for its own sake – a love song to the garden

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Spring
I’ve been weeding in the afternoon sun, my back aches in that typical dull way from bending, pulling against the long dandelion roots which snake deep into the damp soil.
The broken plants smell green, peppery, a sharp song of sap and sweat, staining my arms with the spilt milk of their stems.
My eyes itch, my skin is blotched with persistent nettle rash, flying ants crawl over my boots.

I am happier than I have been for the longest time.

I get to thinking, as I weed around the broad beans, the tender lettuces, the spinach plants, that this is thankless work. In the sense that the plants will not thank me, let alone pay me for clearing their patch, removing the snails, carefully mulching the soil with compost. And as this is our family vegetable garden, this labour is out of love, not for financial reward.

But the reward is right there. There in the deep rich soil, the compost from years and years of peelings, tea-leaves, the Sunday load of coffee grounds. There with the tiny seedlings we watched perform the miraculous-everyday process of germination.

Autumn
How strange it is that we are so caught up in a world of transaction. We have been conditioned into thinking the world relies on bounded instances of give and take. And yet, we know and experience continually that is not the case.
That joyful feeling of freely giving with no expectation, the wonder of experiencing the world around us, which asks for nothing in return, the near unbelievable mystery that we are alive in the first place.
In the city I found I lost this feeling so easily, and that we were all chasing it, often in the wrong way, as it cannot be purchased, it cannot be bounded by transaction. It asks for nothing, and in a sense, everything.

I get the sense, as the year goes on, of being mindful of doing something for it’s own sake.
The rabbits get in and eat all the spinach and lettuce seedlings. Some sort of blight rots the broad beans. Weeds continually crowd the fresh ground. Everything else wants to eat what I have planted. For so much of the work there is no return. And yet somehow in spite of that, or maybe because of that, there is something deeper than return.
The garden calls me back again and again, not asking for love and attention (nature reclaims its own, simply, thoroughly, it is only we who judge this as neglect) and I return because just being part of the process is so joyful.
I do it for its own sake. For my sake.

I see the seasons through the soil. The asparagus pushes upwards suggestively and determinedly in April. Potato plants leap up from their deep trenches in May. Then rogue squash plants, strawberry plants, mint and parsley that dance far beyond my twine-aligned rows. Robins and the chickens follow me for worms. I spy my first two swallows as we pick endless rocks from the soil, surely two herald a summer, time to plant out the brave little seedlings.
Now in profusion, golden potatoes, squashes, courgettes, raspberries, onions, mint, sweetpeas that stubbornly refused to climb their canes. So many things we did not plant, that just grew, like a giggle, shooting up unexpectedly through the soil. So many things whose destiny was not to end on our plates, but rather go back to the soil, or feed the rabbits, bugs, birds.

This was not a labour with a measurable ROI, but rather an immeasurable one. The intense physical joy of picking and eating things with the full consciousness of having seen them grow is made more extraordinary in it’s ordinariness.
Nothing in the garden has grown for because it was contracted to. It has simply followed the beautiful order it is part of. Spiraling endlessly towards the sun, pushing, flowering, fruiting with such perfect elegance it is breath taking.
Nothing here is convenient, time efficient, predictable. And maybe that’s why it tastes so good. And feels so very precious.
In a world of metrics and measurement, deadlines and deliverables there is an irreducible part of myself, a wordless story, an inner song, which craves this perfect, clambering, beautiful chaos of our unbounded world.
And questions: why we have distanced ourselves so thoroughly from it?

Maybe this is not the time for answers, maybe this is time to kick off our shoes and go out and get our feet in the soil.

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natural alternatives to an identity crisis

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{Written 1st March, West London}

So this is interesting. I’m sat reading an article in the Observer about the issue of masculinity and the role models for men.

It feels as if, as the traditional ideals of the 20th-century man – strong, stoic, repressed – begin to fade away, nothing has stepped into replace them. In today’s pop culture landscape there’s no single archetypal ideal that we are supposed to emulate. (Max Olesker)

One on hand I wholeheartedly agree, in a world where the idea of the ‘feminine’ has been examined minutely in every way, the idea of modern maleness, masculinity, hasn’t really been in the spotlight. Not in a positive way at least. (And at risk of being shot down for gross gender generalisation, I think this is level of self-examination and endless discussion is a feminine trait, well certainly a western one. Hence where we have got with feminism and all that follows. And yes before the knives come out, I remain in continual gratitude to those women who made it possible for me to even write these words, even have a voice.)

