…the herb garden

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After he is gone the loss empties you of feeling, so you stand in the herb garden every night to smoke one cigarette. He was taken away before anything began so you aren’t mourning the loss of what you had, you are mourning what can never be.

Except, of course, that’s not entirely true.

He was never taken away. He took himself away, and when you stand in the garden every night you wonder if any thoughts of you passed through or alongside that decision.

You exhale, trying not to dwell on the question. You cannot bear the answer. Although it is easier to think of your own suffering than it is to think of his, which came as it did with no sense of choice.

Over the weeks, standing in the herb garden, you watch the mint retreat to woody stalks. The thyme becomes a tangled knot. The purple-headed chives fade to white. The garden sinks into cold and dark with just a rectangle of yellow light from the kitchen, a low glow from the windows above where your children sleep or read beneath their sheets. Sometimes there are stars, pin holes in the black.

The nicotine tingles in your blood. Clouds shift. The earth tilts as you inhale your meditation.

The weeks turn into months and still he is gone.

Still you wonder where you were in his decision.

Still you evade the answer, and you evade the real question.

Over winter you stop smoking, and when spring arrives you stand in the herb garden in the pale and tender sun, and you see that amongst the dirt and weeds the mint is sprouting plump rippled leaves from its sturdy stems. Not dead at all.

You feel a flood of relief, and wait for him to return also.

…wild silence

The wild silence comes with the roaring noise of thought, with words that run and run and run and revel in their cycle, their impatience to go nowhere, their insistence to be heard. The wild silence is neither patient nor restless, loud or hushed, careless or yearning. She knows but will not speak, her emerald gaze enough for the roaring noise of thought to see itself in its own mirrorball, spinning and fractured, glossy with illusory promise. The wild silence shivers her leaves, a branch dipping to touch the mirrorball, slow, slow, slow

to stillness

to space

to listen

to here

where the sky sounds are; feather flight and billow drift


cool grass against skin, the brush of breath


bird calls travelling leaf-light or breast-felt


with the flow of blood and sap and river rain


in the quiet cradle

the wild silence

of being

…new shoots

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rhizome [rahy-zohm] noun • botany
A rootlike subterranean stem, growing horizontally along or under the ground and producing roots and leaves

— Such as bamboo, water lilies, lotus, ginger, turmeric.

— Turmeric is a member of the ginger family and both have medicinal qualities, turmeric soothing inflammation and anxiety, ginger a balm for the stomach. When did we turn away from the provision of the world and believe we could do better? Surely, to look at a tree is to see and to hear and to feel everything that will ever heal us.

A felled tree which is shooting again. I am hopeful. Leonardo Da Vinci.

— Da Vinci’s earliest memory is of lying in his crib and seeing a kite flying above him, feeling the drape of its tail between his lips.

— Your earliest memory is of running around the outside of your home during an eclipse, the light an eerie sepia tone, the feeling of excitement, of exploring something new and dangerous.

— A ‘counterfeit twilight’ is created by annular eclipse, the sun still shining beyond the edges of the moon to create the annulus, the ‘ring of fire’.

— June Carter Cash wrote Ring of Fire when she was falling in love with Johnny — I fell into a burning ring of fire/ I went down down down and the flames went higher/ And it burns burns burns

— Your own burn is an abundant well in your sternum, a sensation that in the past you’ve mistaken for anxiety, its uncontrolled and expansive nature too big to be contained in your body. Still the sensation is there, uncomfortable, a tipping into the void. You feel glad the earth provides a remedy in the things that grow.

— You make ginger and turmeric tea, sipping while standing at the window looking out at the trees. Now the sensation can flow and the burning pressure is released. Love should never be contained. Love should travel. Love is a balm to the unknown.

…the dive

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— Your father taught you to dive at an early age, first sitting you at the edge of the pool, arms pointing like a giant beak, encouraging you to tip gently into the water. You don’t remember the transition from sitting to standing but at some point, when the fear had gone, you would have felt joy at the effusion of bubbles fizzing across your body, the long strides as your arms swept through the underwater haze, muffled, suspended in time for the briefest moment.

