Simple Strength

Complex life is delicate and rare. But most life is simple, abundant, and incredibly strong.

Kevin Carey

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Last week, I noticed moss growing amongst the stones in one of the pots on my patio. It was wet with dew, the colour alive and vibrant in the early morning sun. The sporophytes were tipped with little droplets that captured the light, tiny crystals on slender spires.

I close my eyes now and think of the fragrance of soil after rain, the scent of heliotrope on a summer morning, the way water pearls in the centre of an Echeveria. I picture gooseberries hiding in their filigreed bells, imagine the burst of tartness in my mouth.

Perhaps it is the ever increasing complexity of my days, of the world around me, that makes these simple things so precious. Trees and flowers and mosses are rooted to place; and are completely themselves. In their simplicity, their unity of purpose and existence, they remind me that little is needed to make a life strong and beautiful.

I love what Kevin Carey says about simple life being abundant. I know that he was speaking in terms of the reality that simple life forms far outnumber the complex ones. But I think it’s true in another way too. Simplicity can be abundant and lavish. It’s not more (time, activity, stuff) that creates fullness. It’s entering more fully into the one or two things that matter most to me that bring a sense of wholeness, presence and contentment. I am reminded again of Mary Oliver’s question, ‘Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?’

It’s that word: one. I have one life, and I am only one. Can I close myself to the whip cracking incessantly in my ears, to the voice saying, ‘Do more. Be more. Chase this. Chase that!’ Can I learn from the moss to be quiet in place and capture the light that is given me?

 

(The poetry page features a poem by David Whyte this week.)

Soul Words

When I was growing up, there was a tree fort in the rain tree in our backyard. The tree fort had a rope ladder and a trap door, and I would climb the rope ladder with one hand and cradle a book in my other hand. And when I got up to the tree fort, I would slam the trap door shut and sit on the sun warmed wood under that great canopy of green, and read and read and read.

I could feel the stories I read pushing against the walls of my heart.

I could feel myself expanding.

I did not, then, know the word capacious. But I did know, I could feel , that my heart was being opened by the words I was reading. 

Kate DiCamillo

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Kate DiCamillo’s Newberry Medal acceptance speech is a beautiful tribute to the word capacious. It’s also a powerful reminder of the ways in which books form and shape us. As I read it, I found myself saying, ‘Yes, yes, yes!’ and thinking about the stories that have lodged in my own heart and been soul-shaping for me.

How can I find the words to talk about what books have meant? Sometimes, as a child, late at night when everyone else was asleep and the house was at last quiet, I would imagine that only I existed, in the circle of light which illuminated the page. The words soothed me, made me feel that I was not alone in the world. It was as though someone was shining a light on something I had known, but never quite been able to articulate, making some as yet unplayed note sing through me.

Books have given me permission to acknowledge the buried things lying below the surface of my life. They’ve opened doors to new awareness and made way for grief to do its cleansing work. They’ve given me hope and reminded me of those things worth despairing about. In Equal Rites (by Terry Pratchett) one of the characters notices that ‘There were times when a little detail could expand and fill the whole world’. Stories are whole worlds made of little things; one letter at a time a kind of parallel reality emerges, one that makes sense and stirs in us resonant echoes of of our own experience. Sometimes those words have filled my whole world, opening me to a fresh apprehension of the way things really are.

Like the sound of a bell, or a teaspoon against a glass, words are a call to let the clutter of voices competing for my attention to settle into silence, so that I can hear that one voice speak.

 

(Have a look at this week’s poem in the poetry corner, for some beautiful words that landed in my heart this morning.)

 

The Preaching of Pine Trees

Few are altogether deaf to the preaching of pine trees. Their sermons on the mountains go to our hearts.

Between every two pines is a doorway to a new world.

As long as I live, I’ll hear waterfalls and birds and winds sing. I’ll interpret the rocks, learn the language of flood, storm and the avalanche. I’ll acquaint myself with the glaciers and wild gardens, and get as near the heart of the world as I can. 

All the wild world is beautiful, and it matters but little where we go, to highlands or lowlands, woods or plains, on the sea or land or down among the crystals of waves or high in a balloon in the sky; through all the climates, hot or cold, storms and calms, everywhere and always we are in God’s eternal beauty and love.

 

John Muir

 

 

I have always loved pine trees. I love their scent, their magnificent height and the way their needles carpet the ground. Most of all, I love the sound of the wind through their branches. Anywhere that pine trees grow is a thin place.

I’ve been reading Wilderness Essays by John Muir, and I find myself full of longing for wild places. He speaks of mountains, glaciers and valleys, the sun setting over the ice floes of Alaska, the grandeur of lofty peaks and the gentle beauty of wildflowers scattered across a field. He lived a life full to the brim with adventure (and danger at times), yet his writing conveys not the sense of a man captivated by his own exploits, but of one who held a deep and abiding love for and intimacy with the places he explored. He cared deeply about all living things, and wrote much about our need for taking ourselves into the wild spaces of the world. He once said, “I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.”

