Summer reflections

14 08 2022

Two projects are complete this summer and we will now pause for a brief break before we start courses again in the autumn.

Rarely do I take the opportunity to look back. I’m always too busy preparing for the next course, the next project, the next steps. Forward momentum has propelled our small social enterprise ever since we started with just two referred people more than six years ago.

A cool walk through the woods gave me some time to reflect backwards for a change. Walking the same woods where once I wandered and wondered whether I could create a project where people could come to connect with horses and feel their mystery and magic. A project which didn’t compromise my horses’ well-being or my own values. Walking these paths made me see how my path has brought me almost full circle.

I see how caught up I have been, too busy making things work to look up, too enmeshed in all the details and elements that go into putting something new into the world.

In the beginning, I cared for my fledgling project, fed it, looked after it, and on the walk this week I saw that I had almost forgotten I could allow myself to pause, step back a pace or two and watch it fly.

There are have been many beautiful moments of connection between the 40 or so people who have joined one of our weekly recovery retreats this summer. Each retreat has created its own unique feeling and I have learned something new from each circle.

I have learned that taking time to listen and be heard is one of the simplest, kindest and strongest acts of humanity we can offer each other. I have been moved to tears by the openness of strangers who arrive with feelings of anxiety and fear of judgement, and leave with feelings of hope and lightness.

The horses, and especially Dragonfly, who has been quietly present in every session, have revealed new subtle depths. They have helped people to feel more secure and at ease in themselves and they have enabled people to support each other.

Each time we have gathered in a compassion circle, we have drawn strength, solace and solidarity from each other. We have grown in our sincere wish to learn how to understand ourselves better.

In his wonderfully wise book The Compassionate Mind, Paul Gilbert writes that we can learn to shift our attention to things that we appreciate, that stimulate pleasure and other nice feelings in us. He says that when we do this deliberately then we are changing our brain patterns from the threat/self-protection system to a system that benefits our well-being.

This summer we have taken the time to appreciate the horses as horses. We have asked little of them. We have let them make their own choices on their own terms. They have responded by choosing to join our circle. In May, during the very first circle, Dragonfly chose to enter and to delicately fold his legs and lower himself down to the ground where he lay in peaceful rest while the group gasped in wonder.

So much truth, pain and beauty have been expressed in our bell tent and must remain private. Some words still resonate, though, and reading through the transcripts of recordings we made of people’s experiences, this one rings clear as a bell.

I’ve changed today. Like, I don’t just want to say it matters I had a really nice time and enjoyed it, but I’ve changed. Genuinely I’ve changed I said earlier, didn’t I, the light switch has been off for months – maybe like a year, probably – and yeah nothing, nothing was shifting it. I would never have left home, but for the fact that horses were here and that made me say, come on! You can do it! And, what do you know, the light switch is back on! It’s given me hope. Honestly, I know who I am again.

The gift of knowing ourselves, of finding the light switch to illuminate our true being, there is no greater gift than this. We have all found a beam of light in each other this summer and I know this will help to support and hold us when the days start to darken again in the days to come.

Skylarking about

24 04 2022

You cannot easily photograph skylarks. Magicians of the air, they fly too fast and too high for my fumbling human fingers to capture. Not much to look at with their curious flat bodies when spread on the ground, Skylarks are birds of the ear. They visit the horses’ meadow every spring and this year I am noticing them more. Or maybe there are more of them because the meadow is so full of song.

The birds have always proved difficult to pin down. Wordsworth devoted two poems to the skylark and like many who wanted to understand the lark’s secrets, addresses the bird itself.

“Ethereal minstrel! Pilgrim of the sky!”

There is a hint of envy in Wordsworth’s delicate portrait of the bird who gives him the run around by being simultaneously out all the time, partying in the wild air, and snuggled close in his comfy ground nest. Only poets believe nests which are mere hollows of clay earth are enviable, but I sense a joyousness in skylarks and even a kind of mischief.

I was using less poetic language as I dived about with my camera trying to find a way to creatively frame a bird who is essentially invisible. As I was thinking of various compositions, a few paces ahead a skylark felt my approach and flew up from under me, whistling into the sky. I watched ‘him’ (always him in 18th century poetry) go. Here he is a perfect metaphor for my life. While I am planning what to do when I find him, he is already waiting. He is way ahead.