— In 2011, the French choreographer, Philippe Decouflé, created a ballet performed in a swimming baths, titled Un tragique ballet nautique par des plongeurs inexpérimentés, or, A tragic nautical ballet by inexperienced divers.
The dancers defy the signs no diving, jumping, pushing or throwing another person in. A suited man dives from a high platform, the underwater camera capturing him as a plunging penguin. There is a male mermaid; a woman in a red dress, her face obscured by the mask of a duck; a man wearing the skirt of a wedding dress. There is heavy petting. A lifeguard sits in a chair watching, helpless against the rule-breaking rabble.

— You sometimes defy the No Diving signs. Sometimes you are reprimanded, sometimes not. Sometimes there is no sign but no-one is diving, and so you begin. Dive, swim, climb out. Dive, swim, climb out. You are a bird diving for morsels of weed. Over and over. And slowly others join you, tentatively at first, but when they realise there is no-one to stop them they smile, they dive again, they remember this is something they can do. This makes the heart hammer, the blood rush. For the first time in a long time, their bodies are awake.

— You have dived into a Tuscan river pool, disregarding the skin scraped from your legs each time you hauled yourself out over the rocks; you have dived into a lake at summer camp in Upper New York State, where the fish nibbled your toes; you have dived into a rocky pool in Corsica, its black unseeable depths giving you the fear of hidden rocks and ledges. Each time you try not to think about your head hitting a rock and splitting like a melon.

— You only enjoy swimming if you can dive, the glittering jewel amongst the mundane. The only exception to this is the sea where you feel the current shifting around your body and the undulation of waves. You float, the calls of children and seagulls muffled green, your muscles softening to the push and pull. The moon as master puppeteer.

— To prevent pain in your lower spine, you swim blindly on your back. Your mild fear of the unseen is only tempered by your view of the route you’ve already travelled, the vast sky above you, the clouds, the birds, the riverside trees or ragged cliff tops. You embrace this movement into the unknown. It has taken you to many joyful places.

…soul in the sky

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I have found the headless bodies of rabbits and blue jays, and known it was the great horned owl that did them in, taking the heads only, for the owl has an insatiable craving for the taste of brains.
Mary Oliver

The Owl

When you are ten or twelve, you go birdwatching in the early-dawn light. Once, you see a barn owl in flight, swift and silent above your head, a hunting ghost. You collect owl pellets from the pine-cushioned floor, tight bundles of fur and feathers and skeletal remains that you take home to soak in water until the bundle loosens and releases its treasure, a collection of sliverous bones and the ultimate prize, a tiny bird skull. You use pins to clean the muck from the eye sockets and beak, you bleach it white and store it in a matchbox which you peer into often.

The Sparrow

You find an injured sparrow in the garden, one leg reduced to a swollen stump. You cannot imagine what could have caused such an injury, but it was likely a predator of some kind, perhaps a cat too slow-witted to gather the whole bird. Your father holds him in his wide palm and explains that he can’t be saved and we have a duty to end his suffering. You know this already. You have grown up in a village in the countryside where learning how to care for animals is as important as learning how to kill them. But this particular lesson your father chooses to carry out away from you, performing the task quietly and, you imagine, swiftly.

The Jackdaw

Your father brings home a box from his work at the quarry. When he places it gently on the floor it shifts and shuffles. A snake! you think, but no, when he opens the lid there is a fledgeling jackdaw who was abandoned by her mother, or so your father believes. You keep her in the garage, construct a perch from whatever you can find, feed her seeds and worms. Your father teaches you to shake a tin of seeds every time you feed her. This is how you learn about associative behaviour, the Pavlov effect. When the bird is strong enough you take her outside and let her fly to the giant tree behind your house to join the rooks and crows and her brothers and sisters, the grey-headed jackdaws. When it is feeding time you shake the tin and she returns… and returns… and returns…. until one day she doesn’t. You are simultaneously sad and glad about this. You have lost your connection with this wild animal, your temporary pet, but you nurtured her out of fledglinghood, watched her joy at being alive grow stronger, her eyes eager to see more than the cool dark room of incarceration.

