Always running

Wild Cherry blossom at Beacon Hill Country Park. Photo by Fiona Phillips.

I wrote last week about the mindfulness class I’m taking with Plum Village UK. I was sitting recently practicing when these words floated into my awareness, “always running.”

They felt different to my usual distractions, like whether I have enough cat food, what someone meant when they said a particular thing two years ago at that meeting, whether I am doing meditation “right” and so forth.

As I was breathing I could see myself fixed in this spot in space and time on my cushion. I could see myself in the past hurtling towards this moment, and I could see how my brain was always busy hurtling me onwards into the future. I was always running. I was either running from something or desperate to get somewhere else. This moment never featured.

I have been working with the ideas of being versus doing now for maybe twenty years, but I still get caught in the habit of doing. When I recently left my job I immediately wanted to know what I would “do” next. People often ask this too, “what are you doing now?” And I feel like I need to have an answer, well, I’m taking that course, or I plan to start up this project, or I am applying for this or that role. It is a hamster-wheel of never ending action.

I began to wonder where this came from. Some of it I can see arises out of my culture and upbringing. But some of it comes from a different place.

Around fifteen years ago I was having some health difficulties. After assorted tests and scans I was told, very directly, that a small part of my brain was dead, most likely as the result of a small stroke.

I was thirty five years old at the time, with two young children. It was the first time I had ever had reason to believe I was mortal. For some time after a stroke your risk of a second attack is high. I spent several years living with a lot of fear. I was determined to make the most of my life, to live it as fully as possible, to “make a contribution” to do something worthwhile. I would like to say that this was rewarding and nourishing, but, if it were possible, I became even more driven than I had been before. The clock was ticking, and now I could hear it!

This sense of death shadowing my steps has persisted through a decade and a half. While I told myself that of course none of us know the day or hour we will cease this form of existence, and that life is precious and brief, this didn’t help me to live with greater joy. I saw, in my meditation, that I had set off running, in two directions at once. I was running away, as fast as I could, from the idea of my own demise and health issues. And I was running as fast as I could to this unknown outcome of achieving my “life’s purpose”.

This is an exhausting state to live in. I have not known much peace during these years, fearing missing the as yet identified boat of my life’s work and dying with this elusive thing unknown or unachieved.

Mindfulness has given me a gift; it has shown me that there is another way, and I am allowed to stop running! There isn’t anywhere to get from, and there isn’t anywhere to get to. I am already here. As Thay says, “I have arrived, I am home.”

This has been an enormous shift.

And I find for the first time in many years, that I have genuine moments of peace.

Learning to Walk

I started taking the Be Calm, Be Happy class with Plum Village UK this week. In the first class we received some input on walking meditation.

I have tried this before but realise after some instruction that I have been going way to fast!

Yesterday morning, like a good student, I set off to a local park to practice. This park is small and has a long loop of winding path perfect for some mindful steps. It was strange to be there with other people, children on their way to school, early morning dog walkers. I felt a bit self conscious (mindful moment!).

I worked with trying to time my steps to my breath. The minute I thought about breathing it seemed very slow, my steps too, were therefore very slow. In the class I had noticed that once I thought about walking, once I focused on it in a conscious way, my steps became very unsteady, I was unbalanced and wobbly, like a toddler. It seems that when I walk to get somewhere momentum carries me without the wobble. When I think about my steps, though,the whole process becomes much more complex.

Of course sometimes I would begin to think, wondering if people were wondering what I was doing, thankful that Simon had come with me so I didn’t feel like a complete loon…then I would catch myself and return to the breath. In, out, left foot, right foot.

Time slowed down and it felt like I had, on some level, been walking forever. I walked in the drizzly, cold morning, noticing the bird song, and gradually enjoying the process, the steady flow of breath, step, breath, step. There was a gentle rhythm that felt soothing.

I had to slow right down. And take very small steps.

Which feels like a metaphor for life.

Spring Travels

In a new landscape I find the seasons are different. Back “down South” the daffodils would be out by the city walls by the last week in February. I would watch the green spikes emerging from the bus as it passed and await their blooms as the key moment when winter gave way to spring.