Tennyson sums it up with these sublime lines. “How far he seems, how far with the light upon his wings. Is it a bird, or star that shines and sings?

A star of the sky that sings his little heart out. He won’t let me photograph him, but he will let me into his world of exquisite sound if I can be bothered to listen. He sings as he climbs, his notes like ascending scales. His song doesn’t need to be this glorious, and yet, impossibly, and unmistakably it is.

Described by the poet James Hogg as an “emblem of happiness,” the skylark has taught me something. Hold nothing back. Sing with all your heart. Follow him and pour your heart into unpremeditated art. Shelley has the last word.

A gentle warrior

4 03 2022

Twenty years ago this remarkable horse came into my life. I was not looking for a colt of just 8 months old. I was ready to bring on a youngster and had already started with a four-year-old gelding who was destined to become my riding horse.

Life has an uncanny way of giving you what you need rather than what you want. A few months into watching Sheranni feed vigorously from his dam and canter around the parkland where he spent his first year, I was intrigued. Not yet smitten, but curious enough to drop my plans of training the lovely iron grey gelding and take this exquisite oyster pink colt under my wing.

Our first outing was memorable. A couple out walking their dog stopped to admire Sheranni whose striking turquoise blue eye drew comparisons to David Bowie, and commented on his liveliness. ‘Rather you than me,’ the woman said.

Many outings later, I would remember her words as I lay on my bed drenched in sweat, thinking: this horse is going to kill me. Not that Sheranni was dangerous – he simply went at every single task I gave him with 1,000 percent of his energy. Because he held nothing back, that meant steep learning curve lessons for me. I had to get fit, fast and firm in body, mind and spirit. I had to learn how to give more of my energy to match his.

As I began working with him on the ground, taking him for long walks with his companion Dragonfly, and then introducing him to saddle, our lessons became mutual opportunities for growth. Together we learned the language of each other. There were many mistranslations along the way, including the thrills and spills of fast riding. Once when galloping up a hill on Woodbury Common I somersaulted over Sheranni’s head after he stumbled into a rabbit hole. He deposited me perfectly intact on the ground and waited for me to get back on so we could continue our race with a huge Irish draught horse. His rider said she had never seen a horse run as fast as Sheranni. Indeed, until I took Sheranni out, I had never ridden a horse who travelled like a comet.

As well as his physical attributes of earth-spinning speed and agility, Sheranni’s personality of gentleness combined with his phenomenal intelligence and spirit are an equal part of his being. As he matured, he became not exactly slower, but more considered in his approach in both body and mind. I recognise this transformation in myself. Adventurous and spontaneous in my younger years when I travelled and worked in newsrooms as a journalist, I was always on some sort of mission. I see the Sheranni in me. Now we have ridden so many miles of experience together, I see how our lives have become profoundly intertwined.

We both work differently now. And we both draw on our life experiences. In Recovery Education sessions, Sheranni is consistently present, curious and deeply calm. He has a way of touching people in their most tender and shielded places and he invites softening. People smile and feel relief around him. They trust him. He has been there, stoic and stable, as people have unlocked grief on to his shoulder and shared secrets into his neck, stories they have carried unspoken for years. Sheranni has held them all with grace, compassion and wisdom.

He also supports people, especially women, to connect to their power, make clear requests and stand their ground. His work in this arena has supported people to find new insights. One woman spoke of a ‘huge electricity’ surging through her whole body and a newfound awareness when she connected to him. He is a teacher and friend to many. Of all the many gifts Sheranni offers, the simplest is joy. For he radiates a warm, relaxed happiness and can spare it enough so that others can feel it too. After encounters with Sheranni, people say they feel better in themselves than they have done in years. I do not know how he does it, and I never take it for granted, but I know the emotions he inspires most are love and hope.

It has been a unsettled month. I have been dismayed to watch the events unfold in the Ukraine, the conflict and devastation of a courageous nation is heart-breaking. Listening to the news and reports of people leaving their homeland, clutching wide-eyed children with only a small bag and their cats makes me wonder why the lessons of the Second World War and the obliteration of Polish cities, the very places that are now welcoming refugees, have not been learned. Still, I cling to slivers of love and hope in the stories of resistance.