So now she sees the leaves and bark of the trees, feels the wind ruffle through her feathers, digs deep into the earth to draw out a worm, hears the song and the movement of her fellow flighted world.

Can any creature be living her life more fully than the jackdaw?

(Mary Oliver quote from Owls in her essay collection Upstream)

…the surgeon and the patient

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You read Richard Selzer’s essay, The Knife, where he describes his experiences in the operating theatre, proposing that ‘if the surgeon is like a poet, then the scars [he has] made on countless bodies are like verses into the fashioning of which [he has] poured [his] soul.’

You have variously equated your writing with the building of a puzzle and the archeology of a buried structure. The puzzle begins by spilling pieces onto the floor, pushing them around to find some shape. There are misplaced pieces, awkward bumps and lumps, distortions and gaps, but over time you rotate the pieces, or find a new one hiding just out of view, or you clean the dust to reveal a vividness of colour. Slowly the picture emerges.

The archeology often begins with a little light digging, turning over the soil to see if there is anything there. You may only get the hint of shape, the suggestion of story or truth, and so you continue until you are crouched low, scraping and then brushing away the earth to see what this thing is. The art of sculpture works in the same way. Something is hidden within this block of limestone. It lives and breathes, your job to reveal its true self.

You are intrigued by the visceral nature of the surgeon poet in Selzer’s essay, the idea of blood and organs, tissue and scars. Your analogies in comparison are clean and safe, except for the risk of grubby knees and grit beneath your nails. In his essay he describes… ‘the world’s light illuminating the organs, their secret colors revealed—maroon and salmon and yellow. […] An arc of the liver shines high and on the right, like a dark sun. It laps over the pink sweep of the stomach, from whose lower border the gauzy omentum is draped, and through which veil one sees, sinuous, slow as just-fed snakes, the indolent coils of the intestine.’

He feels like ‘a traveler in a dangerous country, advancing into the moist and jungly cleft [his] hands have made.’

You realise on reading this that the true nature of your writing is biological and vigorous, the fluidity of perception sticky with old and new wounds. Fiction, perhaps, is a cleaner craft, depending on your source material. But nonfiction? Writing about yourself and others? You have made scars. You have dug deep to reveal the shiny liver, to feel the sliver of just-fed snakes. There are also things you have begun to write, not knowing where it will take you, only to draw back when you felt the sharp cut of the scalpel, the quivering retraction of your own heart.

You do not want to be afraid of these stories. You are drawn to the truth, to operating in the theatre of facts until you discover a beating heart. But you have learned that while the mind can be firm and so gloatingly sure of its detached logic, the body will reflect what is happening beyond, deep within the soul. There the truth of the pain lies.

And so, how to be surgeon and patient? Selzer suggests the surgeon is ‘rendered impotent by his own empathy and compassion. […] Like an asthmatic hungering for air, longing to take just one deep breath, the surgeon struggles not to feel.’

And the patient, ‘In the very act of lying down, you have made a declaration of surrender.’

And so you are prone and surrendered, but also standing above with scalpel in hand.

As surgeon you will cut gently. You will find ways to anaesthetise. You will retreat in a timely way, and sew the wound with neat stitches.

And as patient you will follow Selzer’s gentle advice. Let yourself go, he says as his patients drift into their temporary oblivion.

It’s a pleasant sensation, he says. Give in.

(The Knife, by Richard Selzer published in The Art of the Personal Essay, Ed. Phillip Lopate)

…clouding the issue

Interstellar clouds are made up of hydrogen and cosmic dust, the mystical place where new stars are hatched. Creation requires the coming together of things; an experiment, an observable reaction, a bold joining or merging of molecules. The aloneness of the artist is deceptive. The coming together, the connections, are all happening within.

