Monday, 25 March 2019


As you know, I think in the bath. 

I like to have the window open so I can smell the sea air and feel the breeze and hear the birds singing, and be (as Thich Nhat Hanh said) "the happiest people on earth".

And I think.

This morning, knowing our plum tree and miniature ornamental  cherry are laden with blossom and the buds just breaking on the other trees, the breeze blowing, the sun shining and the sky a glorious blue, I was thinking about springtime and blossom.

This recalled to mind a time in my life when I belonged to a church home group that included a gardener in its membership. She worked for a very rich family living in a large walled estate including cottages for staff. So sometimes we went to her place for the home group meetings, and had to stop at the electronic gate and call through to the man on duty to give our names and be let in, driving up the long road through the extensive grounds to her home.

The first time we went there, she took us to see the gardens. The family also had a London house, and the garden staff had to keep both houses supplied in fresh flowers, veggies and fruit. To meet this challenge, they were provided with numerous greenhouses, including — I kid you not — a massive greenhouse in which an entire cherry orchard was enclosed!

Thinking about that in the bath, I decided this must be the absolute definition of wealth — to be able to afford a greenhouse big enough for an orchard of trees and the space so that could be just one thing among many, including your Redwood trees dotted about here and there.

But then I started thinking about my auntie and uncle, also very rich but you wouldn't have known it. Now, they were different. The cherry tree family were bankers, but my auntie and uncle were farmers. So they didn't start off very rich, the land grew their money. And as they farmed well and shrewdly, the farm prospered. They poured their money back into the farm, so it did well. When I was a child visiting them in the summer, I remember the large tribe of gypsies who used to come every year for the strawberry picking. When my uncle died, a great many gypsies came to his funeral, because he was good to them in life. And of course, all sorts of people helped him work the land on his big farm. One of the boundaries was a large, deep, fast-flowing, tidal river. Every evening my uncle used to take the men who worked the land home across the river in a rowing boat, and every morning he went and fetched them the same way. I suppose they could have used their money to build a bridge, but I think they liked the separation and the simplicity of the way they did things. They lived like a tree, that drops its leaves and fruit to feed many species and enrich the ground in which it grows — the kind of wealth that goes hand-in-hand with simplicity. 

They would never have dreamed of growing flowers for the house, or buying a separate house in town. The special things to see at their place were the feral cat with her kittens nesting high in the hay barn, not a glass house enclosing an orchard.

So that was a different kind of wealth.

And though I don't have loads of money, I have enough to buy food for the fox, the crow and the seagull, enough to buy fresh fruit and vegetables to eat every day, I have a garden with 20 trees in it, laden with the blossom that will make our summer fruit, and already planted with kale seed and sprouting healthy growth of the herbs and dandelions we put in our salads. And I have a room of my own, and a family I'm proud of and friends I love. I live with artists and musicians and have the pleasure of their work all around me. All of which is wealth in abundance.

Some people are desperately poor. And among those terribly poor people are included some who have pots of money. But you know how with diabetes, because of the insulin resistance the person both craves food and cannot benefit from it, well, that can happen with money too. You can get a sort of money diabetes, where you keep wanting more and more but none of it does you any good, like the man in the Bible. And that isn't wealth at all.

Sunday, 24 March 2019

Lâchant Le Temps Perdu

One of the books we read for French A-level exams at high school was Marcel Proust's A La Récherche Du Temps Perdu. The title is usually translated as In Remembrance Of Lost Time, but that isn't quite right, is it? Réchercher means looking for something again, and implies trying to find again, get back to, the old time, the lost days — of youth, or other times remembered.

It's a very famous book.

Also very famous is François Villon's poem, Ballade Des Dames Du Temps Jadis — Ballad Of Ladies Of Time Gone By — which Wikipedia describes as "a prominent example of the ubi sunt genre". Ubi sunt is Latin and means "Where are . . . ?" (I think. I never learned Latin).

So Villon's poem, like Proust's book, is steeped in nostalgia. The times we lost.

In Villon's famous poem Ballade Des Dames Du Temps Jadis, there's a very famous line: 
      Ou sont les neiges d'antan?
You could translate it as "Where are the snows of yesteryear?"

When my father was still alive (he was a linguist, among other things), whenever we went to eat out at a restaurant, he'd look for — and ask for if he couldn't find any — toothpicks. He refused to go to the dentist and had problems with his teeth. Indeed when one fell out he stuck it back in again, adhering it to its adjacent tooth with superglue. Yes. So food got stuck in his teeth.

These days, restaurants don't much bother with providing tooth picks (called cure-dents in French). So he'd look round restlessly, murmuring sorrowfully for no one's amusement but his own, "Ou sont les cure-dents d'antan?

