The Solace of Small Things

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SOMETIMES WHEN I wake in the middle of the night – which I invariably do – I go through a calming repertoire, to try and coax myself back to sleep. Breathing meditations. Reiki hand positions – one hand on the heart, the other on the solar plexus – to settle my nervous system. (See Reiki and the Anxious Mind) I conjure memories of mountains and the sea. The faces of beloved family and friends.

But last night, I simply asked for one word, to help me through these difficult days and nights. The word that came – unprompted and immediate – was DELICACY. What? I shrugged my shoulders and fell back asleep.

It is rare that I remember any of my nocturnal adventures, my wild dreams and waking ramblings, by the time the morning comes. But today was different. Delicacy. There it was again. A message from the ether. But what could it mean?

Times of Crisis and Extremity

There have been times in my life before, when the pressure has built over time, and become extreme and constant. There were crisis points in my husband Tim’s ten year struggle with cancer, when I felt my body and spirit ready to crack open with the strain. And then there was the terrible fear and stigma of the AIDs era, when I watched three young men die in quick succession, after trying, along with a valiant bunch of close friends, to nurse our stricken pals at home, through raging fevers, night sweats, skin eruptions, opportunistic cancers and pneumonia. How hopelessly inadequate we all felt, locked in a culture that both ostracised and demonised the people dear to us, in the hour of their deepest need. How ill equipped were the hospitals (!) And how frightened we all were, of becoming infected ourselves, as well as losing those we loved.

Together, Alone

The Corona Virus is different. When my husband got sick, and died in 2004, I felt lonely, isolated, and out of step with all my contemporaries, as they built their careers, their relationships, their families, with healthy and unsullied ambitions for the future. My only ambition was to get through each day, somehow intact. And when my friends were dying in the 1990s, we all felt outside the culture, betrayed by the country we lived in. Those were the days of anti-gay propaganda, of scaremongering public notices on television, with images of icebergs, swirling mists, and doom laden voiceovers. But the Corona Virus is no bigot. It picks on any and all of us. And in this strange new world, we are all vulnerable, all scared and alone. Together.

Week Three of my own self imposed lockdown is over. A pattern begins to  emerge, of good days, followed by bad; of energetic mornings, leading to deadened afternoons; of a constant underlying fatigue, which has nothing at all to do with work achieved, or energy expended, and everything to do with Fight or Flight – because what do you do, when you can’t run from the threat, or beat it? You collapse a little inside, and you surrender. Sleepiness as a constant companion, feels natural to me, in an unnatural context.

Wise Words and a Helping Hand

Like everyone else, I am reaching for mechanisms to cope, when my usual weekly rhythm of teaching and theatre work – which is such an extravert and people-friendly endeavour – has skidded to a halt. But as a writer, too, solitude comes easily to me. By nature an introvert, staying at home is hardly a problem. Until staying at home stretches into the foreseeable future that is, with no option of breaking the quarantine, without putting myself – and others – in danger.

It is memory and previous experience which comes to my aid now. I remember one particular encounter at traffic lights, nearly twenty years ago. The woman standing next to me was pushing a pram with a new born baby inside. The baby was very sick – there were oxygen bottles and tubes, tucked in among the soft toys and the fleecy blankets. I knew this woman slightly, and had heard about her baby. And I knew, too, that the baby was not expected to survive much longer.

At the time, my husband was coming to the end of his life too, and I was tense, exhausted, near despair. As can happen at times like this, two near strangers, with nothing to lose, and no thought of the usual self protective conventions, reached out and revealed their inner selves, by way of consolation.

I found myself confiding in this woman, who listened, kindly and calmly, before offering me a piece of advice. ” This is what I have found in my situation. The thing to do is to notice and appreciate the smallest details of your life. What is it that brings you pleasure? The bigger picture is impossible right now.  But you can enjoy a brief ray of sunshine, the sound of a bird, the smile on a friend’s face. All you have is what you have right now, in this moment, with each passing breath. And it’s precious.”

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The things she was saying are commonplace now, with the growth of the mindfulness movement, and the increasing use of meditation as a tool for calming the over-anxious mind. But at the time, the way she spoke felt rare. I have never forgotten our brief encounter, and – yes – the delicacy of her words. There was real wisdom in her philosophy, which had been learned and practised in extremis.