Cumulus clouds, if loosely formed, will mirror the shape of the coastlines and islands they linger above. You have been in many relationships that behaved the same way. Always you were the cloud, he was the island.

Nimbostratus. Stratocumulus. Cirrus. Volutus. Lenticularis. Fractus. Undulatus. Castellanus. Noctilucent. Horseshoe vortex. Pileus. Asperitas. Tuba. Nacreous. Mamma. Diamond dust.

We believe in a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, but the arch is really a full circle that continues beneath the surface of the earth. The only gold to be found is in the refracted rays themselves, in the moment of existence, and for us, in the moment of seeing.

Crepuscular rays are also known as Jacob’s Ladder, or Buddha’s Rays, or The Ropes of Maui. An ex-partner called them God Speaks, although he wasn’t a believer. He didn’t believe in anything, in fact, except for the solid, measurable world and the earning of money. You see this now as one of the reasons you are no longer together.

On cloud nine. Every cloud has a silver lining. Head in the clouds. Cloud-cuckoo land. Cloud of suspicion. A cloud on the horizon. Clouding the issue.

During a storm in 1638, a ‘great fiery ball’ crashed through the window of an English church where a service was being held. Four people were killed and sixty-two were injured. Still now ball lightening is a mysterious and transient force, one study suggesting it is actually an hallucination caused by magnetic fields. The death of parishioners seems to contradict this idea, but then, it could be argued that collective faith is a similar kind of illusion.

You once watched a thunderstorm with someone you loved, although both you and he didn’t acknowledge this at the time or for many months after. The rain fell in warm fat drops, the sky abundant with crackling forks and tumbling light and bright flashes of yellow and white. It was slow moving, patient. Much like your love.

Research Source: A Cloud a Day by Gavin Pretor-Pinney, founder of the Cloud Appreciation Society

…teaching in the age of Covid

You return to teaching after many months away. But this is not teaching as you know it, sitting around a table with your students to debate, discuss and enquire. Instead you are in your living room, meeting your students on a laptop screen. This is teaching in the age of Covid, and this is what you learned.

— Your teaching brushes up closely to your personal life. Sometimes you teach in t-shirt and sweatpants, sometimes in a smart black blouse with a pair of denim shorts, and sometimes you hang out your washing mere moments before you welcome students into your living room.

— You find a picnic table makes a serviceable desk. You collected it from your mother’s garage and clean away its cobwebs and spider husks. You cover it with a red tablecloth. Paper, pens and books accumulate quickly.

— Your students live across multiple time zones, which means classes are scheduled for when they return home from work, but for you, deep into British Summer Time, your brain is getting ready for bed. It’s not long before you experience extreme fatigue, your eyes sore and tightly bound, but you find ways to sooth the frayed knots of your mind, meditation, throw-away TV, gin & tonic.

— In those early weeks you ask your students about their experience of lockdown, with some also encountering civil unrest. You gradually come to realise they do not want to talk about this, but wish instead to be absorbed into the escape of learning.

— You acclimatise to the tiled faces of your students, framed within your laptop screen. The perennial problem of matching faces to names is alleviated by an identifying label on each tile, and you also see a multitude of living room backdrops, or bedrooms, kitchens, dens, studies, gardens, and sometimes, a forest.

— You have to remind yourself to turn off your camera and microphone, particularly when your laptop is on 11% and you clatter and mutter across the room to fetch the charger. Students have a better instinct on this than you do.

— You record your classes for students who are unable to attend, and when you watch them back you are horrified. You hear your voice as it really is, see your gestures and bad jokes, you remember the thoughts that rippled beneath the surface of your words. You see yourself as other people see you. You find it astonishing that you have never seen this before.

— You experience a seismic shift in your established paradigm while searching for texts online. Authors, it seems, are protective of their copyright, but also, it is a fact universally understood that reading texts on screen is hateful. So instead you discover videos and audio, podcasts and interviews. You learn new things.