I think he stole a march on François Villon, actually. I mean, it's better poetry, isn't it?

So, all this French nostalgia came to mind because I was trying to fix up a roister for our chapel this autumn coming. The idea I had was of an open mic night (without actual microphones because we don't have any) where we sat round tables and brought snacks and soft drinks, and people took turns to sing folk songs they liked. 

I love folk songs, and I know quite a few off by heart. When I lived in community as a young woman (when I was about 20), I absolutely loved our roisters (as we called them), when we all sat round in the kitchen and sang just about every folk song we knew — Jug of Punch, Martin Said To His Man, Ellen Vannin, and all the rest. I've tried unsuccessfully to get back to it all my life, but the nearest I ever got was the privilege of singing all the songs I knew to my children while they were in bed falling asleep, to prevent them getting up and romping about before they actually dropped off.

And I've always wanted to reclaim those lost times, have back again the delight of sitting round and singing together, being part of it instead of just listening and applauding.

So I started with the members of my family I actually live with, and they said they'd be very busy at that time of year and couldn't commit to attending — they might or might not come. Of course other people would come and I could put an evening together, but my secret dream had been to join in and sing with people who know the same songs as I know because I sang them to them when they were little. My other daughters also sing — but one is a professional musician and I'm not really up to her standard, one sings with other people, and the other has a voice like an angel but has moved away.

I sulked about this for a while and felt mournful. But eventually I came to see it's no damned good attempting a récherche of temps perdu (or even Peru as my auto-correct would prefer I said). You just have to let it go. I had it, it was lovely, and it's gone. Someone else can organise the roister and maybe I'll go and maybe I won't. Time to forget it, the récherche is over. Okay then, je vais lâcher all the temps perdu. Let it go. Release it into the wild and learn a new tune.

Les neiges, les cure-dents, le temps, and the whole damned antan. It's over, and it's time to move on. Eat your heart out, Villon.

Say that last paragraph out loud to yourself. I think you'll find it's a seriously fine piece of prose poetry.

Now all I've got to do is wait for some bright spark, some sainted Clever Dick, to come along and tell me I've got my French all wrong. Oh. Do I sound a little sour to you? Just a tad acide?

Saturday, 23 March 2019

There, in the garden . . .


So I went out in the garden and it's all very beautiful.

The cherry blossom over Concrete Thinking is so pretty.

The plum blossom is out.

There are little self-seeded primroses here and there on the grass.

Over there is the toy the foxes have brought into the garden to play with, that I showed you before.

This is it.

And . . . over there . . . what's that? An orange fluffy  . . . 

. . . er . . . what can it be?

The foxes have brought a new toy into the garden.

Thursday, 21 March 2019

Update on Deb S

Thank you for praying for Deb S, friends (see my post here if you don't know who I mean).

I've heard this morning from her mum Jean, that Deb has gone from the hospital to the hospice for end of life care.

Deb is upheld in dying as in living by her strong belief in Jesus. When you have a moment, I'll be so grateful if you continue to hold her in the light and call the powers of earth and heaven to carry her safely home.

Wednesday, 20 March 2019

Thinking about Leonard Cohen

What do you think of the songs of Leonard Cohen? How do you respond to them?

When I first heard Songs From A Room as a teenager, a couple of years before my first clinical diagnosis of depression, I utterly fell in love with them. The darkness, the weariness, the loneliness, the sadness and the vivid shards of everyday detail — I listened to them avidly, again and again. I sat up late playing the record (vinyl discs then, of course) borrowed from one kind friend on the record player borrowed from another, lost in my own darkness, weariness, loneliness, etc etc, listening to Leonard Cohen's. At last! Someone who understood!

Later on, as a young mother, at sea in chronic depression, isolation and the terrors of trying to look after babies, I absolutely could not listen to Leonard Cohen's songs. Even the merest snatch of a phrase precipitated the engulfing swirl of nightmare.

Then came the internet and I read more about his life, such that the man stepped out from behind the songs. I read about the struggle he had to go on stage, and the release from that in the tour he made after his big financial crash in his 70s when his money was stolen. I related to that, too — my first agent also stole my money, just I didn't have so much in the first place; so I moved to Chip MacGregor after that and things went better. I read about Cohen's buddhism, and how he involved himself in the nursing care of his buddhist master in that man's dying. I saw how the faith and compassion I'd felt so clearly in the songs was the keynote of his life, really; kindness and courage and honesty. What a lovely man.

After that, in recent years, I started listening to Leonard Cohen again, and this time it was different.

