I LOVE water. Rivers. The sea. And even that miniature pond on my long-lost allotment, which was only a finger deep, but teemed with plants and wildlife – frogspawn, dragonflies, water boatmen – and gave me such drifting, timeless pleasure, as I sat on my shed step and gazed over its murky little surfaces… So my walk today definitely had water in mind. Meanwood Park in North East Leeds is a bountiful stretch of land, encompassing both park and play area – and a wilder, stiller terrain beyond, all hung about with rocky outcrops, shaded woods and a deep valley, with a river running through it. To be honest, the water didn’t look too happy on this particular bright June morning. It was sluggish and dark. There seemed to be problems of drainage, a block to its free flow of movement. But still it was lovely to be beside it again: to cross the tiny bridge near the ‘Hustlers’ Row’ of cottages, to stand for a while with friends and chat, and to let memories surface, as inevitably they do, when you return to familiar territory after a little time away.
Back in the days when my husband Tim was still alive, when our dog still leapt and ran, with scant regard for caution or good sense, and when our daughter Molly – now fully grown and graduated – was only little, we used to come to Meanwood and wander through the trees, and play. That time feels almost prehistoric now – ‘the past is a foreign country’, as L.P.Hartley tells us in ‘The Go-Between’. But yesterday, as I walked the same tracks and river banks, echoes of those old times still seemed to linger in the trees, under the surface of the water: joining the past, rather sweetly, with the present moment. Bringing it all back home.
I used to play Pooh Sticks on the bridge with Tim and Molly. And I remember a whole afternoon spent in the steep and densely green Hollies, on the other side of the Meanwood Trail, building a tiny intricate dam of sticks and pebbles across a trickle of stream. Splashing in, splashing out. Sticks, stones, damp moss – and lots of dirt. We paused to eat our packed lunch on a big old rock – that felt as if it had been there since the beginning of time, so triumphant and still and sturdy did it feel beneath our bony bums. We were four adults that day. One child. One dog. And it’s hard to say who enjoyed it most. Just messing about by the river. Like countless others, before and since, doing the simplest of things with the deepest pleasure.
There is a purpose for me to these sporadic walks and meanderings (see ‘Walking Back Home 1’). They are as much for the spirit as the body. A walking cure. My convalescence from illness in 2014 is taking longer than I imagined. I am not used to being so debilitated for so long and it’s vexing my patience, to say the least. Although now on an even keel after struggling with B12 anaemia, a new challenge has emerged, of a Frozen Shoulder, which has stopped me in my dancing tracks, and plays havoc with my sleep during the night, and many activities during the day. I am doing most things one-armed – since the other one, as my Alexander Technique teacher put it, with uncharacteristic bluntness, is currently “like a piece of rusty old metal” hanging at my side. Chronic pain is horrible. It is also humbling. It triggers in me a new compassion for my late husband – whose breathtaking, intransigent shoulder convulsions concealed a problem (cancer) far more sinister than my own; and for my new neighbour, who suffered a stroke in her forties, and now struggles both to walk and to speak. Yet her smile is always radiant and warm. So a little perspective is a helpful thing. And walking brings a lightness of spirit. Just being outside does the trick.
Underneath the action, meanwhile, is a necessary stillness. When I was a very small child, before I could even walk, my mother used to sit me on a blanket in the back garden with a little book, one just big enough to fit my miniature grasp, called ‘Progress and Poverty’ – a Victorian hardback brought from my grandfather’s extensive library of self improving edicts. (He was a pious man.) I couldn’t yet read, but already I felt the power and pull of literature, sensed it, through the physical manifestation of words – the beauty and solace of The Book itself. What I think I loved most, well before the magic of literacy was revealed to me, was the self-containment, the silence and focus, that the book-as-object seemed to signify. I’ve always been a dreamer, a natural contemplative. Born into a family of energetic ‘do-ers'(with the exception of my father, whom I take after in many ways) I always seemed to fade to the edges of our busy household, desperate for my own space, for a quiet moment. Breathing space. (See ‘A Breathing Space’)
These days that powerful inward pull is channelled and assuaged by regular meditation. On most Sundays, I cross another little bridge – the original Leeds Bridge in the city centre – and gaze at a different body of water, the River Aire, on my way to Leeds Buddhist Centre, where I sit with a diverse group of people in total silence for up to three separate sessions in the space of a morning. The simplicity and serenity of this practise – sitting, waiting, breathing – is utterly compelling to me. And whilst I would not dignify myself with the description ‘Buddhist’ ( too flawed, too secular, too hectic for that, I fear), I am certainly drawn to its philosophy of compassion and calm. And I am more than happy to embrace a discipline whose figurehead – the Buddha – is often embodied as a chubby, smiling, earthy figure – someone who died at a healthy old age, and in peace, as opposed to the tortured, youthful, bleeding Christ, hoisted up on a cross to remind us perpetually of our suffering and guilt.
Listening to your own thoughts can be deafening and bewildering, of course. The mind teems with its own madness. And ‘just breathing’ in stillness is a process far more arduous than my hyperactive friends and family might ever imagine. But it’s a little like exercising – for the mind. When you go running, you just want it to STOP. But the afterglow is rewarding and gorgeous. When you sit in meditation – your brain batters you with wave after wave of obsessive thought, or even mind-numbing trivia. But when you finish: the refreshment blows, like cool spring breezes, through body and soul. Don’t just do something: sit there. A lot to be said for it, I reckon.
To read one of my Guardian pieces – about my dear dog Muffin – go to: