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 voilĂ , 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?

Faversham Stone Chapel

I love exploring ancient sites. Since reconnecting with the old ways six years ago I’ve felt a greater affinity with these ancestral places. Maybe its a romantic imagination, I love to picture the people who were here before, their daily lives, the thoughts which inspired them to create their sacred spaces.

The path runs through farmland close to the London Road

We parked in Four Oaks Road and took a short walk back to the main road and then followed the signpost across a wheat field to the site. Today is the start of our next heatwave so we arrived around half seven in the morning.

Into the trees

The site was shaded by a small grove of trees. Sheep called from a nearby field and the wheat whispered its harvest song.

The Chapel incorporates an earlier Roman Mausoleum, the only known site to do this in the country. You can tell which part of the building this is by the red brick tiles in the walls. It is a uniform square section, with the Saxon and medieval additions clear from differences in the wall’s construction.

Part of the mausoleum wall.

The site is managed by English Heritage and free to access. Sensible footwear is advisable and as with all ancient sites be aware of uneven ground and leave as you find.

Definitely worth a look if you are passing by.

Into the edges

Liminal Space. Image from BlackDog1966 on Pixabay.

My words woke up this week. It’s been months of silence, something brewing beneath the surface of the soul. I could feel it there, a lump in the belly, an itch in the brain, but it wouldn’t come out.

It’s awake now.

Change comes suddenly. I went back into employment two weeks ago. I want to say I went back to work, but that isn’t true because I have worked consistently on a self-employed basis for the past three yeras. I went back to work in school.

It’s a necessity for us right now to provide for our household, it’s also good for my mental wellbeing to interact with other humans.

That shift has brought unexpected outcomes. There is obviously less time available for other things in the week, I don’t know why this surprised me but it did. Being out in a workplace for three days is time consuming, who knew?

Then there’s the shift in energy. Interacting with others all day and moving around a large campus is tiring, especially when you haven’t done that for years. Again this has been surprising (maybe because I was ten years younger last time I did it?)

But there’s something else too. The long silence is broken. I am awake on an inner level that has been missing, as though the edges of a working day have reflected something back to me which defies everyday language without such borders.

It has led me to see that my own spiritual self has shifted into a new space, something sensed but not seen previously. That the myths I had been living by are no longer for me. I am ready to step out again into an exploratory space. For the past six years I have been following a consciously pagan path, beginning with new age practices, travelling through eclectic witchcraft and druidry with a detour to visit with Buddhism for a while.

Now I find that there is something else at the forefront. No gods or goddesses, they have waved me off into the wild, liminal lands. I don’t yet know what to call this. There is some animism there, and ancestor connection. It feels very old, like the space inside a longbarrow, or a cave, deep and dark, rooted.

The oddest thing is that it is a place with few requirements. There is no need for complex ritual, daily practices, rules or creeds. It simply is. The world is. Nature is and within that I am. Nothing to prove, climb, achieve, explain, it is just here. Now.

This feels risky. I am so used to sprituality which requires fulfilment; the conformity of church or the occult knowledge and practices of esoteric traditions. What will it be like to simply live, connected to life’s web, one of her children.

What will it be like to abandon the modern individualistic teaching of uniqueness and accept my microscopic place in the vastness of creation. To allow myself to be unexceptional, the gift of the ordinary?

Can I even manage or it, or, like an addict, will I jump back into patterns and routines which shore up my ego and need for conformity, losing my soul self in the need for validation?

I guess we’ll see.

July 1st

The world is tired.

I look out of the window onto a blowy, sun-soaked afternoon.

Nine days ago I was astonished by the rich, lush, vibrant, freshness of midsummer.

Now it’s finished. The grass is bleached yellow, exhausted, leaves beginning to crisp at the edges. While berries are blistering from spent flowers, a green shining of promise.

Sweet chesnut flowers finger their way into the sunlight while leaves are already littering the pavement, scorched by the too-much sun.

In the street students are packing their cars, boxes and carrier bags stuffed with desk lamps and scatter cushions. Outside the tenanted houses piles of rubbish abandoned next to overflowing wheelie bins.

They are onto their next adventure, no looking back.