The Delicacy of Small Delights

The baby did die, not longer afterwards. My husband died too. But this woman’s words live on in my mind. And now, in domestic lockdown, I find myself practising what she preached: being grateful for the taste of good, simple food; enjoying the way the sunlight catches the acid green of new spring growth in my garden and in the nearby wood; finding time to study and to read; discovering the delicacy of small delights, in a world where anything bigger than my own house and back garden, feels overwhelming and out of control. I am learning to honour the breaths that I take. In such troubled times, it is not selfish or frivolous to take pleasure in the everyday beauty of our lives: instead, it feels more urgent, more compelling than ever before.

 

 

The Uses of Solitude

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“Solitude stands in the doorway

And I’m struck once again by her black silhouette

By her long cool stare and her silence

I suddenly remember each time we’ve met.”

Solitude Standing/Suzanne Vega

TREES do it for me. Woods and water. Those are the places where I reclaim my solitude, and my sense of inner peace. Also, sitting in my favourite chair, in my favourite Reiki Room, at home. Alone. With a book. And my quietly settling thoughts… These are the uses of solitude. It’s a matter of remembering where to go, when the world gets too much. Back to the source. But how often we all forget.

The age of high speed

This is an age of high speed connection, and of twenty four hour visibility. The mass communication tools of online social networks are astonishingly useful – and sometimes corrosively cruel. There is a pervasive collective sense of being on view, on guard: and a heightened fear of being left behind. I am not immune to any of this. Partly this is a professional imperative: my last publisher insisted I join Twitter; whilst a tech-savvy colleague said Instagram was essential to my Reiki business. But partly, it’s pleasure, too. I am curious – and I am full of the trigger-happy smart phone habits of those far younger and far more switched-on than me. How many ‘likes’ on a Facebook post? Who has re-tweeted my latest, carefully crafted tweet, complete with click-bait photo? Oh, those little shots of dopamine, when someone says something nice about you online. And the horror of the constantly lurking trolls. It’s a minefield out there, both online and in the real world.

Stepping off the train

But in the middle of this constant chatter, there is a deeper, quieter, more reliable resource. Somewhere to turn to, for solace and relief. It’s always there. Always available. Being attuned to Reiki has brought me back into its embrace, after too long away. The joys of being alone. Although linked to the quality of stillness, another Reiki-related resource that I have written about here , it can also be tapped into when on the move. Alone in a crowd. When walking or running… Even when doing the washing up! Solitude is a pleasingly transportable and eminently meditative feast. It’s all about tuning in to the “still, small voice inside.”

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Extroverts and Introverts

There are some people who replenish themselves through the company of others. They are the true extroverts, like my lively, gregarious mother, who would have found it a torture to be alone with her own restless spirit. Then there are those who are quite deeply introverted, and who would always choose their own company over that of others. My late husband was pointed that way:  steady, silent and serene, in another life he would have been a hermit or contemplative.

I am somewhere between these two extremes. An “extroverted introvert”, as my brother once pronounced, when subjecting me to some cod psychological profiling for his ‘A’ level studies. And he was right. People do matter to me, very much indeed. They comfort, challenge and delight me, every day of my life. But when my tank of energy is empty – or when the phenomenal noise and speed of the modern world  overwhelms me – it is solitude that fills my cup, and settles my frayed and fractured nerves.

Reiki: being alone together

One of the things I have come to love about receiving and practising Reiki, is the sense of quiet and inner listening that it brings with it. Something about the silence that descends, when Reiki hands are placed on the body during a treatment, is particularly special. Someone is there with you – tuning into the deeper rhythms of your physical and mental self – and yet, there is no sense of intrusion. Few words, if any, are exchanged. You are alone: able to travel inwards, for refreshment, even some kind of healing; yet with the hands of another held upon you, keeping you steady and safe.

Challenges and rewards of solitude

Solitude, as singer-songwriter Suzanne Vega suggests in her 1980s classic, ‘Solitude Standing’, quoted above, can be provocative. It brings you face to face with yourself – no escape, through mindless chatter, or another empty scroll down your Facebook timeline. Solitude, as Vega sings, is a “flower with a flame”. It’s beautiful – but it can burn, too.

Too much solitude can turn into loneliness and isolation, and the illumination of a mind turned in on itself can become a trap. As with all things, a balance needs to be struck. The golden mean – a middle way. Enough company. Enough time alone. Switching off the smart phone one day a week, is not such a bad idea (although surprisingly difficult to do!) And seeking out quiet practices like T’ai Chi and Reiki, which bring you into closer contact with your inner – soulful – self,  can bring more balance and flow into your busy life. Sweet harmony. How do you find yours?

If you want to give Reiki a try, take a look at my Reiki in Leeds page, for more details.