I would like to reassure or maybe commiserate with Mr Olesker. As a woman in her 30s understanding whom one is supposed to emulate is equally as confusing. Is this a post-feminist era? Are we supposed to allow men to pay the bill and open doors for us? Can we seek random sex through Tindr? If men are feminists can we be ‘masculanists’? And would that be considered and insult?Is it anti-feminist to get a Brazilian? In an age of apparent equality why do we have issues of equal pay, discrimination, 8 year olds wanting to wax their legs and little girls in provocatively revealing clothing?

There is no obvious path, no easy how-to guide.

Mr Olesker concludes
Just as men must fight for, support and celebrate progress – with initiatives such a HeForShe, launched last year – we must help one another as we enter the next stage of our cultural evolution. If we do, maybe our personal masculine crisis will give way to personal masculine identities all of our own. What have we got to loose by trying this? Nothing but our ever-increasing sense of worthlessness.

Yes. Quite.

I wish he’d talked a bit more about this last point, and this ‘cultural evolution’, as far as I am concerned, that is the really interesting bit.

Maybe one of the issues is that all of the examples he mentioned, David Beckham to Dapper Laughs, are creations of mass media. In fact when you start to think about it, maybe elements of our identity crises stem from our continual exposure to the mass communication of our current world. From advertising to social media, to TV, to fashion, each one reifies and solidifies the last, telling us what we should buy, who we should emulate, what we should wear. Blogged, re-blogged, Instagrammed, pinned; the 10 o’clock news giving legitimacy, Twitter debating, self help book on self help book, sound bites and vox pops, the red tops sensationalising, the columnists decrying, brands taking our insights and making them into products which we buy…Consuming to become ourselves.

Amidst this maelstrom of stimulus and input we mould and piece our fragile identities. Looking for archetypes, looking for meaning. Looking for someone, something to tell us some unshakable, fundamental truth about who we are, and who we are not.

And we are surprised young girls from South East London are heading to join Islamic State?

The thing is, as Max’s last sentences emphasised, the extraordinary opportunity innate in this era is for us to seek our own identities. To set sail on journeys of self-knowledge in our unique and individual way, to understand what being ‘me’ means to me, through my experience.

Don’t get me wrong, this is not an easy thing. This is a life’s work. And maybe we need all the help we can get – be it religion, mindful practices, counselling, sports teams, musical affinities, professions, activism, yes maybe even consuming. Just as long as we see all these things as ways to help us on this journey and not the be all and end all, as long as we see them for what they are.

And yes we are culturally conditioned, contrived and created by all that surrounds us, in ways that we will never even know. And yet, and yet…we are so much more, we have the capability to be so much more.

Personally. For me. At the moment. I am exploring what it means to be a woman, what it means to be me, through my relationship with the world around me. The inexorable, beautiful, complex-yet-simple, timeless nature of, well, nature; helps me understand so much. Through moments of experience, moments of clarity, moments where all my pronouncements of ‘I am this’ and ‘I am that’ fall away in the perfection of a snowdrop, the return of a corpse to the soil, a sapling’s roots gently but firmly lifting and breaking the concrete.

I acknowledge this is an education of constant change, complete non-fixity. This is my journey at this moment. Tomorrow might be a different matter.

And there’s the rub. Even by writing it down and sharing it I am fixing it. And no, this isn’t helpful in trying to provide an answer for anyone else’s quest for the real feminine, the real masculine, but maybe that’s exactly the point. My journey cannot be your journey. I can offer insight from what I have experienced, narrative, fables, stories…but in the end that is all they are.

So read this and move on, on your path, on your journey…

a hidden treasure

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I recently listened to Stephen Jenkinson talk about love and grief in an introduction to the film about his work ‘Griefwalker’ (http://orphanwisdom.com/griefwalker/). Stephen talked about love and grief as being the same emotion, or certainly intrinsically linked.

His observations provoked my thoughts around these emotions and their relationship. For many years I have had two framed pictures I commissioned made of bridge cards, one of which reads ‘love’ and one of which reads ‘loss’. To me they are a pair, one does not come without the other.  Loss cannot be experienced unless you love, and with love comes inevitable loss: loss of one’s individuation, but also in the sense that we love because we are finite – as Khalil Gibran eloquently expresses:

Love knows not it’s own depth until the hour of separation.

We know this on so many levels – ‘absence make the heart grow fonder’ as the old adage goes, and more than that, we love because we can acknowledge separation.

So I started to think of it with a different language: grief is the knowledge of separation and love is the yearning for unity or movement towards unity. They are both part of a movement, from and to.

