Simple pleasures

I like to think I’m actually quite easy to please. (Yes, I appreciate this might not seem 100% true 100% of the time but…)

Take my latest source of deep and divine (yes really) pleasure…

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Yes, it’s a sofa.  But it’s not just ANY sofa.  THIS sofa is in what I like to call my new ‘snug’.

I really wish I’d taken a before AND after photo now, but to be quite honest with you, BEFORE made me deeply unhappy.  I’d even go as far as to say despondent, hopeless and despairing. And why would I want to take a photo of something that had such an effect on me?! Well quite.

So, all I have is the after photo.  It may not seem like much to anyone other than me, but what it represents brings words like calm, serenity, quiet creativity, order, beauty, and MINE to mind.

This is a space I’ve carved out for myself in amongst the piles of stuff and things to do and general chaos and mess that I feel takes up most of the rest of our house most of the time.  And I have decreed this ‘snug’ a whinging/complaining/arguing/shouting and above all mess-free zone.

Kids (and farmers actually) make unbelievable mess!  I am still amazed, after 9 years of parenting, at just how much of a mess they can make.  I’d like to say I’m totally zen with it all, that it washes over me like a Himalayan waterfall of enlightened non-attachment.  However… I do struggle with mess when it is EVERYWHERE, and in a farmhouse with 1 farmer, 1 basketmaker, 2 home-educated kids, 1 dog, 2 cats (one of whom brings in a semi-consumed dead offering at least twice a day) I feel like there is mess everywhere all of the time.

So, this little niche is a place for me to escape to when I need to remember what it is like to feel clutter-free.  Somewhere I can go to to escape the chaos of everywhere else.  Somewhere to meditate.  Somewhere to dream.  Somewhere to turn soul-pleasing things like this…

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…into things like this… (more on the delight of mandalas soon…)

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I believe everyone needs space like this.  Whether it’s a whole room or a corner of a room, a window sill or a special place outside somewhere. One friend disappears into a caravan when he seeks reconnection. For some people it’s their car.  Or their bed.  For others, it’s a particular cafe that they go to for escape and to connect into the part of them that they know is buried deep beneath all that chaos. And for others it’s not even a place, but a time in the day or week where they can carve out that space and give back to themselves the love and nurturing that we all, on one level or another, really, really need.

I know that the stillness and centring I seek when I spend time in my snug can be found within my very self.  I know that through yoga, meditation, mindfulness and conscious practice I can tap into this part of myself more and more easily.  And yet I’m not sure even the Buddha himself could have attained enlightenment if he’d been surrounded by hungry, demanding children, a throwing-up dog and a god-forsaken mess to tidy up first.

Breathing in… Breathing out…

Parenting will call into question virtually everything we think we know, beginning with who we think we are. (We’re not!) Children have an extraordinary talent for breaking apart our roles, demanding again and again that we meet them right in the moment, meet our lives, meet difficulty, moment by moment meet and resolve the extraordinary mystery of ‘the other’.  To do this we must time and again lose our precious adult facades and have recall or regain access to the mysterious and creative core that has no name, the source, that we brush again and again in meditation.

Susan Murphy, in Buddhism for Mothers

“I cant meditate.”  That’s the recurrent message I’ve played out for, hmm, about 15 years – the period of time since I first seriously tried meditating, at a vipassana meditation centre in Chiang Mai, back in my good old footloose hippy days.  I lasted 4 days out of a 10 day retreat, telling myself, as I pulled my various shades and layers of tie dyed clothing back on, “I’ve learned all I need to.” Nothing to do with the lack of food, sleep, interpersonal communication, colourful attire, or my inability to sit still for THAT long then?  No, nothing at all.

So, the fact that I have now been meditating regularly for two and a half months comes as a little surprise to me every now and then.  I know many Buddhists would balk at the idea of it, but for practical reasons, I’m doing it the 21st century way (through an app on my new iPad – Headspace, check it out), and it’s really working for me.  Now that my children are old enough to not need something from me every 10 minutes (unless I’m on the phone or toilet of course), I have the space and time to give this to myself almost every single morning.  And I’m loving it.