Personally, things have been a bit turbulent. In February, Sheranni was booked to have two teeth removed and I had to cancel the procedure twice, the first Friday I tested positive for Covid, and the second Friday Storm Eunice visited and flattened our barn. In truth, I was grateful for those cancellations because it gave me time to mentally prepare for the extractions. If you have had a tooth pulled out, you will know it is one of the most brutal procedures you can go through. It feels frankly medieval. I must admit I blanched when the vet arrived this morning and took ten minutes to unload the kit he would need, including a rather strange looking padded lectern, which I later found out was used to prop up Sheranni’s head so that the vet could work inside his mouth.

I am not the best dental patient, and I felt every twist and wrench of this extraction. I tried not to imagine the worst – the tooth splitting or shattering before it was pulled free – and thanks to the patience and professionalism of Jamie, all went well. In truth, the hardest part was stopping Sheranni from immediately eating hay while he was still semi-sedated.

Now he is moving around the field as if nothing had occurred and I am camping out in case he needs me. Of course he doesn’t. It is, of course, me who needs him and I suspect it has always been that way. I need this horse to stay strong, spirited and well. I will this for him every day with every fibre of my being. As the muse who inspired my work at Horsemanship for Health, he gives me purpose and energy. I want no more from life than to keep learning and Sheranni helps me every day to do just that. He is the best mortal being I have ever had the privilege to know. I salute him as the gentle warrior he is.

Leading with Love

30 01 2022

So what does creative and ethical leadership truly mean to me? This challenging question preoccupied me as I prepared to give a talk to business students at Falmouth University this week.

I could have written a whole chapter on the subject, but seeing as I had under an hour, I tried to distill the essence of what I believe ethical leadership demands of not only social entrepreneurs, but anyone who starts something they believe in.

Being fair, consistent, clear and transparent in my actions is important. I learned this lesson in leadership early on from my school students who would not tolerate any hint of unethical conduct, especially being inconsistent which would be immediately met with: ‘But you said (no homework, we could have extra time, music on…..etc) Miss!’ I learned from them never to make promises I could not keep, even tiny ones.

Leading with an open mind. I learned this as I started to work as a professional writer. When I was recording interviews, I learned to keep my own views and opinions to myself. To let people shine, you need to create space for their thoughts to surface and bloom. You need to guide this delicate process and not get in the way.

Providing breathing space is not something we associate with dynamic leadership. But if I think of how refreshing it is to feel that you can take whatever time you need to explain something that matters to you, I know this is important.

To be an ethical leader, you need to let your team know that you have their best interests at heart. You are concerned for their happiness. You want them to bring their whole self to the work and put their whole heart into it because you know, having travelled this path before them, that there’s a certain feeling of vitality and energised consciousness that comes with truly rewarding work. This has nothing to do with salary, roles or status. It has everything to do with loving your work.

There must be no hidden agendas. I avoid formal staff meetings with items to be ticked off an agenda. The reason is because I cannot recall any of the content of these meetings even half an hour afterwards.

Not having meetings saves a lot of energy for creativity. In the early days of creating Horsemanship for Health, we found we came up with our best ideas when we were grooming the horses or tackling yard jobs. Often we would be racing to the shed to write these ideas down and capture the good feeling of working in the moment. Conventional meetings are airless to me. Instead I make room for creative discussions which are recorded and, most importantly, acted on.

Ethical Leadership has its challenges, though, and when you begin a new company everything is challenging. The temptation is to cut corners and this never pays off. Taking time to do things properly is the only way to sleep at night knowing you have done everything you possibly could. I learned this from 20 years of looking after horses and lying awake wishing I had taken a little longer over something I rushed because I was tired. Not sleeping soundly is a worse form of tiredness than being so tired you haven’t got the energy to worry. It has taken me years to fully understand this!

Being an ethical leader above all means being honest about your own limits and capacity. I may have energy to burn on some days, other days I need to go home and rest. Leaders who drive themselves to exhaustion, and I saw many of these guys when I worked on newspapers, including one young chap who memorably spent the night with his arms around his keyboard, are leaders in need of support.

An unsupported leader cannot take joy in their work. I know the support I have in my work is vital for me. Support comes in many forms, and is not just practical human help. It may be a feeling of goodwill from afar. An upbeat phone call, a new commission, a warm day when all feels right with the world.

It is possible to do a lot of good in the world and end up disillusioned. Ethical leaders notice when things are going well and they take time to acknowledge the myriad factors that make good work possible.