Robert Macfarlane speaks of this in his book, The Old Ways, in which he muses on walking across old pathways and remote places as a journey inwards, to our interior landscapes. There is not enough stillness I find, even in my home, with the television off and my phone on silent. There is the sound of traffic and lawnmowers. And at night there is no true darkness; the streetlamps and security lights outside my bedroom keep it at bay. I stay up late; electric lights making it possible to lengthen my day well into the hours of night.

I’ve taken to walking my dogs at sunset. I love the opportunity to pay attention to the way the light fades, the way the colours shift and melt into darkness. After immersion in the noise of my life, I find my mind settling into quiet; I can hear my heart begin to speak. I can ‘go in’ and take the time to ponder on what I find there. I arrive home feeling soothed.

Muir said, “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where Nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul alike.” In September 2014, I took a picture of a stone at Glen Nevis, with this quote engraved onto it. That afternoon I was feeling sad; my aunt and I were almost at the end of the Scotland leg of a journey across the United Kingdom, and I didn’t want to go. We’d been walking the highlands for several days and I wasn’t ready to say goodbye. Muir said that going to the mountains was going home (he said the same thing about forests). Anyone who loves mountains and forests and wild places will know what he meant. We’re never quite at home until we’re there, where the sun is our timekeeper and the trees and caves are our shelter.

Chasing the Light

You were born into a strange world,

Like a candle, you were meant to share the fire.

I don’t know where we come from, and I don’t know where we go.

But my arms were made to hold you, so I will never let you go.

Cuz you were born to change this life.

You were born to chase the light.

You were born…

 

Cloud Cult

 

On Saturday we went to the winter edition of the Cape Town Folk and Acoustic Music Festival. It was a magic evening; I felt so privileged to experience the music and the passion of the musicians themselves. It was clear that this was not just a performance. Each one sang and played with their whole heart and mind, with obvious delight in their craft.

I often find myself moved by art and music. A couple of years ago I had the privilege of viewing the art of Rembrandt at the Rijks Museum in Amsterdam. Tears flowed as I stood in front of The Jewish Bride. I was overwhelmed at the thought that Rembrandt himself had worked on the painting in front of me, that each brushstroke and carefully chosen colour had flowed from his imagination onto the canvas. I know as a writer that whatever you put onto the page: a word, a picture or a series of notes, is in some sense a piece of yourself, that you risk vulnerability every time you open your heart and give expression to what you find inside.

Any creative act is an invitation to some kind of relationship, even if it is just with yourself. As I write I am challenged to explore more deeply my own experiences and responses to them. In sharing that, I am inviting you to explore along with me. When I watch a musician play, I feel that in some way they are welcoming me into their life, to see the world through their eyes. Sometimes this changes me, changes the way I see the world.

A few months ago I listened to this podcast, an interview with Craig Minowa, the lead singer of Cloud Cult. In it he speaks of the way the audience connects with them as they play. In sharing himself with people through his performances, he creates a space in which people feel that their own struggles and joys can be embraced and acknowledged. It’s well worth taking the time to listen. (You can find a video of Cloud Cult, performing the song I have quoted above, here.)

I love the idea that we are like candles, so here’s to a week of looking for opportunities to ‘share the fire’.

 

A Timely Reminder

But I am one of those people who thinks you have to let go of your scarcity for good things. You have to let go of the addiction to fantastical good, big things, like the ones that make the papers. We have to let go of that definition and instead believe in small, good things or we don’t get free.

I count them like money: my small, good things. They are money in the bank: flower scents and aromatic oils and kind moments and garden fresh meals and skills we’ve learned and friends who apologize and brave people who reach out to the world and say, “This is what I can do, to help.”

This is what makes the world make sense again, when terrible things keep happening. This is what makes it possible for me to feel my feelings in a world where good things and bad things live right next door to one another.

Small, good things matter.

Esther Emery.

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I came across this post by Esther Emery a few days ago. It was perfectly timed; the past few weeks have felt blurry and scrambled. There is so much going on in the larger world, so much pain and brokenness. And there is so much change going on in mine. Sometimes it feels as though I have a thousand voices  in my head, shouting for attention, and I cannot unravel them from one another long enough to make sense of it all. I want the big picture; I want a clear road ahead.

But I cannot have this clarity now. I can only choose to give myself to each moment, and for that I need a smaller field of vision. I need to focus on what is right in front of me: the mushroom I picked in the forest on Saturday, the sound of my horse’s breathing, the music of the poem I read this morning. And when that something in front of me is hard or painful, I need to attend to it with an open heart and do what I can, then let it go.