Photo credit Fiona Phillips 24 March 2023 – Blossom by the canal

We are now in the last week in March, the daffodils are out here in full force, a bank of them backlit by early morning sun when we walked past the train station yesterday. Along the edge of the golf course, too, the fabled golden host glowing against still-bare trees.

This week the blossom is emerging, blackthorn and flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum). Grape hyacinth are out in the garden and the first bumblebee queens have emerged, on the prowl for nest sites. Three years ago bumblebee queens were humming about on a day trip to London on my birthday in mid-February.

Photo credit Fiona Phillips 24 March 2023 – Flowering Currant

These events have coincided with the spring equinox, which I will use as my benchmark for the “start of spring” when we reach the new calendar year.

So how fast does spring travel? According to this article from 2015 at around 2 miles per hour. I can visualise a time lapse map of the country, greening and blossoming as the season unfolds! I am now wondering if you could walk with the season as it unfolds (apparently from South West to North East).

This year not only are we in a new landscape but we also have a new garden. The soil here is heavier than the chalk uplands where I’ve lived for most of the past forty years. We have begun the process of clearing the ground of tenacious ivy (while leaving some because it is beneficial for many creatures) and are waiting to see what emerges as the ground warms in the coming weeks. I have planted some shrubs which will hopefully give blossom and berries for the birds and bees in coming years, and set some wildflower seeds. I’m also creating a rock pile and a wood pile for the creepy crawlies.

All part of seeking to create a wildlife friendly corner in these times of habitat depletion in our #wildisles !

Coming Home

I am a restless soul. No sooner do I arrive somewhere than I want to be on to the next place. I have spent my whole life feeling out of place and longing to find a sense of home.

When I was younger I longed for travel, I thought that somewhere out there (cue song lyrics) was that mythical place where I would belong.

Life unfolds, often unexpectedly. As a young mother in my twenties I wished the weeks away, believing that at some point the time could come when I would find the job or place that felt like a fit. It is a sadness now that I was not more “with” that time, I did not know at the time how young I was.

On and on we go, through career studies and professional life. Each place had something to give, some gift to be treasured, a moment of clarity, the joy of sharing a good piece of work. My children grew up, my marriage ended, I found a new love. On and on.

In the past five years we have been on the move both literally and metaphorically. Moving from the home where I raised the children, into my parents home to tend to my Mum in her final years, on to our first home for “just us”, reliving the student vibes in a second floor apartment. Last October we made a giant leap out of my native Kent and here to Warwickshire.

Still that niggle remains, the longing to belong, the desire to be “at home”.

Today I was reading a talk by Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh. Thay invites us to come home to ourselves. To recognise our body as our first home.

I am not a friend to my body. I look after it, grudgingly, because this makes sense, but I do not love it. I have never felt comfortable inside this skin. Could this be the answer to my restless yearnings. To finally make friends with this oldest friend. The animal self waiting for acceptance. To breathe into the whole self and allow the earth to hold me?

I wonder if this work will bring me comfort, and finally, bring me home?

Starfish Story

Tiny blue flowers by the car park at work

We moved last October. This was a big one for us. Nearly 200 miles north west into the Midlands. We left my dad and two sons back in Kent, along with good friends and forty years of life and personal history

Arriving in late autumn gives a bleak introduction to a place… dank, damp and dark is the theme for much of British wintertime. The middle of the country is also murkier, grey skies more frequent.

Despite this we have found a good deal of beauty and begun the process of settling. It seems that by taking it one day at a time it’s possible to adjust to a new world. Baby steps.

The biggest shift for me has been in my work life. I found a job in our first month here and started work at a local care centre as activities coordinator. A background in teaching and admin has been a godsend.

You may have read that social care is a challenging sector to work in. I can vouch for that. For me there have been challenges around learning what the role entails, being a worker not a manager (I’ve been at the “top” of my previous profession for several years as an independent education consultant and specialist teacher). There have been challenges around being employed rather than self employed (turns out I have difficulty taking direction, who knew?) And around physical capacity in a job which needs you to be active and mobile for the majority of the day.

I have found it challenging that there is so much need, the end of life can be very hard. There are moments of joy and laughter too but some days the witnessing of pain feels overwhelming.

I have wanted to run away more than once, bury my head under a duvet and give in to gloom. What’s the point?

A story I read the other night is helping me see that there’s a different way to measure my success and effectiveness in this brave new world.