To open this out a little further –  an extract from a hadith from the Qu’ran, traditionally thought to be in response to the Prophet David’s questions on the purpose of the Universe.

I was a Hidden Treasure that longed to be known. Hence I created the World, so I could be known. 

Here is the movement of love – and for movement to happen, there has to be distance, has to be a sense of separation. For the lover to recognise the beloved the lover has to be separate from the beloved.

Maybe this could also be seen as ‘free will’ – our self reflexive, thinking minds have the ability to see the Universe as something separate – with such great heights of beauty that we can fall helplessly in love with. (If only we would).

It’s like a dance, away from and towards, in breath and out breath, the pulse of a butterfly’s wings, expansion and contraction, darkness and light.

But maybe it is in the very fact that love is movement, that grief is implicit. Think of that extraordinary truth ‘this too will pass’. Everything in our world, whether we like it or not, shows us that change is the only constant. The moment has already passed, as we live, we also die.

Look! The moment has already passed.

Stephen gave an example of how we love beauty in nature, flowers for example,  because they pass, they die. Their beauty and brevity makes them breathtaking. I wonder if they were constant would our feelings be the same?

It strikes me we are the only thing in the Universe that thinks itself separate. And actually as the hadith alludes to, this separation is but an illusion to allow for the movement of love.

Somehow we seem to have lost something in translation. We are obsessed with stopping the process of change, obsessed with making things infinite. Maybe if we started to understand that the illusion of separation only exists to allow us to experience love we’d see things differently. And maybe if we started to understand the real changeable nature of everything, we would fall madly in love with our lives, our world, this Hidden Treasure. Maybe, even for a moment, we could let go of the illusion and understand the real and infinite nature of Love.

there is no dragon

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Maybe at some point, and by God I hope it’s soon, we will realise there is no: ‘us and them.’

There is simply us.

I think the ‘us and them’ reaction to everything from foreign policy to climate change is actually one that in some way offers comfort. If there is a bad guy, some monstrous, big business, factory belching toxic gas, fat cat, drug baron, gun toting, redneck, fundamentalist THEM out there…then THEY are the ones we need to battle with, to fight, to bring to their pin-striped suited, bigoted, misogynist knees while we stand victorious over them, like some modern day George and the mother-fucking, virgin-stealing Dragon.

Or something.

 (I always felt a bit sorry for the dragon to be honest.)

There is no dragon.

There is just ‘us’ – human beings, with all our guilt, our greed our desire to control, our hunger for power, our weakness for shiny things, our twisted, repressed desires, our sweetness, compassion, grief, our deep unheard longing, our fear, our loneliness. Our love.

Think about it. It’s not a comfortable thought. But it is a starting point – to be continued…

a place for plastic

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Let’s imagine for a moment that we are part of this planet, in a real and very if you’ll excuse the term, wholesome way. We are part of the global ecosystem, we are part of its working, turning, exquisite balance.

Not just some of us – not just the people who have remained indigenous, in touch, connected and in a deep and nameless relationship to the land that nourishes and protects them, not just those who can see this reality in this world of constructs, not just really young children. But ALL of us. And not just in the sense of each and every one of us, but every aspect of every one of us.

So lets go a step further – there is no ‘humans’ and ‘nature’ there are no distinct realms – one of the natural and one of the unnatural.

It seems an obvious and simplistic statement to make, that we are part of nature. But as I sit in an air conditioned, sterile airport lounge, where everything around me is coated in plastic. Our disassociation from the world is very clear.

And plastic. Let’s talk about that.

Burning Man brought something into clear, slightly terrifying sight. A big part of the festival is Leave No Trace, Pack in, Pack Out, and the much mentioned MOOP, Matter Out Of Place. This is not a new concept and one studied by many undergraduate social scientists. As far as I know the term was coined by brilliant anthropologist Mary Douglas in her 1966 tome ‘Purity and Danger’ an extraordinary piece of work that my tutors used to illustrate ideas around ‘taboo’, the famous example she used is that dirty shoes are acceptable on the floor, but the same pair are unacceptable / taboo when on the table.

In Black Rock City – the Burning Man settlement, MOOP is defined thus

‘….anything that is not originally OF the land on which our event takes place. So everything that wasn’t originally ON or OF the Black Rock Desert, no matter how small… MOOP also includes greywater, and the particulates contained therein.’ http://tinyurl.com/lbrj9md

It’s pretty incredible spending a period of time with 65 thousand people the majority of who really adhere to the idea that you don’t leave ANYTHING behind. Now the tricky thing is that despite the best effort of everyone, the festival generates vast amounts of waste that get packed in, packed out and distributed around the world. And sadly still some waste gets left.