Finally, ethical leaders share their work and encourage others. They do not feel the need to hoard or protect their ideas. They know their own worth is not measured by the amount of wealth they have accumulated in the bank, but by the flow of creative ideas that leads to new opportunities and connections. An ethical leader is aware that the source of creativity is limited only by their own temporary blindness.

Clear View

20 11 2021

Every day is an opportunity to view things differently. Every day we can choose another lens through which to view the world and all that lives within. I wonder why it is that we cling so fiercely to our narrow perspectives?

My feeling is that it feels safe to travel along the same familiar route. It feels comforting to always know what you think, to have a readymade opinion on everything. How refreshing it could be to live without having to remember to have an opinion on anything at all! To simply consider every situation as it occurs with fresh, clear eyes. This is how birds live.

Yesterday I tested a robin’s nerve by placing a small cube of cheese on the wooden picnic table where the bird could see it. The robin assessed the situation for a few moments and saw that it was not without danger. There were two hungry hounds on either side of the picnic table. The robin timed his flight, swept in and carried off the cheese so swiftly and beautifully it made everyone present smile. Here was a moment of simple decision making that required little effort.

Contrast the slow and awkward way we get around to doing things. Using our opinions as crutches when we really don’t know what to do. It’s hard, though, to realise opinions do not matter when you have spent years carefully curating a point of view. Opinions feel like life and death. The most opinionated often win, not because their opinions are superior, but because the very act of holding onto an opinion takes tenacity. The opinionated are terriers with a juicy idea between their teeth. Try to take it away and they snap.

All conflict is rooted in differences of opinion, in blind stubbornness in some form. Try tackling it head on and it digs in deeper. No side can win. It means years of deadlock. I’m thinking of the situation between Russia and Ukraine, Israel and Palestine, government and business policy makers and climate change campaigners. The differences between France and the UK, all defined by opinion masquerading as truth.

In all situations of conflict there is a place where both sides recognise each other, where they see the other in themselves. The ability to pause and consider the consequences of our strong points of view is not admired as much as a powerful argument. But in pausing, in taking a moment to think of the way our words or actions might land on another, we take a radical step away from our sheltered opinions and into something much deeper and wider.

In stepping away from certainty and into the big unknown, we encounter all the limitless alternatives we need to create a world that is not defined by those who push hardest. We don’t need stronger opinions. We need a robin’s piercing clarity of vision.

Full Circle

31 10 2021

I have just completed a series of circle recovery retreats and I am in awe at the beauty of the human spirit. The ability to bear witness to our own pain and suffering and to offer this without fear of judgement or shame is one of the bravest steps we can take as human beings.

Every compassion circle I have facilitated over the past year has offered fresh insights into what makes us die as human beings and what makes us live. Being seen for who we are, being heard, being in the presence of horses who accept us without reservation. Being under the safe wing of a bell tent, laughing and crying under an ever changing sky with birds acknowledging our presence with their freedom. Mostly, though, what has helped is being with others who understand.

The work of compassion is not easy and not always predictable. Circles create their own identity and this is one of the most thrilling edges of the work. The container is simple. People are invited to speak from the heart and to witness others speaking from the heart. Be brief, share only what feels safe and resist the temptation to rehearse. Resist also the temptation to comment as people speak. Instead invite witnessing.

People have been telling stories around camp fires ever since they could communicate and the circle is an ancient practice that is still central to many native cultures. In Britain if you sit people in a circle of chairs and ask them to start sharing from the heart, most people would prefer to run screaming from the room.

In truth, I don’t truly know why compassion circles are different. I know only that I was educated extremely well by one of the masters of the art. Thank you Joe Provisor who has pioneered this work in the United States. I know also that this work of the heart is utterly compelling and asks me to look deeply at my own heart. In putting this work into my own community, I have been moved, humbled and inspired by the stories I have witnessed.

Speaking our truth to others requires courage, but also requires a willingness to let go of our usual stories about ourselves. These standard stories are old stereotypes that follow narrow scripts. They usually start with limited ideas and safe roles that we have either assigned to ourselves or have assigned to us by others. The role of the care-giver, the responsible one, the one who puts others first without thinking: is this a role I truly want to inhabit right now? The work of compassion teaches us to listen deeply to our own sorrow, to understand our own pain and suffering so that we might become equal to others. In contrast, a caretaker merely gives out.

My journey to compassion facilitation first began with Socratic Circles which invite deep philosophical enquiry into the nature of human identity. While I loved these circles, and learned so much from my students, both young and senior, I always longed for a more personal way to work with the raw material of life. I longed for a more open and creative container.

