It has been raining for several days now. This is how this year looks to be going: days of unforgiving sunshine followed by days of relentless rain. The garden is thriving. Everything is green and vivid, the nettle patch in the corner is a towering glory of green spiked with purple flowers. Somehow I have never noticed the flowers on nettles before, or if I have it is not something which has cemented in my memory. I am sad about the flowers, but only because I have been investigating the ways in which nettles can be used, welcomed, not just a patch of stinging madness but something which can be consumed. It has all the properties of spinach plus a little more, and it is more advantageous because it grows everywhere, freely and abundantly, because it is true that the world is always giving just like people, me included, are always taking. I have been drinking nettle tea, and I have been thinking about making some of my own, but I have to wait until the flowers are gone, or new nettles grow, and I should check there are no butterflies eggs on them before I take them for my own. I would hate to take away the small opportunity for life a caterpillar, and then a butterfly, is afforded. It has always been a reason to admire nettles, the way they support such beautiful life. My garden, too, supports life. It is rich with beetles, with bees, there’s a colony of ants somewhere that we’ve been trying to locate so we can be rid of it, though the ants aren’t really much of a bother. There are spiders and many strange kinds of creatures I cannot name, and that’s before I get into the many birds and the cats and snails, the occasional frog or hedgehog. It is a small wonder, a patch of ground which I have proven myself consistently unable to control. Thank goodness.
The clouds are as grey as my mood, sunk low to the horizon and fat with themselves. I am such a fickle beast. I should see the differing gradations of light, the way it interplays over surface making it darker here, lighter there, silver in places and in others so bright as to be almost white. I should see the textures, the thinness of some clouds sailing beneath the darker, heavier ones. I should appreciate the wonder that it is merely water vapour, that I could fall through it effortlessly, that all I am seeing is an opaqueness caused by water in the air. But I see none of these things. I see a grey, unhappy mass and know that this reflects only my limited, self-involved perception. Like the man with the blue guitar, I do not see things as they are.
I took the day off work and went walking on a familiar walk I haven’t done in a while. My son came with me; no one has ever come with me before and I wondered if it would be inhibiting, if it would change the walk, and it did change it, but it is a different walk every time anyway. Perhaps having another person along just makes that more apparent. It was warm, overcast, a little muggy and the walk was a little harder for it, but what made it easier was the energy, the spark of excitement, my son brought to it. Not one for following paths, as I used not to be, he talked me into scrambling up streambeds and down rocks, clambering around in the quarry. It is the kind of thing I have not done in some considerable time. Sure I have walked and explored, I have become lost, but physically clambering around, using my arms and my shoulders and my whole body to heave myself around, is something I haven’t done in some time. And it made me sad, in a way. It made me realise that my sense of adventure, of surety in my physical capability, my sense of fun and enjoyment has all been quashed by my heavy sense of responsibility and, worse, fear. And not fear so much of being injured, which a modicum of caution would alleviate, but rather a fear of failure. Of trying and finding my physical self wanting, of making a fool of myself embodied, as I am, in aging flesh. Yet at the same time I knew that merely recognising this could be enough to make a change. As we walked, spying squirrels and butterflies, wiping the flies from our faces and hair, we made plans to clamber other places, to return and try something new, and I remembered what it was to feel a part of the landscape, to be another creature existing in nature, and not just existing but being an intrinsic part of it, as necessary and as integral as the bees and the birds, the fishes in the reservoir, the flies and the ants and the trees. In other words, a great day.
There are some days when time is like a machine through which experience becomes stretched, when minutes thud like stones into a shallow pond and seem to pile up around you, constructing a physical prison from which it is impossible to escape. And at times it is hard not to try to fill time, to use it up through almost any little bit of activity, no matter how meaningless or insignificant. Perhaps this is the domain of housework in an era when everything is over-clean, sterile even, and our environments airless and disinteresting. I am trying not to fill my time, yet I say this even as I’m filling it with my words, with typing, with my computer sitting in front of me and the washing machine spinning in the background and one part of my mind on the meal I will be making soon and the activities I will undertake afterwards. I am not sure why it is so hard to be still, to just exist, to allow the mind to wander or to focus on something. I am not sure why it is so challenging to listen, more so to feel, the emptiness of my stomach and to resist the idea of filling it with something, no matter how nutritionless, no matter how unwanted or unneeded. I am not about to die of starvation. I am not, in truth, either particularly hungry, I am merely bored and in my boredom I latch on to the promise of fullness, of repleteness, of a life filled with meaning and a belly filled with substance, yet even as these things tempt me I know them to be without meaning and without substance. To fill my soul, I must first allow it to empty. Not that I believe in a soul, per se.
