The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.
Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made
is star-stuff too?
– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –
dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.
Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.
Sunday, 28 December 2014
'The purposes of pruning are to maintain, increase, or prolong the vitality of a plant, or to keep it in bounds, or to direct its energy to a special purpose.' (The Small Garden; C E Lucas Phillips)
These beautiful liminal days between the solstice/Christmas and the first day of the Gregorian calendar's new year are a perfect time to reflect on what's leaving our lives with the turning year, and what is still to be born.
Actually, the whole of the winter time can bring that hibernatory aspect, and there are many seasonal points in the wheel of the year that offer such pauses. But I guess I'm not alone in using this time for some kind of reflective process – it feels rather more substantial than the option of joining the feeding frenzy of post-Christmas bargain-buying (though I'm not pretending I'm free of consumerist acquisitiveness).
It's particularly poignant for me this year as yesterday my sisters and I cleared out the suite of rooms that our father, and before that our mother too, inhabited for the last few years of his, and their, life. It's been a bare three weeks since he died, and I've inevitably had the presence of his death, burial and now the clearout uppermost in my mind this month. I'd have liked to have had the luxury of leaving the clearing of his few possessions for a while yet, but there was no option.
As we went through his belongings yesterday one of my sisters said that she could understand the Romany way of setting light to the dead person's vardo (wagon), with all their belongings inside. There's something satisfyingly unequivocal about that, and one's memory and emotions have less opportunity to be reflexively dragged back to painful, or at least bittersweet, memories over and over, at least for a while.
It was a hard process. I've brought very little back with me: his wonderful handmade hazel staff with the antler thumb-rest; a wrought-iron handmade dragon; some books and music. The little earthenware plaque with the words of Julian of Norwich on it. A photograph that I had taken of my childhood beach.
None of his paintings – they went to my sisters, all bar one, of his grandfather, former Mayor of St Ives, that will be donated to St Ives museum. His silversmithing tools, his microscope, his musical instruments have all gone. What to do with the beautiful green and tan leather waistcoats that he made for himself?
But I brought back the 85-year-old teddy bear that was my mum's when she was a toddler – apposite as tutelary deity of my campervan which was bought with some of her legacy to me. I imagine it will be poignant for a long time, seeing these possessions of theirs each day.
Another legacy of my mum's was a Christmas tradition that she initiated when we were kids: giving away one thing for every present received. I'm so grateful to her for that principle, and today I've been going through some of my clothes with just that in mind. Tomorrow, much harder, I'll do that in relation to my several-thousand-strong books.
As I sat looking at the birds in the courtyard earlier today I was thinking about pruning the various shrubs and trees, and consulting my mum's book The Small Garden for just that. And I was thinking about my Inner Magpie need to pick up things that I see, and to which I attribute significance – the Iona greenstones, the shells from Cornish beaches, the buzzard feathers dropped in the field, etc etc. That's my own acquisitiveness – I don't buy much but I sure as hell collect. (Correction – I do buy books. Far too many.)
And so I was thinking about pruning. Of course, it's not just pruning material belongings, but attitudes and habits too. My inability to see something beautiful and just leave it where it is. My need to be right. My need to think, intensely and unremittingly. My need to join in. My compulsive need to communicate. My unwillingness to simply let things be without trying to sort or fix them. My lack of skill at 'keeping my own counsel'. My appetite for more of everything: intellectual and emotional as much as, or rather more than, material. There's a kind of 'spiritual materialism' at play in that, to use the words of Chogyam Trungpa.
Dare I call my listing of these habits my New Year's Resolution challenge?
And so, as I slide to the end of the year with its accumulations of loss and pain and also joys and inspirations, I remind myself again that, cliché though this is, the real pleasures, the real gifts*, are the everyday miracles of things that can't be sought, or bought, or measured, and whose impact is way beyond acquisition of the material: being alive, for instance. Having loved, and loving. Being loved. Friends. Intimacy – with self, humans, the other-than-human. Acts of kindness. Listening. Being listened to. Birdsong. Ideas. Music. Art. Touch. Poetry. Dance. The companionship of animals, birds, trees. A sense of belonging. Work that feels worthwhile and takes place with wonderful heartful people in beautiful places.
And yes also the material: enough to eat. Reasonably clean water to drink. Shelter, and a fire. The luxury of not only not being in a war zone, but living somewhere with very little light, noise or air pollution.
What more do I really need? What can I prune? Stripping back my acquisitions, material, emotional, and intellectual, might just free up what I need for more important direction of my vital energies.
'How little do I need?' is so much more useful a question than the converse.
* Since you, readers, are part of the 'real gifts' that enter my life freely, without my seeking or buying the privilege of your participation, this is a good opportunity to thank you for all you bring into my life with your presence – virtual, mostly, but still felt and appreciated. May the year's turning and the unfolding of 2015 be peaceful, happy, fulfilling for you all.
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