The beauty of the Compassion Circle is that it is flexible enough to hold any story offered to it. It is, I have come to see, also robust and strong enough to initiate the work of deep cleaning the wounds we all bear. In speaking we are healing what needs to come out into the clean air. In our last circle, we talked about the sludge and debris that collects around our hearts when we have suffered extreme pain and how the work of cleaning is so hard to do when we must live normal lives.

Thanks to the courage of the circle participants I see how normal, standardised life actually prevents healing because of the ways we are often educated by society. We are taught that our stories of suffering do not matter. We are taught that being successful, wealthy and normal matter more. We are taught to numb and bury our pain. Meanwhile our hearts are breaking. Our hearts are searching for the health they have been denied.

Being with horses has taught me that we can find health in natural, simple places. In poet and philosopher Mark Nepo’s words we can find solace in the great net of things that surrounds us in the living, breathing world. Once we take the exquisite risk to leap into authentic living, the world enfolds us in ways we would not expect. As we talked of celebration, I shall never forget the sound of hooves flying past the tent and the sight of Dragonfly, tail high, cantering up the field. I also shall not forget the deep sense of companionship and comradeship that can happen when people arrive with their true selves, unmasked, beautiful and free.

Field of Awareness

29 08 2021

Here I am with my earnest intentions. On beautiful mornings, I will meditate with the horses. I will sit in the sun, take my seat and spruce up my mind. It will be great.

As soon as I arrive, find my mindfulness app with the perfect bell set not too high, not too low, Tinker makes contact. You are absorbed in something, she says, which is of interest to me. You are accessible therefore I will come to keep you company. At the same time you will provide a handy sun shade and provide fly relief when I put my head between your knees. This is great.

I am committed to meditation and distractions are good for working on your commitment. I begin. Tinker lowers her head and breathes with me. We enter into a state of blissful connection. I am at peace. I hear wild geese passing over the stubble field and, in the distance, church bells. This is great. Just what I came for.

Tinker gets restless and pushes her head against my arm. The flies are annoying her again and I am very useful in rubbing them off. Her eyes are itchy and my knees make good bony scratching posts.

I look at my timer. I’m halfway through my meditation and I have achieved about five seconds of settled breathing. The rest of the time my attention has been on Tinker’s antics. This is not so great but in many ways it mirrors my life. How many times have I tried to dedicate quiet time for meditation or reflection? How many times have I failed and given up in frustration?

I wonder what I need to learn here? Do I keep trying or find something else to do with my precious time? I’m working on my inner life here and I have flies in my boots and a pony eating the plastic box upon which I have taken my seat.

The answer is obvious now that I see it. I need to lighten up and let go of the need to find a perfect outcome. My meditation looks and feels like my life. Of course, it does. Why should I be surprised? The very marrow of meditation as I understand it from the Buddhist tradition is not to clean your mind but to really be present to your life and read it for what it is.

Whatever is in my life will also change. After a few moments of unsettled inquisitiveness, Tinker moves off to find something more interesting and Sheranni takes her place.

I take a deep breath. He breathes with me. We stay connected breathing in and out. His presence is strong and tender. You don’t need to get it perfectly right, he says. You just need to breathe.

Burn Yourself Out

11 07 2021

There is so much to love about Buddhist Philosophy, I keep turning to it every time I get stuck or lost or confused. When I say ‘turn to it,’ that makes it sound as if I spend my spare time leafing through Buddhist texts looking for bright jewels of wisdom to illuminate my day. In reality, it goes something like this:

Question: Will you prepare a workshop on Zen Philosophy for the Sixth Form?

Answer: Sure! (inside voice: when the hell will I find time to do that extra thing in an already crowded week?)

Three days before workshop: I’ve forgotten everything I knew about Zen. I need to read something quick and easily digestible because I don’t have time to read anything slowly and properly. Why did I agree to do this? I’m tired of doing seven things at once. I wish I could just sit down and read some Zen and really find some nourishment in it instead of having to teach stuff all the time. I’m tired of teaching. I’m tired of spending hours preparing material that is eaten up in seconds. I’m tired.

I choose three books on Zen. I light a candle. I sit down with my notebook. My hound lies across my feet and I begin to relax for what feels like the first time in seven months. I take a deep breath. I remind myself that I once fell in love with Zen. This bit of time for research will be like visiting an old friend.