Maybe what is most striking is the raising of awareness. Collecting any scrap of litter you find, the site of four people racing after a tiny red feather that had floated from a costume. Picking up sequins in the sand.

I started to think, while watching a wild life documentary where chimpanzees carelessly discarded fruit peel, in earlier eras, dropping things on the ground was not problematic. The stone of a fruit you were eating, throwing out a broken pot made from local clay, even metal eventually rusted back into the land. Taking a pee up against a tree really did no harm. (These days the estrogen levels in our waterways from birth control drugs are having crazy effects on the fish. Literally we are giving fish sex changes. Now, don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against human sex changes, or taking the Pill – and apparently we go around changing fish sexuality in aquaculture on a regular basis. But honestly this unconscious disruption makes me feel slightly insane, particularly as I start to think how it might play out in years to come.)

How different from today. I rocked up to BM in a car stuffed full of things which would take centuries to break down (plastic bags take 500 years apparently, there is some arguments about this, but mainly because they were only invented 50 years ago so we haven’t had the time scale to test it – maybe we can agree they stick around longer than they should.) In fact most of what we had was plastic. Stuff to shield our poor, pale bodies from the craziness of desert. I got thinking about ‘a place for plastic’. And then, exhausted, dehydrated and a bit strange, I started to think about how there wasn’t one.

We have created the ultimate tool of separation. A near permanent boundary between ‘us’ and the ‘natural’ world. A worthless, endlessly used substance we hardly notice. Plastic seems an ally of rationality. It divides – it creates an apparently infinite delineation between things. And one which wreaks untold destruction, as anyone who has watched one of the heartbreaking films about what the vast gyre of plastics in the ocean are doing to the ecosystems will know.

Maybe if we can start to break down this separation in our minds between ‘ourselves and the universe’ we can see plastic in a very different way. Maybe plastic can become precious.

I had a small glimpse of this listening to Dame Ellen Macarthur speak about her travels solo across the ocean. She explained how her boat was a closed system. Everything was essential. Even tiny scraps of plastic were kept in case they became useful. She explained how she suddenly realised the whole universe was a closed system. WE CANNOT ACTUALLY THROW ANYTHING AWAY.

Think about that for a moment.

Everything we create is always with us. Either it breaks down, become part of something else. Or it stays in its state. In a landfill site, in the river, in the ocean, orbiting this planet in an ever-deepening layer of so called ‘space junk’. Maybe if we started to realise this we would look at substances like plastic in a different way.

Maybe plastic could become precious?

I can barely imagine a world where plastic is viewed as being precious. I struggle to imagine one where everything is saved, recycled and upcycled. The scale is nearly unthinkable. Even more of a mental stretch is a much simpler idea. That we just stop making plastic. It’s quite clear we have enough already.

Why can’t we just stop?

the medicine is in the now

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{ I was sat trying to do a Mindfulness practice one morning and I found myself thinking that I couldn’t wait for it to start having an effect – for it to make me a calmer, better, more Zen person. Then realised that actually the effect was in the practice, in the moment. }

Stop looking forward. Whatever ails you contains its own cure. In waiting for the cure to take place you miss the medicine that the moment provides.

Each ‘here’ each ‘now’ has its own education. So pain teaches, alleviation teaches, recovery teaches.

We never walk the same road twice; neither us or the road can be repeated. We are always moving forward and each moment is an opportunity for conscious being, being conscious. Being.

This state requires work and practice but it is one of uncovering rather than creating, letting go rather than tying down.

Knowing, rather than thinking, that everything required is already here.

Our education, our healing is constant – in each moment. Our work is the conscious choice to honour the experience we are given in the present, fully, without judgement or comparison.

As when we when we fall in love, the experience is of recognition. We learn to recognise ourselves. We start to understand ourselves as constant and containing all possibility, like a growing seed.

This is not a process of introspection or an avoidance of actions and consequences. Quite the opposite, it is the honest appraisal of what is happening now. It is our creation of the space to fully acknowledge how we are without the habitual jump to another state.

We cannot stay with a moment. We can only acknowledge it for its perfect duration.

Like irrepeatable snowflakes, each moment is unique and unspeakably precious for in it is contained the whole of existence. It contains the ailment and the medicine, the beginning and the end. It contains all that is needed, as it is in fact all there is.