Usually, these weekly jots jostle forward and it soon becomes clear which ones will be shared. This week has been different. This week they’ve been a little hesitant. A little reticent. I’ve been as still and as patient as possible – a child holding out a cupped hand, filled with bird seed, waiting for a green-tailed parakeet to come, to perch, and eat. It’s felt like a long wait.
Recent news of a friend’s exhibition in Cheltenham was enticing. So, the camper van was spruced up, and stocked up, and all was made ready for a journey towards artistic inspiration and reconnection with a few dear pals in Stroud – a ‘palgrimage’ then?
The last exhibition palgrimage I’d been to was Peter Maynard’s ’All I have to do is breathe’ (Lansdowne Gallery, Stroud, July 2018). It was a beautiful and blisteringly hot summer and I’d been living in the van for just over a month at that time.
Walking into Peter Maynard’s exhibition was like walking into a cool park or a faded palace. A smile. Tranquillity.
03.07.2018, jotted in the van diary that evening
This current exhibition (at the very lovely little Gardens Gallery in Cheltenham’s Montpellier Gardens) features the work of Christopher Challen and friends. It’s entitled ‘The Mind’s ‘I’: Bridging Perception and Reality’. I found it fun and profound, light hearted and deep, sublime and ridiculous. And I loved it. And it struck me, more strongly than ever before, just what extraordinary and wonderful creatures we human beings actually are.
And yet, how we suffer! How easily we can get spooked by things! Wild camping in the van, the night before the exhibition, I realised just how quickly we become habituated to expectations of physical comfort and certainty. After living in this leafy Sheffield suburb for the past two years, I’m more easily frightened than I was. The primordial fear of pain, injury or death is more easily conjured up these days. I know this because of what happened in the middle of the night, on Minchinhampton Common, Stroud, last week.
Although alone, I was being shaken awake from a deep sleep.
Despite the insistent shaking, it took me a little while to come to. Finding myself in the darkness of the van, legs pressed rigid against the end of the bunk, and the eerie sounds of a howling, whistling wind (horror/ghost film classic soundtrack) I felt suddenly, momentarily afraid. There was no quickening of the heart – just a sort of dread. It was only a second or so til deep slow breathing brought me back into my body, to rational thought, and to a felt sense of safety. There was a strong wind, so the van was shaking, legs were jammed, neck was stiff, but it was all ok. Chest and abdomen rose and fell. Air entered and left.
As a general rule, in rural Gloucestershire, in peacetime, you tend not to encounter camper vans lying on their sides in the morning dew, their windows smashed, their inhabitants hacked to bits; bloody body parts strewn brightly, crimsonly, amongst the golden buttercups. No, you just don’t. Breathe my darling. It’s really quite alright. Just breathe. And then I went back to sleep: The wind my lullaby.
The night after the fright, while having supper with friends and their almost 5-year old son, one of them said she thought our brains/minds have changed because of the fear around Covid, and the restrictions imposed, which cut us off from our natural exploratory behaviours. I think so too. So what can we do about it?
It’s actually possible to bolster happiness and curiosity. It’s done by noticing ‘negative’ emotions (fear, anger, guilt, shame etc) as sensations in the body, turning towards them, and just letting them dissolve. And to notice positive emotions, turn towards them and bathe in them as they gently flood the synapses. Not thinking about, or analysing them, not trying to push them away or hang on to them – just noticing the bare sensations, and being with them. This leads to greater equanimity, whether in a van/boardroom/playground (fill in the gap). Sure, alarm bells will still ring, but the fear (anger etc) will dissolve much more quickly – unless it’s needed to protect you from actual, physical danger of course.
But it’s an acquired skill and, as such, it has to be practised. Like learning to ride a bike. If you bought a bike, and left it propped up against the wall in the hallway, but never learned to ride it, you couldn’t expect to just jump on it and pedal off when you suddenly needed to use it in an emergency… could you?
This week’s second jot was written 3 days after lockdown measures legally came into force in the UK. Before the days of pale blue paper masks and hand sanitiser and social distancing. Before the days when some of us curled up in fear, protecting what was left of ourselves, and some of us sang out on our balconies, like nightingales.
Life in the van has equipped me for life in the attic. A skylight reveals an ever-changing sky. Last night, Venus, burning with a never-before intensity above a sliver of moon. And, by day, constantly changing cloud-forms as the wind blows and the sun tracks across the sky. I glimpse my mother there. I feel the connection, but I no longer need to live in her lap. Nature, I realise, has been drawn down, soaked up, recognised, internalised, until there is no longer any separation between ‘myself’ and ‘it’ Now – the powerful manifestation of All is Iris! What a great privilege to be with her at this time. The Narcissi, which Philly gave me on Mother’s Day, offer their scent. It is keenly acknowledged and received. The top of Iris’ head is a pussy willow, stroking itself against my cheek.
29.03.2020, jotted 3 days into lockdown, a couple of weeks after moving into my daughter’s attic. Her baby Iris was 6 months old at the time.
A sweetly naive jot. Actually, nothing could have equipped me for life in an attic with a young couple who were trying to navigate the endlessly confusing and demanding terrain of becoming parents and trying to create a family life whilst simultaneously adjusting to the constraints of a locked down world. It was hard. And in that rocky terrain, I fell off my bicycle again and again.
Apparently, the ride is about to get smoother. We’re out of lockdown at last. and my friends tell me that when there are 3 candles on the birthday cake, everything just suddenly changes. But external conditions are always in a state of flux. That’s the only certainty! So I’ll keep practising. All I have to do is breathe… and notice. Notice and breathe.
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