I pick up the weightiest book, the most serious and scholarly book. Just the thought of it makes me want to take a seven year snooze. I put the big book down and turn to the lightest slip of a book. I start to go through it and I see that there are pencil underlinings on almost every page. I start to get excited. I’ve done some work with this little book already. I don’t have to start at the beginning. I’m halfway there.

I read this:

‘In order not to leave any traces, when you do something, you should do it with your whole body and mind; you should be concentrated on what you do. You should do it completely, like a good bonfire. You should not be a smoky fire. You should burn yourself completely. Zen activity is activity which is completely burned out, with nothing remaining but ashes. This is the goal of our practice.’

Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. Shunryu Suzuki

I feel as if a curtain has parted in my mind, showing me a place I rarely visit. This place is clean, cool, uncluttered. There is nothing in this space except truth. No trace. I’m immediately gripped by the idea. I see that it is the opposite of what most people consider burn out. I see that working at something with full attention is clean work. I also see that when I work, I sometimes leave dirty little traces. The need for acknowledgement, the need for some sort of reward, the need for approval. Like many people, I think a pat on the back for a job well done is a good thing.

Zen doesn’t teach morality. It doesn’t say: don’t work for approval, praise or recognition. It says, in its wonderful Zen-like way, just do your work fully. Leave nothing undone. No loose ends, no corners cut, no nonsense about it being too hard or boring or inconvenient. Sit down and read your book. Take your pencil and make your notes. Write. When you need a mind break, get up and make a cup of tea, finish the job, prepare the workshop and when you have given the workshop, don’t linger waiting for feedback, just move onto the next thing.

I’ve been playing with the Zen way of work for a couple of weeks now, and I already I feel the difference in how I approach tasks. I do them with a lot less effort because I’m not so focused on the outcome. I’m not looking at what comes next. Whether it’s approaching a horse to put on a halter, playing games with a pony, or planning our sessions and long-term curriculum, I’m enjoying the feeling of complete burn-out. I’m also more aware of the signs that I’m starting to smoke a bit, usually around Zoom meetings that I let creep into creative time, and I’m stoking up the fire, which means making guilt-free decisions to switch off, knowing that I don’t have to stay for pointless meetings. What a relief it is to work like this.

It strikes me that horses know how to practise Zen. Watching the herd freely graze and move around together, they do things completely without trace. They have no preconceived idea of how to act. If you allow a horse enough time there is nothing to get in the way of their activity. When Sheranni makes a decision, whether or not to come back into the yard, after I have supposedly turned him free for the morning, he may take a moment to weigh up the situation and may run through a few options. When he has made his mind up, though, he moves with commitment. He is not thinking: I should have stayed in the field where the grass is greener. Naturally, I can’t know this for sure, but observing him and other intelligent thinking animals, I sense a greater connection to what Zen calls the ‘big mind’ of pure consciousness and less attachment to the ‘small mind’ of personal thinking.

Our personal thinking and ideas of what should occur in any given activity means we are often not free to act without trace. We are weighed down by notions. We create intricate, multi-layered stories of how we must be in the world. Suzuki puts it like this:

‘When we practice Zazen our mind is calm and quite simple. But usually our mind is very busy and complicated, and it is difficult to be concentrated on what we are doing. This is because before we act, we think, and this thinking leaves some trace. Our activity is shadowed by some preconceived idea, the thinking not only leaves some trace or shadow, but also gives us many other notions about other activities and things. These traces and notions make our minds very complicated. When we do something with a quite simple, clear mind, we have no notion or shadows, and our activity is strong and straightforward. But when we do something with a complicated mind, in relation to other things or people, or society, our activity becomes very complex.’

Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.

I love this. I love the way it lets me drop my complex thinking and yet still offers a strong and straightforward way of operating intelligently. I love the freedom it presents. It takes away the doubting, the second-guessing, the deliberation. This summer I’m dedicating to true burn-out.

Twenty Springs

2 05 2021

I found the bench of no regrets on a walk a short while ago. Here as I took a break to breathe in the warmth of the sun and tune in to the birds, I remembered my friend’s observation that if we were lucky we had ‘twenty springs left to live.’

Twenty springs is a finite amount of time. A stretch of seasons that will take me to my final years. If I must live these years with no regrets, I must make every spring count. The question of how I might do this has preoccupied my thinking on my walks.