Ok, so often my practice looks a little like this:

“Breathing in… Breathing out… Breathing in… Breathing out… Gosh my breathing sounds loud today!  I wonder why.  Funny how my breathing sounds different one day to the next.  Oh yes… Breathing in… Breathing out… Breathing in… Breathing out…  Is that a mouse I can hear in the rafters?  Ooh sounds bigger than a mouse.  A rat?  What’s it eating?  Maybe it’s just a bird on the roof after all.  Oops… Breathing in… Breathing out… Breathing in… Breathing out… Is that K getting up? On her own? Hooray!  Oh, maybe it’s the cat.  She’d better not have brought in another bloody rabbit and left it to half fester under our bed again.  Aargh that cat!  Ahem… Breathing in… Breathing out… Breathing in… Breathing out…  Hmm what shall I write my next blog post about?  Haha, I know, I could write about meditating.  Oh lord, what a joke… COME BACK TO YOUR BREATH WOMAN!!  Breathing in… Breathing out…”

(Yes… I realise I’ve a way to go before nirvana becomes more than just a few graphemes put together in an interesting way…)

BUT I do believe that those tiny moments of bliss I experienced in the first few weeks of meditating are genuinely growing.  And I’m seeing myself, in a detached, interested, reflective kind of way, in how I deal with things the kids throw at me in particular.  A common one is: “Why did I just respond like that?  That was unnecessary.”  Because it’s a learned REaction, rather than a conscious response, that’s why.  And it’s time to change direction.

I know I have weeks, months, YEARS of practice ahead of me before some of these neurological habits are shifted onto other clearer, cleaner, calmer pathways.  AND I know it must be doing something good already, because I look forward each morning to starting my day in this way.  I’ve had glimpses into what that clearer, cleaner, calmer mind looks like.

I’m learning a LOT about how and why my mind works as it does and that, actually, what is crucial is not so much about WHAT is happening but HOW I choose to run with it.  I could let all these (quite frankly unimportant) thoughts rampage round and round my head, distracting me from what I’m doing here and now, OR I could learn to simply acknowledge them as mere thoughts and bring myself back to the (much more interesting) present.

After all, the present is where life’s really happening.  It’s where the kids reside every single minute of their tiny, beautiful, inspiring, innocent lives.  And it’s where they constantly drag me back to when my mind is wandering off in other (deceivingly seemingly more enticing) lands.  They’re a relentless wake up call to live life HERE and NOW.

Ah yes indeed, “children are the most demanding and merciless of spiritual teachers” (Sarah Napthali, Buddhism for Mothers).  I’ve known this on some level or other these past 9 years I’ve been mothering, of course.  Now I’m trying really hard to pay deep and close attention to what they’re actually trying to teach me.

 

 

Weaving in the ends

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I couple of weeks ago I had the very great honour of helping to weave a coffin for a recently lost loved one.  I’ve not worked with willow in this way before, although I have been thinking for some time that I would love to learn.  There’s something about being involved in this process that has struck a chord with me ever since I heard that willow coffins even existed.

It was, quite simply, amazing.  And it touched me deeply on some well buried, ancient level.

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To lose someone so precious was heartbreaking.  To be a part of the preparation for her burial was incredible.  We talked about her while we bent willow – rods so strong that our hands ached by the end of the day.  There wasn’t quite blood and sweat involved but there were certainly some tears that fell.  Tears as another memory surfaced of something deeply wonderful or deeply frustrating that passed between us.  Tears as it hit over and over again that these were moments that we would never again experience in the flesh.  Thoughts of lost opportunities.  Memories of things that weren’t said.  Or things that were said and could never now be taken back.

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The thing that kept going over and over in my head and in my heart, though, was just how ‘right’ this process felt.  Here we were, female relatives (with the help of a very lovely man) preparing, with our own bare hands, something that would carry our loved one to her grave.  Into the coffin we wove love-filled messages on ribbons and treasured photographs.  We wove herbs, plants, flowers and other precious gifts sent by friends and family, people’s whose lives have been touched in some way by their relationship with R.  We wove love, grief, laughter, and memory upon memory upon memory.  We wove parts of ourselves, and indeed all those who knew and loved her, into the vessel that would hold her beautiful, precious body on it’s final earth-bound journey.

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We came closer to her in death, and in this way came closer to death itself.  And while death will always hold an air of sadness, even tragedy, just by coming that little bit closer to it, in ways that are personal and meaningful to us, I believe it can feel less frightening, less unknown, less like the ending it sometimes overwhelmingly seems to be and maybe a little bit more like a part of the whole, unending cycle it truly is.

Our loved one’s body now rests well and truly in peace.  And through her death and through the giving back of her body to the earth, she will continue to give life to others.  And so it goes on…

 

 

 

Stirrings

Ah February, there you are… A month that brings me conflicting feelings each year.  It still feels like a month for dreaming to me, like January and most certainly December.  And yet December, like a changeling babe, always gets stolen away from the yearning arms of gentleness, darkness and silence and replaced with non-stop movement, bright lights, high-expectation, anticipation and noise.  It takes me until mid-January to recover from the highs and lows of December, and before I know it, February is here once more.