One day a man heads down to the beach for his daily walk. Down by the shore he sees a person dancing near the surf. As he draws nearer he sees it isn’t someone dancing after all but a young man who is picking up starfish from the sand and throwing them into the sea.

“What are you doing, friend?” Says the man. “Well the sun is rising, and the tide is turning, and soon these starfish will be stranded and they will dry out and die. I am throwing them back into the sea.”

“How foolish!” Said the man. “This beach goes on for miles and you can see there are hundreds, thousands, of starfish. You will never succeed! How can you make a difference to the power of the tide?”

The young man picked up another starfish and hurled it back into the sea. “Well I made a difference to that one.”

I may have told it wrong but you get the idea. Life is messy. Often we have to make impossible and life changing decisions. We feel powerless in the face of circumstances, we are so small and the forces around us so vast and impersonal.

But. The belief that we can create change, making a difference in small but meaningful ways.

This is the power of hope.

Private Lives

When did we stop having private lives?

I feel it must be linked on some level to social media. Once upon a time, in the eighties and nineties, I had a world in my head I never shared, except with a few trusted friends and my mother. Thoughts, dreams, daily happenings. Beautiful things glimpsed or moments of insight.

They came and went like the tides. I didn’t feel the need to pin them down or capture them for posterity. Maybe the odd scribble in a journal, or a photo when on holiday but nothing major.

It’s different now though, I see the world through my phone camera lens, everything can be captured and recorded. I take pictures everywhere. I wouldn’t invite strangers into my home but I’ll post pictures of my kitchen when I’ve been baking or my balcony plants on Sunday morning while in my pyjamas. I share thoughts and feelings. This is normal behaviour for me and millions of others. (The irony of writing a blog post to explore this isn’t lost on me.)

This is where my questions begin. The sharing can be positive, other people’s sharing can inspire me, make me feel closer to them, though often distant geographically. I can share with like minded souls on topics of interest, I have even made new friends.

On the other hand the desire to be “seen” and to conform is a powerful pull and not always helpful. I went to see an exhibition yesterday at the Herne Bay Museum, it was a series of sketches and paintings of the rebuilding of sea defenses made in 1980 to 1981. It reminded me that there was a time when we didn’t have social media and digital phone cameras. When glimpses of other people’s lives and day to day happenings was unusual and rare.

Maybe we collectively enjoy keeping tabs on each other. Maybe social media is a giant, global, curtain-twitch, “what are the neighbours up to?”

What I know it is a lot of work. Despite having cut my social media use and consumption dramatically I continue to spend hours each week checking and posting.

Of course I will lose out if I stop posting, I will miss seeing things that are interesting or important. I may lose touch with some people. I will be opting out of the party.

But there is, some days, just too much to pay attention to. My brain creaks under the stain of this constant flood of information, it becomes harder and harder to filter out what is needed, like a storm drain, dragging in sewage as well as rain water.

And there will be a life outside. A life of precious and unique moments just for me and those I am with, connected in time and space, the augmented reality of real, non-virtual life. Four dimensions and all the senses!

I haven’t yet found “the answer”. I’ve never believed it’s possible to turn back the clock, or particularly wanted to deny the positives of technology, which are many. For me the wondering is about how I use that technology.

On balance does it help or harm? On balance does it bring life, joy and peace, or tension, strain and anxiety?

What would it be like to have a private life again?

And am I brave enough to find out?

Spiralling the Centre

The Chartres labyrinth beside Eliot College, University of Kent. Photo F. Phillips

I met my first labyrinth in 2011. I was working at the Living Well, the diocesan healing centre for Canterbury Diocese. There is a small Cretan labyrinth in the garden there and I walked it regularly in the six months I was there. At the time my first marriage had just ended, and I found the journey of the labyrinth a mirror of my own journey into life as a newly single parent, the sense of the unknown as I journeyed inwards, the sense of comfort which came from trusting the path into the centre and the way it would take me out again.

In 2016 I took a workshop as part of a course of study. We walked labyrinths at Canterbury Christchurch University and at the University of Kent. At UKC we gathered on the grassed slopes of the labyrinth by Eliot College. We were told about the journey we make into the centre, and the way we can leave our concerns there, before experiencing our outward journey as a path of renewal. We were invited to pause before we stepped onto the path, to mentally shift from one way of being into sacred space. We were taught the etiquette of walking such a path with others, to step quietly to one side to allow others to pass, to walk in silence. We were invited to think of what we would leave in the centre, and, when we arrived there, gifted a word chosen from a bag to carry with us out into the world.