And there is plenty of T’ai Chi coming up at Leeds Buddhist Centre. Details on my Classes with Barney page.

Suzanne Vega’s ‘Solitude Standing’ album was released in 1987.

Walking Back Home 5: A View from the Shed

AUGUST ALWAYS runs away from me. I find it such a curious – and rather downbeat – month: everyone is scattered to the four corners, the days are amorphous and sprawling, nothing conforms to a routine… And there is always a hint of melancholy. The whisper that summer will soon be over: time to get busy and go back to school. And oh, the slow, soft dying of the light.

Anyway, the “walk” this time is really no such thing. It is a view – from inside my tiny, scruffy shed, onto my equally scruffy and overgrown garden. What can I see? An elegant though rampant plum smokebush, Cotinus “Grace”, one of the first plants I grew in my very first garden – bought for me as a birthday gift from my mother, and so always reminding me of her. (I plant a new one, wherever I go.) And next to “Grace” is a tall Crocosmia “Firebird” – strong and scarlet and entirely splendid  – transplanted from my long-lost allotment and redolent of hot, sticky summers spent there, digging the heavy Yorkshire clay to exhaustion, then lounging  against the wall of another mighty shed, and forgetting myself in the cheerful chaos of a semi-wild urban space, away from home and reality and every grown-up chore.

Being in the garden always does this to me – reminds me of places, people, times gone by. As film maker and remarkable gardener Derek Jarman once wrote, “I walk in this garden, holding the hands of dead friends.” I do that too. And it doesn’t feel sad or regretful to me – rather, it gives me strength,  fills in the gaps of my life, and puts the beautiful solid ground back beneath my feet.

It is good to be a solitary, I think. Time to gaze and wonder – floating away from the worrisome world and back to the centre of the self. To stillness. The garden is a real aid to this dreaming.From my perch in the shed, I watch masses of bumblebees working the pollen on a shaggy lavender bush. And look up at the skyline to see the trees of the little local wood, where I walked my dog, day in, day out, for 13 years – the dog whose ashes are now scattered there under  a big old holly tree. (Although in my mind her spirit still dances a jig of freedom –  scrabbling through the undergrowth and leaping over fallen tree branches –  always in pursuit of the squirrel-that-got-away.) Sometimes, I just look at the sky itself, and that is enough. Shape-shifting clouds in a vault of blue. Or grey, as the case has often been, this particular August. No matter. Sky is sky.

I do love to be among people – but it’s always such a relief to return to being alone. Perhaps that’s the writer in me, naturally introspective, with a teeming and unruly inner life.  There’s so much going on in my head, being exposed to the contents of other people’s for too long is tiring and overwhelming. The garden provides a useful corrective to this – wordless, mute.

Last weekend I broke the rule of a life time (which is never to talk to more than one writer at a time – it makes me far too nervous!) and spent two days mixing with a huge gaggle of writers at Swanwick Writers Summer School in Derbyshire, England – a kind of holiday camp for would-be novelists, crime writers, travel journalists and essayists of all ages and temperaments. The food consumed, the pints downed, the heated conversations had, were prodigious, dizzying. By the end of Day Two, I could feel my head begin to burst with the relentless over-stimulation.

But put me in a room, as a tutor with a particular subject to teach, and a bunch of people ready to write, and I am in my element again. The short course I taught this time was “Diving for Pearls: Writing about Loss and Recovery”. Circumstance has made this a recurring theme for me – with rather too much personal experience of it for my liking. But everyone, young and old, brings with them their shadows and griefs. And they have a light to shine. The people at Swanwick were particularly generous and courageous with their contributions. Making pearls from plenty of hard grit.

Meditation is a natural thing for me – I practise a sitting and walking form of it almost every day. And then, when I am outside with the flowers (and the weeds), the garden practises it back on me. But there is a particular stillness that falls, I find, when people sit in a shared space and write together. “You have ten minutes to write something about ‘A Pleasurable Thing’…” I say. “And now ten minutes on ‘A Moment of Loss’.” The heads go down. The pens – or laptops – spring into action. A perfect silence settles in the room. And magic happens. Always.

People are endlessly inventive, fascinating, surprising….And yet it is so lovely to leave them and return to the shelter of my rickety little shed. To some solitary wondering. To the strange disorientation of August: summer’s last quiet breathing out, before the busy, busy breezes of September put a different juice in my veins altogether.

A Handful of Earth/Barney Bardsley, is still available here:

http://amzn.to/1LaWt8Z

Old Dog/Barney Bardsley, is published by Simon and Schuster:

http://bit.ly/1MsD3zF