Small, good things matter. I have been reading a book by Robert Macfarlane called Landmarks. In it he speaks of being a lover of mountains, living in the flatlands of Cambridge, of learning to love a landscape devoid of dramatic beauty. He says, “Becoming a father altered my focal length and adjusted my depth of field. Children are generally uninterested in grandeur, and rapt by the miniature and close at hand (a teeming ants’ nest, a chalk pit, moss jungles, lichen continents, a low-branched climbing tree). From them-among countless other lessons-I have learnt that the magnitude of scale is no metric by which to judge natural spectacle, and that wonder is now, more than ever, an essential survival skill.” I like that, the idea of wonder as a survival skill.

I had plans for my morning, plans that didn’t materialize quite as I’d hoped. So I tried to be present to the little piece of them that I was able to salvage. I attended to the words on the page in front of me, and found a kind of spaciousness entering the tightness in my chest. I breathed a little easier, and realized that I could hear the birdsong outside, the birdsong that had been there all along.

Acting with Beauty and Courage

We have no reason to distrust our world, for it is not against us. If it has terrors, they are our terrors. If it has an abyss, it is ours. If dangers are there, we must try to love them. And if we would live with faith in the value of what is challenging, then what now appears to us as most alien will become our truest, most trustworthy friend. Let us not forget the ancient myths at the outset of humanity’s journey, the myths about dragons that at the last moment transform into princesses. Perhaps all the dragons of our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act just once with beauty and courage. Perhaps every terror is, in its deepest essence, something that needs our recognition or help. 

Rainer Maria Rilke

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I’ve always loved fairy tales. It often seems to me that they hold the memories of all the stories and experiences of our journey as human beings. They stir up echoes of things we know, but have forgotten. They remind us of who we are, and of what is necessary to be alive and awake in the world.

How do we act with the beauty and courage Rilke speaks of? How do we approach brokenness with recognition and help, when anger and frustration at the pain in the world and in our own lives threatens to engulf us, or keep us numbed in an attempt to function? It’s as though there is something in us that wants to meet fire with fire, to blaze into the hurts and challenges with force, with the armour that anger or disengagement provides.

I like that Rilke uses the word beauty, a quality so often seen as superfluous. Years ago I sat in a small, box-like room at university for a lunchtime lecture. The man giving the lecture spoke of the room we were in, of its sparse, utilitarian nature, its ugliness. He said that there was a sense in which that room was evil in its complete lack of beauty. He said that form and beauty is as important as function, that we need it. And for all our talk of the brutality of nature and survival of the fittest, creation is saturated to the point of overflow with it.

Can we believe that at the heart of every struggle there is the possibility for renewal? Can we reach into our individual and collective fears with a vulnerability that enables us to acknowledge what we find beneath the surface? And from that place of acknowledgement, can we act with kindness towards ourselves and others?

These are hard questions, without easy answers. I wonder if part of the solution lies in an ability to be softer, to believe that God is at work and that in our willingness to enter into vulnerability, we can be part of that work.

 

A Singing Stream

Doubt

 

Perhaps not

this winding road

is out of course

drifting

disconnected from the memory

of an imagined end

unknown

and full of the sounds

of questions

 

Carri Kuhn

 

The Real Work

 

It may be that when we no longer know what to do

we have come to our real work,

 

and that when we no longer know which way to go

we have come to our real journey.

 

The mind that is not baffled is not employed.

 

The impeded stream is the one that sings.

 

Wendell Berry

 

SAM_5022

 

I used to look at successful people and think they had it all together. It seemed to me that they must be a special category of human being, less prone to the insecurities and struggles of lesser mortals like me. I have always battled with confidence, and assumed that those who were making their way in the world with such eloquence and apparent self-assurance must be of a different essence. It was a discouraging but oddly comforting idea. I would never be a ‘success’ but since I was not cut from that cloth, I didn’t have to make the attempt to grow beyond my particular set of competencies.

I think differently now. I realise that successful people are those who reach into their vulnerabilities and recognise them as stepping stones, as ways of becoming aware of themselves in order to move forward, towards their goals. It’s hard work, of the inner self and of the outer world of learning skills and applying oneself to being better at what you do, every day.

A few weeks ago I listened to a very well respected author say that he doesn’t think his writing is good. I remember, several years ago, watching a trio of A-list actresses talk about how nervous they feel on the first day of a film shoot. One of them even said that she often calls her agent just before shooting commences, to say that she doesn’t think she can do the film. Knowing that others face these fears helps me to see that I am not alone in my battles.

It’s tempting to give up. I can find a lot of excuses for not doing things. My mind is a very effective generator of reasons for ‘why this will not work’. But the truth is that this kind of thinking only feeds my fear and keeps me stuck.

I love Wendell Berry’s thoughts on ‘The Real Work’. When I apply my mind to solutions rather than problems, and I take the leap and do something, I develop resilience and capacity. This is when my life really does start to sing.