I have been thinking about the sterility of the lives we lead today, or perhaps it has been true of lives spanning back all through time and it is only through our labour-saving devices, our consumerist frameworks which allow everything to be accessible almost instantaneously to those fortunate enough to have a bank, or a debt, balance to support it, that we’re allowed the illusion of spare time. Perhaps there is much to be said for the necessity of activity for survival. I have been thinking about a friend who really longs to go to the theatre, a friend I used to visit the theatre with, and to whom I am unable to say that I no longer want to go to the theatre because despite being a terrible friend I wish, at least, to protect myself with the illusion of being a good one. I cannot say to her that I no longer want to visit the theatre because I can no longer be a mere spectator, because I no longer want to watch my way though life. I am sick with seeing. I see everything: landscapes, buildings, stories played out on stage and screen, and I no longer want to go to places just to watch. I want to be a participant. I am willing to spend acres of time sitting in the quiet and the darkness, not doing anything, so that the path of participation can become clearer to me. It is too easy to spend, to expend, all of my time filling it with other people’s words, other people’s thoughts, other people’s actions and constructions and desires brought to life on canvas or in stone, in plant-life and paths hewn in shale and concrete, and never doing anything for myself except consume, observe, repeat the actions of others. What is the value in it? So we can imagine ourselves a better life? So we can imagine ourselves better than others, more fortunate? We are all fortunate, and we are all suffering. Perhaps I need to embrace both of mine so that instead of seeing my way through life, instead of simply observing what is happening, I can feel and be a part of it.
In the Tao Te Ching it says “The Tao never does anything, yet through it all things are done.” Perhaps this is a lesson I am yet to learn.
We played badminton at the leisure centre this afternoon. Four of us; two men, two women, all different ages. We are not great badminton players. We hit the shuttlecock to each other, we dipped and ran. No one kept score. Everyone played against each other. We laughed at each other’s faults and foibles, our missteps and errors. It grew hot, but we played on although each of us grew damp with sweat, hair stuck out, trousers glued to legs and we began to tire. We kept going, for each other and for the sheer, joyous fun of it.
At the end of the tunnel was a door.
The door opened.
The tunnel flooded with darkness.
Why did you think it was already dark?
Darkness can always become darker,
it is light that has limits.
No matter how bright the stars shine
they are always on their way to becoming darker,
Like we fade, day by day,
in the tunnel filled with a light we barely notice.
This morning we went to my mother-in-law’s funeral. She was 82 years old. She died a long way away from where we live and her body was brought to us, to where her family are. It was hard to think about her being in the coffin, her body being in the coffin but what she was, everything she had been and known, not really being there at all. Her coffin was draped in flowers and a man wearing black, with a black hat, bowed and walked in front of the hearse and I thought then about the value of ritual, of the ways in which ritual is soothing, and whilst I am not religious, I cannot follow a particular ideology, I can understand the ways in which rituals that surround religion are of relief and comfort, how they can soothe and grant meaning to things which are otherwise incomprehensible and maybe they don’t do anything in themselves but give the living a structure that they can exist within. Because sometimes we see the chaos and the darkness, the maelstrom of human life swirling madly around itself and it is all we can do not to scream, not to go mad or give up. If we think about it for only a moment, it can be impossible not to admit that everything we do is pointless, that our achievements and our battles are nothing but trinkets and animal squabbling. Yet there is such beauty in life, there is suffering and joy, there is love and there is risk. We compete and cooperate in equal measure. We hold on and we let go. Today we let go.