or videos of big skies and grey water pushing on and on, distances I struggle to hold in my head in my cramped Midlands' estate. He has an uncanny way of timing them to arrive when I feel most caged, most hungry for roaming - that sudden squeezing panic of cabin fever - and I breathe them in, renewed. But that day it hadn't been enough. I had wanted a piece of it to hold. I had wanted something more real than I felt.
An envelope arrived within the week. It was addressed with round, careful letters as familiar to me as a spoken name, and in it, the smoothest, whitest pebble. To press my thumb to it leaves a narrow halo of white. I put it in my pocket and have carried it with me ever since.
Talisman. I reach for it now and do the same over and over throughout the day, soothing myself in the repetitive, uncomplicated way that children soothe themselves. Sometimes my fingers find it icy; other times, it is inexplicably pulsing with warmth. It has its own private moods and I wonder if it is still joined to the tide that tumbled it somehow, reflecting that faraway edge. It is a link to a bigger life, to something wild and simple.
Talismans help on bad days. They are portable memory and meaning, a tether to something or someone. They are a gift to sing over, like a medicine woman would. Sometimes we determinedly, stubbornly pour power into something. Other times it seems to exist before you, despite you. It doesn't matter in either case. You know a talisman when they find you.
I rub my thumb against it and try to picture the atoms of it, impossibly compressed into something still and enduring. My small new companion has been squeezed and heated beyond imagining, rising, sinking, reforming, tumbled across millennia, all to end up a white star in my best friend's gaze on the right day, in the right place, when I needed it most. If such things are possible, then anything is.
Holding it brings a sudden knowing. I can sit here and the whole world can find its way to me. Endless atoms and molecules, decaying, circling, renewing. Water, stone, flower, cloud, leaf, bird. Who knows what they were before, but they're here now. There is no need to be a tourist. I can see every building block of this life if I simply sit right here and wait for it to appear and know it when it does. And I can do that, I can. I am patient and watchful enough. I am kind enough to not see anything as unimportant. And wouldn't there be good company in that? In me entertaining the whole of existence come to visit?
Maybe if I sit still long enough, I can be an axis around which every wonder spins.
Try thinking these thoughts and still feeling small and alone, I dare you.
"How surely gravity’s law,
strong as an ocean current,
takes hold of the smallest thing
and pulls it toward the heart of the world.
each stone, blossom, child--
is held in place.
Only we, in our arrogance,
push out beyond what we each belong to
for some empty freedom.
If we surrendered
to earth’s intelligence
we could rise up rooted, like trees.
Instead we entangle ourselves
in knots of our own making
and struggle, lonely and confused.
So like children, we begin again
to learn from the things,
because they are in God’s heart;
they have never left him.
This is what the things can teach us:
patiently to trust our heaviness.
Even a bird has to do that
before he can fly.”
by Rainer Maria Rilke, from Book of Hours: Love Poems to God
I always forget what this feels like, this spring fever, this new light.
There is a rising in me. My hands and my lips become hungry buds and I want to rouse them in some dark place and press them against whatever's warm and giving. I feel it, that sap pulse, an awakening of green somewhere hidden and parched. It is like nothing else.
Everything around me is remembering how to be itself again. The bleeding heart in my garden has pushed up red fingers that collect the dew. The rose bushes, clematis, honeysuckle, have begun to pin ruffled rosettes to their chests that announce their names. There is an imperceptible narrowing of the gaps between the trees as their branches bare tiny new fists. I cannot help but reach out to touch it all, the fleshy whirl of future tulip, allium, a fingertip placed gently to every sign of low, green regrowth. "I remember you," I say, smiling at everything in affirmation.
Every year, I think my world dead and grow giddy at its renewal. I glide, punch-drunk, on the first bright days, face to the sky, and feel like I could stretch into it until I scatter. All around, things are finding their place, their wings, their voice. There are daisies in the verge again - daisies. Giant queen bumblebees split the air like juggernauts; starlings call their swannee whistle greetings, like cheerful bombs dropping, and the trill of the smaller birds, sparrow and finch and tit, dunnock and wren, overlap until every last second is full to overflowing.
I want to eat it whole. I want to swallow the lot and let it continue inside of me: a fat green goddess. All winter is forgiven in a heartbeat.
A robin lands a foot from my left ear. I stop dead, eyes closed, and for half a perfect minute there is nothing but his song, his hope, his ferocity, and once again, another year older, I cannot for the life of me comprehend how it is possible for a world to feel this alive.
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.
19.3.18 Still light
Each day feels different. They always have done; they always will. I'm trying to learn to let them all be ok. It's a big life. I figure there's room for all of them.
I guessed I was in some trouble when I woke up. My movements came too slow or not at all. The thrumming pain I always feel from my hips down to my toes was louder than usual. There is a sense of being compressed, of being squashed, and with it comes a weight. I woke up in my tight lead suit.
I began anyway. I do not like to assume what the day will be like. I try to be curious, to always see what's next. I followed the steadying map of my routine, inch by inch, and left each last moment's thoughts behind me, not worrying about the next. And I managed it for an hour or two - I did - trying to do the work I'd planned, each muscle coaxed forward, a dead weight, until like a wind-up doll at the end of her turn, I slowly came to stop.