Meanwhile I find myself thinking often of the past. How twenty one years ago I moved with a husband and two small boys back to Kent, though I had been very happy in our home away from home. How that relationship waxed and waned and tore apart. How the intervening years have brought new life, adventures, love and deep connections. How I have healed and found a self long lost.

Time flows like a river in flood.

Yesterday I met a friend, we haven’t seen each other for a few years, life and family filling the gap. We were totally at ease and spent a happy few hours catching up, sharing our stories, our learnings, as we ease into midlife. Today I realised I have known her for twenty five years. This seems ridiculous. That is a quarter century. Yet we met when my eldest son was three months old and he was twenty five in January so it must be so.

Twenty five years.

Over the past year I have come increasingly to sense this passing of time. Before I would spend hours musing on what I would do in the future, where I would live, the career I might have. Or day-dreaming new projects and plans. These seemed essential, I was driven to achieve them, believing they would bring that elusive sense of arrival which I felt I lacked. The sense of being where I was “supposed” to be, perhaps, of fulfilling some pre-ordained task, a life’s purpose.

That desire has vanished now. These days I do not have grand plans or wild day dreams. I long for the ordinary, quiet routines. I thirst for time in the natural world, for the sense of connection which comes from listening to the trees, or watching a squirrel at work. For the first time I read Mary Oliver’s poem The Summer Day , and hear her final question differently.

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

Once I felt this was a challenge to great aspirations. To solving global dilemmas, conquering mountains, climbing the career ladder, achieving peak experiences by the fistful.

Now I feel that it asks, well what else is there to do? Other than to soak in the beauty of this wild, precious world? To share stories with loved ones? To follow a bee through the meadow? To stand barefoot in the freezing sea?

To stare, mute, at the orange moon as she rises?

Baby I was born this way

I talk with my fingers. It is much easier for me to express myself often through a keyboard than through speech. Somehow it bypasses the bit of my brain that wants to censor myself. Over the past six years since I started writing on The Moonlit Path Blog it has been a haven and a joy, I have rediscovered my voice after years of keeping it hidden.

In the past two weeks I’ve been recovering from a flare up of RSI. This, it seems, is part of a larger physical capacity issue that I’ve been attempting to dodge for the past fourteen years. I have retrained four times in that period, attempting to find a way to work which brings in some income while allowing me to live as healthily as possible.

I can’t dodge it any longer.

I am (temporarily I hope!) silenced, as I avoid my keyboard. I find that without it the words don’t come, before I sat down here there were no words, yet as I type they float to the surface, eager to wriggle into the light and onto the screen.

I am giving up my muggle business in order to be able to keep some capacity for writing and the simple tasks of daily life with a wonky body. I have to rest much more than I would like to be able to function. I am not particularly tired or unwell, my body simply won’t do what I would like it to or work in a way that was formerly “normal”.

I wonder what a life without a “proper” job will look like, apart from the shifts in practical consideration (adapting to financial circumstances etc) what will the days look like? I like to be “useful”, purposeful. What will I “do” when I can’t use my limbs reliably? Perhaps everyone who lives with disability faces this, I know my mother did. How to find your place in the world when your capacity is “other”.

It will also be, I expect, given time, great gift. While I feel that I should be enthusiastically heading off with a fistful of plans it feels like a quiet time. I have crossed my Rubicon. Acceptance comes slowly, my biggest challenge is to overcome expectations I hold of myself and my output in the world.

My writer’s block and limited capacity has led to a silence. A pause to say goodbye to one way of life, as I spend these weeks wrapping up my business and a whole way of working. A moment to breathe after pushing myself further than I ought to, to own my body and her needs as she is.

Baby, I was born this way.

Life, Death and After Life

Once upon a time I went to church. I tried to be a good Christian. From somewhere I had learned that God was like Santa, seeing me when I was waking or sleeping and knowing even my most secret thoughts.

I worked hard to police my mind, attempted to have the right beliefs which would, eventually, mean that I would pass the entrance test and be accepted into heaven.

I was always uncomfortable with the idea of hell. It didn’t feel right, somehow, it felt too human. I didn’t want to believe in a God who would punish people for eternity. That didn’t seem very god-like, or merciful, or forgiving. I struggled to believe in this God who you could piss off potentially without knowing why; it felt two-faced, like mean girls in the classroom, one minute your friend and the next giving you the cold shoulder.