Twenty springs will age everything I love. My brother would have been 55 this May Day had he lived to see this spring. Inevitably, there will be other losses, sadness and grief flowing through my springs. The bench of no regrets will remind me to keep living each spring with surprise and equanimity no matter what arrives.

The blossom will remind me to keep things fresh. To resist becoming stale or so stuck I cannot move. The blossom will remind me that all beauty fades and all life decays. The blossom falling into the water from the cherry tree reminds me to capture the moment. To resist closing my heart or mind and look more closely instead.

I wonder whether the horses will travel with me through twenty more springs? As spring foals, they mark their 20th spring next year. They could both live until they are 40. What a privilege and joy it would be to share more time with them. To grow old together.

Of course I cannot know that I will have the gift of this time, yet simply imagining it has inspired me to view this spring differently. I’m counting it as the first spring. The first spring I have dedicated to the start of something intentional.

Small wonders are happening. As I’m slowing down to savour the spring mornings, animals and birds are less inclined to leave. A young heron stood near my knee fishing, ducks slept in the early morning sun, beaks tucked under wings and stayed asleep as I tiptoed around them with the hound. A robin stood above my head and looked in my eyes and sang. This morning the seagulls were silent and from the cool quiet, I heard the call of a cuckoo.

I’m reading Carl Jung on Nature, Technology and Modern Life and this short passage leapt from the page like a silver fish. Here Jung has retreated to a sanctuary he built from stone by hand and reflecting on his life.

Life has always seemed to me like a plant that lives on its rhizome. Its true life is invisible, hidden in the rhizome. The part that appears above ground lasts only a single summer. Then it withers away – an ephemeral apparition. When we think of the unending growth and decay of life and civilisations, we cannot escape the impression of absolute nullity. Yet I have never lost the sense of something that lives and endures underneath the eternal flux. What we see is the blossom, which passes. The rhizome remains.

Carl Jung: Prologue to Memories, Dreams and Reflections.

In a few weeks, my first ephemeral spring will give way to summer and I will remember it like a friend. There has been so much to take care of this spring to prepare for groups to visit the horses and it would be so easy to get caught up in the details. The horses are ready, though. And in knowing this spring, so am I.

Small gifts from the sea

28 03 2021

Like many of us, I have missed the pub, the picnics, the public gatherings and events that punctuated previous years. Nevertheless, there are some compensations for a year of social distancing. The beach has become my back yard, a place of reflection, imagination and connection.

On my beach walks I collect small treasures that have no worth to anyone but me: a few polished sea glass stones in greens and blues; an oyster shell; slender driftwood sculpted into suggestive shapes. I keep these treasures in a jar to look at while I wash the dishes. This small ritual creates a sense of space in a day where I am necessarily attached to a screen.

Because I haven’t been able to travel far, I have travelled small instead. Small things have always delighted me. As a child I used to take long meandering walks around the lanes and across fields, and collect things along the way. Insects, leaves, feathers. Small pieces of the outside that made me feel connected to the inside. Some leaves I held onto for years. Not long ago a found a dusty fragment from a tree of life I visited in an Arabian desert thirty years ago.

I am not systematic in my collecting or my classification. I often find things that seem significant, and then store them somewhere only to come across them unexpectedly. I enjoy the surprise this brings, the joy of rediscovering a mood, a feeling or a moment lost in time.

All life is made of such moments, of the smallest movements that link together to create a chain of being. When I look back over the past year, I see how richly textured it has been even in the bleakest moments. Under the surface of flatness, of sameness, of ordinary routine there have been moments of rare delight and connection.

The sea has been a constant in a turbulent year. Each day the sea offers something new and unexpected. A school of dolphins bouncing through sparkling waves; foam whipped dry by the wind; a pause by the steps to listen to a sea shanty spontaneously offered at the end of a dog walk. The sea keeps me going through difficult times. It reminds me that light and movement are constants of change as much as darkness and stagnation.

Sometimes it’s hard to see through the darkness. It’s hard to keep going when discouraged or disheartened by forces beyond your control. The sea is powerful and beside it I often feel small. Walking by the sea, I am reminded each time of how vulnerable we all are. The sea also, paradoxically, brings me a surge of strength to keep finding my way home.

Those times when I step onto an empty stretch of sand with my hound and find a space to breathe, those times are real and true and those times are when I feel a rising sense of hope.

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