— Sometimes you walk away from your laptop, walk out of your apartment, walk out of your building, walk to the park and enjoy the birds and the trees and the sun on your face.

— When you meet individual students for tutorials, you find this is the closest to real that the virtual can get. A single face framed in the screen, the eye contact between you feels truthful.

— You have a gradual realisation that all the goal posts of your profession have changed. You may never teach in the same way again, with a full classroom of students sitting side-by-side or huddled in groups, and this fills you with sadness and fear. But, now you have experienced a new way, a continuation of a different kind. You discover yourself to be adaptable and ever evolving, and you come to realise that, much like your students, you are a seed finding enough nourishment in the narrowest of crevices. And so you grow.

…soon you will write

Books on your coffee table:

The Philosophy of the Bed, by Mary Eden & Richard Carrington
You found this book in a strange kind of thrift shop, a greenhouse beside a garden cafe, its glassy walls housing furniture and crockery, paintings and books. The book has a tattered dust jacket bearing a reproduction of Grande Odalisque, by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, the woman’s long body draped over crumpled bed sheets, looking coyly over her shoulder at you. You were attracted by the idea of philosophy about beds, the place where we dream, consciously and subconsciously, where we read, where we make love, a place where we are hidden but we can truly be ourselves. You do not know what you will write in response to this book, but you are particularly drawn to the chapters titled The Commerce of Love and Some Notable Beds.

A Cloud a Day, by Gavin Pretor-Pinney
A gift from a notable man. Again it is hardbacked, its cover illustration a dusky landscape of multicoloured clouds, inky blue near the earth’s horizon and moving through purples, oranges and yellows until it becomes a billowing cloud of luminous light. This book, dedicated to the members of The Cloud Appreciation Society, is filled with paintings and photographs and poetry, clouds that look like animals or people, cracks of lightening, foggy shores, sublime sunsets. You do not know what you will write in response to this book but there is much to learn about the skies above and the universe beyond, so there will be much to write.

Meditations, by Marcus Aurelius
Paperback, almost flimsy, its cover adorned with a marble bust of Marcus Aurelius, young and handsome with a noodle-like mass of curly hair. You heard Elizabeth Gilbert talk about this book, someone who understands about the universe and the inter-connectedness of all things, so it seems fitting that you open it up to read, Consider how quickly all things are dissolved and resolved: the bodies and substances themselves, into the matter and substance of the world: and their memories into the general age and time of the world. You do not know what you will write in response to this book, but it is likely to be both personal and universal.

Memory: A Very Short Introduction, by Jonathan K. Foster.
Pocket-sized, its cover black except for several bands of orangey red that float like oil on water. This book is for study and curiosity. Your memory is your tool, your farm of abundant crops, but you know it cannot be trusted so you think that if you learn more about its nature you’ll be able to excavate more thoroughly, more accurately. You do not know what you will write in response to this book, but there is a chapter titled Pulling the Rabbit Out of the Hat, so you hope for some Alice-in-Wonderland-style happenings.

You will write soon, but for now you anticipate what lies within the covers on your coffee table. You hope for learning, for surprise, for enlightenment, for something you didn’t even know to hope for.

Soon, you will write.

…talking about the weather

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He said, Things must be bad if we’re talking about the weather. As if it doesn’t matter.

— But that day you both stopped under the arches where someone had left flowers and he wanted to kiss you, that day was spring warm and the sky was blue like a promise.

— The day of drizzle when you both said goodbye at the car, you didn’t want to go but he left so easily you thought he didn’t care.

— When you saw him cross the road on Pulteney Bridge it was sticky humid, shorts and t-shirt hot, and you wondered if he’d seen you but you let him walk away, let the moment go.

— And now, as you walk through the rain, these thoughts of weather come to you so clearly you have to write them on your phone, your umbrella wedged beneath your chin and the rain pelting white, your feet wet and jeans soaked to the knee.

— When you get home you’ll hang up your clothes, leave the umbrella to dry. Try not to feel the cold.

So maybe he’s right that the weather doesn’t matter anymore.