At the second labyrinth we walked by candlelight on a grass path in the autumn dusk. This was a completely different experience. The lack of light, the sense of shadow in between the candles, of a sometimes-invisible path brought a sense of risk. Reflecting back, I can see parallels with our life journey and with the practice of pilgrimage. Often, we walk in the darkness, unsure of our footing, unsure of our next steps. It takes determination, focus and courage to keep going when we are in this liminal space. Yet we are, often despite ourselves perhaps, carried safely into the centre of our initiation, and led back out into the world renewed.

That same autumn we walked a route which took us to many of the Medway Megaliths. In a grove of yew trees, we scratched a labyrinth in fallen leaves and walked it, that same sense of journey, of pilgrimage even there, in our rudimentary creation.

Walking a labyrinth is always different. I have walked the labyrinth at the University of Kent several times each year since 2016, often around the equinoxes or solstices, and the experience is ever changing. Each time I enter I bring different concerns, a different context, each time I walk I experience the sense of disorientation as the path twists and shifts. I focus on my feet, on next steps. Sometimes I notice dandelions in the grass, sometimes broken glass from student revels, or rabbit scrapes where they have been burrowing. Sometimes my mind and heart are quiet, sometimes full. This ritual has become an anchor in my year, something timeless and sacred.

A pebble labyrinth on the beach at Reculver. Photo F. Phillips.

Today we walked back to the Eliot College labyrinth for our final walk before our move. Usually when we walk it is early in the day, but today the sun was setting. This wasn’t planned, but seemed timely, our journey taken at the end of the day, a closing and surrender. We were not alone. A student sat on a bench on her phone, a mum with two young children on another, the boy practising keepy-uppies on the stone path. Eliot Pathway was busy with Sunday afternoon dog walkers and cyclists. I stopped at the entrance to the path and paused. Then stepping out I began my walk. My mind was occupied listening to other people’s conversations, sensing the cooling air, the golden light of the sun breaking through the trees when I turned towards the west. I noticed how lush the grass was after recent rain. I saw the path come close to the centre and then carry me far out to the very edges. I stepped with deliberation. At times I could only focus on the next step, at other moments I could see a few twists ahead of me. In the centre I paused, looking across the valley to the tower of the cathedral, framed between leafy trees. I thought about how my life has rested here for many years, and about the gift of that time and all that has been. I had carried a single acorn with me to this spot, and I placed it down onto the stone, planting the seed of my new life.

Then I spiralled my way back out, purposefully, trusting the path before my feet to take me to where I need to be. Pausing again on the grass slopes I looked back down to Bell Harry tower, to the spiral before me and then turned in search of new paths and coffee.

Memory’s garden

I drive over to the memorial garden.

It is a grey morning, the fields harvested are bare-brown and stubbly. Crows gather on telegraph lines and occasionally throw themselves into the sky like scraps of paper, wind-tossed and wild.

I am thinking about what is to have roots. If I am from anywhere then I’m from Kent. I’ve lived in this county for well over forty years. The soil has woven its way into my soul, the chalky downland, the wave-washed coasts, rivers and woods, orchards and hop gardens.

I am thinking about my family. As I drive towards Thanet I think of my mother, my grandparents, my forebears down through hundreds of years, coastal folk.

I wonder if when we move away, we lift our roots, then disagree, the roots are here, forever. We can’t dig them up, they are part of the land as much as they are part of our souls, a psycho-spiritual landscape where memory and dream weave with the landmarks and buildings.

I speak to the places I know as I pass, sending blessings when I pass the homes of friends and acquaintances, recalling events at different locations.

In the churchyard there is the noise of rustling, and at first, I think someone is busy with maintenance, clearing leaves and dead foliage. It is actually a host of squirrels busy about their seasonal task of preparing for winter, shushing the undergrowth and swaying the branches overhead in their work.

I take a seat and sit a while. It is a still place. Maybe it’s the silence of collective memory which blankets the grass, or the gentle sleep of the dead remembered here…I have seen the work of dying first-hand, and a rest is definitely deserved.