In the intervening years that I've fasted completely from all things Cohen, I've worked a lot with people who are dying and bereaved, I've made my journey into minimalism and now live the smallest simplest life imaginable, and I've worked and worked on my physical health to balance mood and encourage wellbeing. I keep a discipline of quietness and seclusion from the world, and in so doing I dodge overwhelm. So this time round, listening to Cohen's superb last album You Want It Darker, of which this is my absolute favourite — I love it — I felt so differently about the music and the man. 

From my perspective on life now, for one thing what I'm listening to is more him than me; I'm interested to note his suffering as well as his skill, and discern the core of sustaining warmth that enabled him to get through it all. As a teenager, what I wanted was someone to put into words how I felt, someone to understand. Now I find my own words, and have learned to live with being unheard and not understood — partly because (a treasure to me) there's a kindred, people who have heard me, understood me, taken the trouble from all over the world to find me and talk with me and share their lives (that's you). For another thing, I've made peace with my own needs in life, and grasped that the hunger for quietness and simplicity means I so easily go into the overwhelm that then manifests as depression. Because I so often have to stop, withdraw, I have my critics, some of them fairly savage, others just working on their own assumptions that are simply wrong, but I can live with that. I have no position to maintain. I don't need to try and please anybody. 

When I listen to Cohen's last album, sometimes I wish the stars had been differently configured and I had actually personally known him. I listen to the line "I'm angry and I'm tired all the time" in his song Treaty, and I have a feeling I could have helped with that. He tackled depression with drink and drugs and religion, all of which tend to bring temporarily the relief you grab for, but dig it in deeper in the end. There's a reason your liver got its name; my own experience has been that, cleansing and cleansing, drawing out the interminably long, long string of life experience packed and folded away in there as physical memory, it has been possible to increase peace and decrease anguish. I know he had cancer and crumbling bones and all that agonising, debilitating stuff, and he was old, but even then there are things one can do to help. And in general, in my one life without the extreme challenges he was facing, I find giving quietness and sensitivity permission, and keeping to a discipline of extreme simplicity, and eating the right things, one can end up much less angry, and tired only most of the time — in a good patch, only part of the time. I wish his courage and his humour hadn't been quite so desperately needed. I wish his faith hadn't shone alone in darkness like Venus on a clear December night.

I wonder what's happening to him now, in the light world? Has he work left to do? Is he simply free, released into the heart of all wisdom, beauty and compassion? How did he acclimatise to light? Did he find what he needed? 

My friend Pearl, who died in December, was around for a little while after that to help with her funeral, moving the energies around in her typically sweet and gracious way, but after that she was gone. I can imagine her hungry and excited for the experience of the light world which was always her real home, her soul's environment; it floated round her like a fragrance. It seems to be different with different people — my husband Bernard hung around for ages, leaving signs and wanting to watch over me. Even now that he's moved on and I've been quite fierce over the severance, I still have a little pension that came from him, that helps every month. 

And in these days (weeks . . . months . . . years . . . ), my mother is making her slow and cautious way out of this world, like an animal ambling along the track, stopping to taste every fruit and sniff every flower, no haste, no sense of urgency, just on the way. 

But I'm getting off topic now — starting to think about death instead of Leonard Cohen; an easy enough hop to make, after all! 

Saturday, 16 March 2019

Wind's blowin'

It's a blustery, wild old day on the south coast of England. March has done its thing and come in like a lion, but is nowhere near ready to go out like a lamb just yet.

My crow's come to see what I'm doing, which is hanging out the laundry.

I have to hurry back in and get some food for him. Or her.


Got a good beakful.

A bit worried about the camera.

Spring's advancing. The celandines are out —

— and the fruit trees are well in bud. Our blackcurrant bush is in leaf.

Hanging out laundry takes a while, because you have to peg everything carefully, especially on a very windy day. So I think as I'm pegging.

I think about the song that says "Everybody talkin' 'bout heaven ain't going there," and how important it is to get your grammar right, because of course what they really meant to say was "Not everybody talking about heaven is going there," which is entirely different. As things stand, the singer excludes him/herself from heaven too.

I think about teeth and wonder what to do about mine. Having given me no trouble all my life, now they are.

I think about climate change, and Brexit, and how we can best respond to life's challenges without making ourselves utterly miserable.

I think about this film coming out in May, and how very much I want to see it.

I think about my mother and wonder what's the best thing to do about her. This week has included a couple of trips across to her place in the middle of the night, because she presses her lifeline button and thinks she's dreaming the woman on the speaker phone asking her if she's all right. Hmm. 

I wonder what to cook for lunch.

I think about seagulls and crows, about clouds and planting beans. I think about the church quiz night this evening.

All the ordinary, everyday things that make up a human life. And earth is, after all, just that pale blue dot caught in the middle of a sunbeam. Things matter so much and at the same time not at all.

So I come back in here, and sit on the bed with my friend, who has the right idea of how to spend a windy day.