I find myself yearning to be inside in February.  Our daily ritual of lighting the woodburner in the morning is nothing but a delight, and stoking it throughout the day feels both ancient and right.  Every morning it happens – whoever lights the fire is drawn into the mesmeric, hypnotic dance of the flames, hard pressed to pull themselves away and get on with whatever busyness lies in store for them that day.  The message in the hearth is clear: “stay here, be still, keep on dreaming…”

But of course, life in the 21st century doesn’t allow for such inaction, such decadence!  There are things to get done, a million ways to distract yourself from such frivolities!  And so life goes on…

And so just what have I been doing these last few weeks?  Well, seeing as you asked, quite a lot of this actually:

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I recently applied for some funding to cover an intensive period of basketry training.  Sadly, yesterday I heard I hadn’t got it.  The email I received went something along the lines of I would like to take this opportunity to say that this decision does not reflect the quality of your work, as the Trustees were extremely impressed by your case. I therefore very much hope that you manage to obtain the necessary funds elsewhere and wish you every success with your outlined project and future career.”  

The cynical side of me says that they probably write the same thing to everyone.  But I’ll tell you something.  I’m not going to let it stop me!  If I’ve learned anything from these past couple of months, it’s that I actually do have a dream.  In fact, I have many, many, MANY dreams, but this one dream I want to share.  I want to be a basketmaker!  I want to weave beautiful shapes, forms, ideas into being.  I want to use my hands for hard work and in the process create amazing pieces of functional art.  I want to inspire and empower others to turn their own creative visions into magical, woven delights.

When I heard I hadn’t got the funding, I thought to myself “Great, I’ve lost hold of the one thing I thought could offer me some stability over the coming year and a half.  Now what?”  Well, you know what?  I’ve decided I’ve had it with not believing myself to be good enough.  I know I can do this and I know I can find a way to make it happen.

I believe in me.

There, I’ve said it out loud now.

 

 

 

 

“An ounce of hope is worth more than a tonne of despair”

“Denial is everywhere. I have come to believe that it’s an intrinsic component of our humanity, an essential survival strategy. Unlike other species, we know that we will die. This knowledge could destroy us, were we unable to blot it out. But, unlike other species, we also know how not to know. We employ this unique ability to suppress our knowledge not just of mortality, but of everything we find uncomfortable, until our survival strategy becomes a threat to our survival.”

George Monbiot

This morning, whilst lounging in bed in the small cottage we’re staying in in Aberdyfi for the week, I finished reading Feral, the latest book by journalist and environmentalist, George Monbiot.  In a nutshell, it’s a book about rewilding; rewilding the land, rewilding the sea, rewilding ourselves.

While there seem to be numerous definitions of ‘rewilding’ out there, I agree with GM that two of those definitions are most fascinating.  The first relates to allowing ecological processes to resume within natural ecosystems.  So, rather than attempting to freeze nature in the name of ‘preservation’ or ‘conservation’, recognising actually that the natural world is not made up of  simple, static systems, but rather richly complex processes that go way beyond our initial understanding or imaginings; processes that must be allowed to return and evolve naturally.  The other definition relates to our own place within this ecosystem – the rewilding of human life.  GM describes this perfectly as “an enhanced opportunity for people to engage with and delight in the natural world”.

After reading Feral, I went on to GM’s website and came across the above quote about denial.  And I absolutely, wholeheartedly agree: we live in a world of denial.  I have questioned the status quo, the ‘boxes’ that we are all meant to fit neatly inside of, for almost as long as I can remember.  This, I have learnt, is not the easy route through life.  I’ve fallen out with a lot of people along the way.  I ask awkward questions, start uncomfortable conversations, bring things up that others would prefer just quietly swept under the carpet.  I’m fully aware of this, yet to not take this position feels, to me, insincere and disingenuous.  I made a promise a long time ago that I would NEVER give my daughters the answer “Because that’s just how things are, ok” because that response has ALWAYS frustrated me.  Quite simply, it is not good enough.

There is always more going on than I can see on the surface of things, so as far as I’m concerned there is always something else to question.  Yet another thing that I can not take for granted, whether it’s the clothes I wear, the food I eat, where I shop, how I travel, how I educate my children, how I earn my money, where and how I holiday… The list feels, at times, endless and exhausting.  But to not ask these questions would be to live in denial.  Denial that this fragile world we’re living in is not actually teetering on the edge of massive collapse.