My respects paid to Mum and my grandparents I drive down to the McDonalds nearby. My heart is lighter now, as though I left something needful there among the stones and posies. Stepping into the restaurant bright music plays, teenagers giggle together in huddled groups, construction workers complain to each other about the pace of service.

The liveliness and warmth of the place is affirming, and I sit with a paper cup of coffee and soak up the vibrant atmosphere. This, today, is a beautiful reminder of the chaotic mess of life, the sorrow and the smiling, the heartache and the hope, always intertwining, dancing with each other.

The Bible says that in the midst of life we are in death, but I also know that in the midst of death, we are in life.

Baking My Life

My lemon drizzle

I’m sitting in bed on Sunday morning. The sun is just breaking the horizon, filtering through the leaves of the Norwegian Maple across the street.

I’m thinking about the muddle of life. The way plans and processes can be waylaid by unexpected happenings. Often events in a family, or health concerns, or the national economy.

One day we can be skipping along planning a holiday and what we’ll do over the Christmas week and the next we have broken an ankle or lost our job or our daughter has told us she’s dropping out of her marketing job and going to work as a ranch hand in Wyoming (for instance).

I am not good with messes. I had a tidy mother who liked order and neatness and passed that mindset on in her raising of me. The natural unpredictability of life makes me squirly and I struggle to accept changes as normal and not like I’ve blotted my copy book, my pristine plan splodged and Rorschach-smudged.

So sat here in the sun I’m talking with Jesus and Mother Mary about the current muddle. My tidy plan for my final weeks in Kent smudged with a sinus infection and black-dog mood music. My mind takes me to the cake I baked Friday, a lemon drizzle tray bake.

They show me the mixture in the bowl. The mess of flour, eggs and sugar, how disordered it is. And then the mixing, how all those ingredients get taken apart, muddled up, squidged.

That’s how you make a cake (like the proverbial omelette). You make a mess first. Then, apply heat and a gooey, sweet topping and voilà, something scrummy that couldn’t have existed without the goo.

And that’s it, my life as a cake mix simile. Now to see how this batch turns out.

Back to Nature

Photo by me October 2021

I’ve been listening to the podcast Blossom Trees and Burnt-Out Cars (highly recommended).

While I was listening, chopping veggies for lunch, wiping the work surfaces, mixing up some masala spices, my mind’s eye travelled back to my childhood.

The presenter was talking about being out in nature as a child, playing out around the estate where she grew up, and how she didn’t really think of this as being “in nature”.

It made me think about my childhood and teenage years. I played out on the estate where we lived as a pre-teen, riding my bikes around the pathways and alleys, over the grassed areas and sometimes going down to the trees in Binney Lane (the only patch of woodland in our village on the Isle of Grain) and climbing trees. When we moved to Canterbury we would often be down at the river, climbing under the bridge or paddling and squeamishly afraid of the leeches. I didn’t connect those experiences particularly with nature, they were just what we did.

As a teenager I spent many days with friends out and about around the local countryside on our bikes, we would pedal for miles, me and Lisa and Jalea. They were older than me so I never felt worried or threatened. I would walk on my own up to the woods to wander there, again not really feeling I was “out in nature” just being.

It wasn’t until I was in my thirties with children of my own and going for walks with a well-heeled friend and their dogs that “going for a walk” became a thing. I can see how being a “nature person” particularly in England can sometimes be seen as an upper- and middle-class pursuit. For us the only way we could take part in these walks was because we now had a car, having not had one for the first decade of our family life. It isn’t possible to access a lot of wild places without a car, bus routes tend to link towns and villages, not isolated woodlands or heath. I can see, as the podcast explored, how for many people, getting some “green” can be a challenge.

In my early forties I came home to paganism. At the time I felt it was something new, but looking back I can see that I’ve always enjoyed the natural world, always been connected, I just had to remember that.

Even living in a second floor flat I’ve been able to maintain that sense of enjoyment, watching the magpies on the roofs of the garage blocks behind us, the changes in the stand of sweet chestnuts which hug the left-hand wall of our building, spying bats hunting at dusk outside our balcony, and nurturing flowers, herbs and veg in pots.

What are your earliest memories of nature? What is your story of life with the green world?