Aged thirty-five my health took a turn for the worse and I was told I’d had a stroke. The realisation of mortality hit me, a reality hangover. I am mortal. I had always been one to look ahead, to make plans. That tendency seemed foolish now. My brain was tricksy and false, it could, at any moment, decide to suffocate itself, and that would be that.

The immediacy of living day by day came into sharp focus.

It was around this time that I finally gave up on hell. Later I would learn that hell is a Platonic idea, growing out of the Hellenic world of first century Christianity. It seemed odd that I had believed a borrowed idea for so long.

Life wound on, I continued to believe in the idea of an independent existence of the consciousness after death. I had been brought up to believe this, and it brought a degree of comfort.

In my early forties another major life shift came with a further health breakdown and the news of my mum’s terminal illness. I felt my death again, whispering of endings, sitting gothically in the corner holding an hour glass, or tapping its watch meaningfully. I was up against it! Time to get on with life dammit! Life is for living, decide, right this instant what you want to do and get on with it, create something meaningful, achieve something spectacular, this instant, no time to waste!

I stopped going to church and began working with earth-based spiritual practices. I learned about the Summerland and ideas of reincarnation, that the soul lives on, existing in a new form after physical death. I wanted to believe in these ideas, I knew many people who did, many I respected and whose teachings I valued. I tried to bend my mind the right way, and then gave up and tried to have the kind of faith which simply “knew” a teaching to be true. I felt confused, so many options, I felt that I was moving towards some form of end-of-life test, that I had to work out which option I believed in, immortality multiple choice, before I got there. That I was facing an after-life entrance exam and had no way to know what the topics would be. As mum’s life drew to a close I felt cut adrift, floating in a void, none of my former beliefs remaining to anchor me, none of my newer ways of working providing answers.

In the moments after my mum’s death I had a vision of her on a sandy beach in a tropical climate. She was young again, perhaps in her twenties, and waving at me. I had a strong sense that she was safe and happy. I don’t know what this experience was, whether some kind of wishful thinking or a channelled message from an ethereal beyond. In any case it brought me comfort.

In the year since her death I have pondered often on loss and longing. I can no longer see her physically but I feel that our relationship continues, not as some kind of ghostly presence, but in the person she taught me to be, in her legacy; the best way to roast potatoes, how to organise a kitchen cupboard, putting on a bit of perfume or a favourite pair of earrings to cheer yourself up, coping with low moods but setting yourself small tasks, caring for plants, loving cats, looking after family.

This week the buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hahn passed away. Thay taught that although the physical body ends, the departed one “continues”. He wrote that although one day he would die, he would continue; in his books, his disciples, his teachings. That despite the end of one form of being the energy which had been his living form would transform and continue.

I find this teaching helpful. At this point in my life I do not believe that my individual consciousness will continue after physical death. But the essence of me will continue. The atoms which form this body will be transformed and become part of the universe, dancing in the air, wriggling in the earth. Each interaction I have shared with another being will remain, whether consciously recalled or not, each word spoken, each thought exchanged. I will live on in my children, and maybe one day in their children. I will live on in each person I have ever taught. In words I have written. In seeds planted.

This gives me focus for my life now. What legacy do I want to create? Do I want to leave harsh words behind or the energy of friendship and kindness? Do I want to build up a large bank account or spend time helping in my community? It isn’t always a plain cut choice, I am no saint, but this beautiful thought of continuation gives me a sense of peace and possibility.

I never wanted to die, I love the earth too much to leave. I always felt that it would be a great sadness to be taken from this beautiful home to some heavenly temple where (according to one church I attended) I would have to sing hymns all day (I didn’t like singing hymns!).

Now I know that I won’t need to. I believe in a very concrete sense the earth is my mother. I am made from the same elements which make up the earth, I am one step in a long line of creatures living on this planet, evolving and adapting generation by generation. The earth is my first and final home. I will remain here, returning to the mother’s embrace, and become reborn by her craft, woven anew into the fabric of space and time. Eternal life is now. Continuing. Timeless.