GM is a writer and activist who seems fairly controversial.  I don’t have an opinion on him myself (yet), but I do know that Feral has got me thinking and looking deeply, for it has radically altered the way I now see this landscape around me here in mid/north Wales.  From the ‘white plague’ of sheep that roam the hillsides and mountaintops, stripping bare ground again and again which could, and indeed should, sustain so much more wild life than it does now, to the unseen depths of the sea that have been devastated by commercial fishing on a scale that I find difficult, and yes deeply uncomfortable, to get my head around.  These are all things that are so easy to overlook – to see superficially what seems beautiful and benign and, yes, even ‘wild’.  But when you look closer, and you question what’s really going on, when you ask those awkward questions and you refuse to take “Well, that’s just how things are” as an answer, the truth becomes clear.  And shocking.  And frightening.  What kind of world exactly ARE we cultivating for all our inquisitive children?

So where’s the “ounce of hope” in all this despair?  As GM and many other environmentalists, activists and climate scientists explain, the answers are actually really quite simple.  The small changes that we can make to the natural world around us can have huge and far reaching effects (take the re-introduction of wolves into Yellowstone Park as one example).  Effects that we CAN realise within our own lifetimes. Many of these will need to be made on a government level, yes, but it is the individual decisions we each choose to make on a daily basis that determine the course of things really.  We have to believe this.  I have to believe this.  It is where hope lies.  And without hope, well we really are well and truly screwed.

Here’s the TED talk GM did last year about rewilding.  And if you can get hold of a copy, I’d highly recommend reading Feral as well.  But be warned: the world around you might not quite look the same again…

Wild inspiration

I was meant to be doing something else this weekend.  I was supposed to be on a Way of Council course in Bristol.  I booked on to this weekend a long time ago and had been really looking forward to it.  A time to learn more about Council; a space to connect in to my own way of being in the world; an opportunity to hear what others have to say about all of this.  All held in a most sacred way.

And I didn’t go.  Because this week I have been feeling overwhelmed (again).

Overwhelmed with all the options that feel open to us at the moment with regards moving to Wales.  Overwhelmed because the girls are at home ALL THE TIME and I can’t often finish a thought process, let alone have a whole conversation about that thought process.  Overwhelmed because there’s so much I want to DO in life and how do I choose/prioritise, because obviously I can’t do it all?!  And overwhelmed because I feel that with all the different balls I’m juggling – mental/emotional/real/not real – I feel like I’m failing badly at all of them.  By Wednesday I’d convinced myself not only that I’d ruined my children’s lives by being such a bad mother, but also that I was never going to be anything of worth in the world because, well, just because I’m basically crap at everything.  And besides, the world is f****d anyway so really what’s the point?

Yes… those old chestnuts.  (Sigh…)

So, by Thursday I knew that what I really needed was time and space to get all of this CRAP out of my head, and for me, that means removing myself from pretty much everything and everyone.  I needed physical space, openness, air, hills, trees, vistas.  I needed to walk somewhere wilder than here, because when I do I always feel better – I can just give all of my overwhelmedness to the land and she will always take it.  This, I know.

The Malvern Hills are not what I would exactly call ‘wild’, but they are not too far away, and when I got there at dawn yesterday morning and the mist was down, well I could have been anywhere.  It was beautiful.  The mist gave me an atmospheric feeling of deep, ancient mystery and, other than the paths that criss-cross over the hills, I felt at times I could have been walking not just anywhere but anytime.

I kept smiling to myself as I walked – I had headed to the hills to get height, expansive views, distance, clarity and vision.  And it was so misty I could see only 30ft in front of me most of the time!  And so the message I received was loud and clear – you need to stop looking to the horizon, to what might be out there, to what you may or may not actually be able to see.  You need to look at your feet, at the ground right there in front of you, where you are walking right now.  And yes, you need to take small steps – you need to remain mindful of where you’re going, and what you’re doing!  

When, at times, the mist did clear, and I was given glimpses of the view, I was immediately distracted by other thoughts.  Thoughts that, quite frankly, are really not important in the grand scheme of things.  And so I found myself actually inviting the mist back in.  To bring myself back to the here and now.  To embrace the unknown and to not see it, as I find myself doing at times, as something to fear or worry about, but to see it actually as a gift in reminding me to come back to the present.  To myself.

After all, as Eckhart Tolle would quite rightfully remind me:  

As soon as you honor the present moment, all unhappiness and struggle dissolve, and life begins to flow with joy and ease. When you act out the present-moment awareness, whatever you do becomes imbued with a sense of quality, care, and love – even the most simple action.  

The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment

Eckhart Tolle is probably the only person in the world I would actually allow to come along with me on one of these walks.  Ah yes, I’d happily allow Eckhart to walk alongside me awhile, speaking words of wisdom in that soft, meditative, inner peace-inducing, German-accented voice of his as we ambled up, down, around, within.

Him and the best dog in the world of course.  Now there’s a being who could give a good lesson in enjoying the present moment…

Gaia

(no that wasn’t taken in the Malverns…  I’m way too in the moment to be taking a camera with me on these solo walks in the wild, don’t you know)