Feeling your own nervous system overload is a feeling I will never get used to, even after thirty years. It comes when I have done too much, although what counts as 'much' may be laughable, unpredictable.
There is no sense of panic or concern, just a vague confusion, like I've forgotten something. My movements become more painful, dense and forced under that tight squeeze of compression, time beginning to bunch and hang in thick sheets, and I get stuck in long pauses. It can take me an age to cross a room, to lift a drink: all turned slow-mo. The world begins to tip and lurch. My vision will begin to black and blur, my eyes unable to adjust to light quickly, if at all. Sounds are felt, not heard, like tuning forks held against me. Then fatigue comes in a wave and staying awake, keeping myself conscious, becomes painful. Somewhere under the weight of it, there will come an awareness that I've nodded off. I will swim for the surface or, if the day lets me, I will let it pull me under and doze while my body rages, loud and furious.
I remain calm and attached in the middle of all this, stuck inside this body that has lost control. I can still feel my usual cheerful good-nature through the fog of it, although making thoughts hold together becomes harder, my dumb jokes struggling to find their words. I forget how to do very simple things and begin to have to speak my intentions aloud step by step to guide me, speech thick, tongue clumsy. I feel very stupid, very useless. Lying flat helps as my vascular system struggles to push the blood I need to my head and taking gravity out of the equation gives it a break. Sometimes just doing that is enough to feel it lift and I will laugh at the ceiling in relief at my body's absurdity.
I can do nothing but lie or sit still until the whole episode passes, in quiet and shadow. It can often take the whole day. When thoughts are clear enough, I meditate, grateful that my practice gives me something useful to do. Once I begin to recover, I aim for simple, repetitive things. Small movements. I make tea, slowly. I knit a few stitches. I walk the garden path up and down again and breathe the day back in. I wait for my body to remember what it is. Today, once I could, I took photos of the light, for it was as still I was today, and felt grateful that I could make something beautiful with it.
Each day feels different. Today brought with it a deep shame that this is my life, and a biting sense of exclusion, the world hurrying by outside without me, and I tried to let that be ok too.
On days like today, it is hard to believe I have anything of worth to say or to give, that I could ever be enough for anyone or anything, but the way to beat shame and the fear of rejection it hides is to make it all visible, to shake it all out somewhere spacious. That's why I've written the day out here. Screw fear to hell.
Pay attention, be brave, tell the truth, write it down. That will always be enough.
Tomorrow will be different again.
My body and I are attempting to get to know each other all over again. I have been living mostly in my head this year, desperate to try and think my way free from where I've been. I've been sure the right combination of thoughts and words and hard work would act like stepping stones, if I was careful and clever. And it has worked, in a way: each slow step has found its ground. It's just that in my distraction, in my determination to block out pain and the lull of fatigue, I had forgotten a little about the real feet that move me, and the skin and bones they join, and the whole fragile frame of me. It was like looking up from some busyness to see my cat patiently waiting for food, his dinnertime long since forgotten.
I believe very deeply in loving the body you're in. How could I not? Without its cooperation, very little of all the rest of this matters. It's something you learn fast and sharp when you get sick or hurt, and yet we tend to forget it just as quickly. And when you've been ill a long time, it can be easy to start tuning out your body or writing it off as a lost cause. I have done both of those things, so many times, but I don't want to make that my life. I want to show my body that it still matters, however it is right now - especially how it is right now - and so I've been turning back to it lately, and trying to care for it in new ways. Trying to see what it needs and what it can do, what I can do better to work with it, and trying to do all of it with the love and gratitude it deserves.
Each of us lives inside a wild animal. Put something soft and vulnerable and newly alive in our arms and I bet the world would see us care for it with a tenderness and attention and good humour that we rarely show our own bodies. And yet this tangle of muscle and bone, this pumping heart, this is the one that will see us through all the rest of our days, whatever shape it's in, whatever it looks like. These are the hands that will let us stroke and soothe, the back that will root us when we need to hold firm, the breath that will allow us to do what's right. This is our precious ride. So many of us search endlessly for some sense of a lasting home and forget that we already inhabit it. However imperfect, our body is the one thing that's really ours.
I am trying to come back to this wild animal of me, this home I live in, as I would anything else I wanted to care for. Patiently, hopefully, joyfully, respectfully. In my time, I have cared for the bodies of people near death, for bodies after death, for new babies, demanding toddlers, sick lovers, injured animals. I am trying to remember everything I have learned and apply it to my own body for a while. I'm trying to remember that it's only through that care, I'll be able to do everything else.
I sat and rubbed hand-cream into my dry hands yesterday, and I smiled to look at them because they always remind me of my mother's hands. I now own the hands I remember from my childhood. We share the same long fingers and rounded nails, the same strength. I would interrupt her to press them to my head when I was feverish, for they were always ice cold like mine are, and run from them, laughing, when it was chilly, for she'd wickedly slide one down your neck to make you shiver, as I have been known to do to my son now.
Looking at them made me fall down a rabbit hole of time, remembering that she would have cared for this same body of mine before I could. It made me love her all the harder and want to respect her all the better by taking care of myself now.
Falling into new love is all well and good, but falling back into old love is even better.
I think that's what this might be, what me and my body are doing right now, or perhaps what it could be, if I keep trying. I think this could be something really good.
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.