Joy alongside sorrow

‘I saw that there was an ocean of darkness and death, but an
infinite ocean of light and love, which flowed over the ocean of darkness.’ 

George Fox in his journal, 1647

I’ve been leaning heavily on these words over the past few
weeks – over the whole of February really.
This last month has had some truly great moments, both personally (a fun
weekend away with old friends, my partner making a Bakewell tart) and
professionally (did
you see my announcement about the event on dressing with less that I’m hosting
with Courtney Carver?!).
At the same
time it has been emotionally tough going.
Relentless is the word that keeps coming up when journalling – life simply
feels relentless.  

I’m like the boy who kept getting
battered on the obstacle course
, unable to dodge what keeps coming my way.  Moreover it seems there’s no way out of this.  Sometimes it is just how life is: stuff keeps
happening and you have to deal with it, however bruised you might feel.  I suppose I could stay in bed with the duvet
over my head but in the longer term that’s not healthy, nor is it how I want to
respond.  I want to show up as best I can
in my life, which includes trying to fulfil my responsibilities (even those
that are unspoken) when times are tough.

I know I’m not alone in feeling like this.  I know there are others who likewise feel
compelled to live this way, showing up rather than opting out wherever they
can.  I also know that we struggle with
living and being this way.

This kind of showing up is not a one-off discrete task.  It’s not an achievement which we can tick off
as done.  Rather it is an ongoing
process.  It also a process in which we
have little, if any, control over the context.
We don’t choose who dies or needs caring for or what dates some events
happen on.  We just have to respond.

We can, however, support ourselves through the most trying
moments.  We can seek out comfort and
care to sustain us even when our focus by necessity turns to the needs of
others.  This is not only desirable but
essential – the classic ‘Fit your own oxygen mask first’ analogy.

I wrote about self-care a few times last year (once,
twice,
the third
time
).  Yet there’s something else at
work right now: not just needing to ensure the basics, but a desire to feel joy
alongside the sorrows – to go beyond either/or and to live in a place of
both/and.

How do we do this?  

My response to this urge for joy alongside sorrow has been
to look to the natural world.  I’ve
bought daffodils for the house and tended the cyclamen on my desk.  I’ve second glanced at the snowdrops on
roadside and paused by the crocuses at the front door.  I’ve given thanks for the lighter mornings
and the gradually lengthening days.  I’ve
stood at the window enjoying the bright sunshine streaming in and been aware of
the increase in birdsong.

Spring is coming,
grows the whisper.  New life.  Hope.

At other times of the year, and in other places around the
globe, the natural world will communicate different messages, and maybe not
always so positive.  But right now, in
this corner of the earth, the natural world offers huge comfort and fills my
heart with joy.

And it does this without me having to do anything.  Nay, I cannot do anything.  I have no control over nature, just as I have
little or no influence over other happenings in my life.  Nature encourages me to accept, to loosen my resistance,
to embrace what is.  

To embrace what is…Winter followed by spring, night after
day, sorrow alongside joy, an ocean of darkness and death but an infinite ocean
of light and love too.

May you also find joy alongside sorrow in the week ahead.  

An apple for the teacher?  Apples are the teacher

From the Garden of Eden to the I-Phone, from attracting a
teacher to repelling a doctor (‘an apple for the teacher’ and ‘an apple a day
keeps the doctor away’ respectively), from the wicked stepmother Queen in Snow
White
to the humble, homespun American Pie, is there any fruit as laden with
myths, metaphors and meaning as the humble apple?

Whether symbolically or literally, many of us hold an apple
of some kind in our hands on a daily basis.
They are all around us, red, green, shiny, round, crisp, crunchy, sweet,
sour (or rendered in white plastic with a neat bite mark taken).  Never are they more common than at this time
of year, where even in towns and cities it is possible to find trees straining
under the weight of their ripe juicy goodness.
For me, as I mentioned in Week One’s reflection, there is no surer sign
that autumn is here than being offered a bag of home-grown apples.  Of all nature’s fall bounty, it seems that
apple trees are the most generous givers.
They shower their owners (or the volunteers who gather for the
increasingly common community harvests) with gluts of fruit – branches and
branches and branches there to be picked and devoured, lest they go to waste.

Lest they go to waste…With this abundance comes a sense of
responsibility, a feeling of duty towards the offering set before them.  Every person I know with an apple tree seems
to suffer the same sense of guilt if each and every last one is not harvested
and put to good use.  They become
obsessed with giving them away by the large bag load – you can never take just
a few.  ‘Take more! Take more!’, the
owners cry, ‘Give them to your mum/your nan/your friends/people you work with!  Please.
PLEASE.  YOU WILL TAKE MORE!’  

And so even those of us far removed from possession of an
apple tree begin whipping up all manner of apple-based culinary goods: pies,
crumbles, sauces, chutneys, cakes, even fruit leather.  Stodgy desserts that we haven’t eaten all
year suddenly become appealing.  This may
be in part because of the cooler weather but I’m convinced that it is also
because in homes the northern hemisphere over there are two dozen cooking
apples sat on the kitchen worktop that one feels morally obliged to use up.  Childhood echoes of ‘there are starving
children in Africa’ ring in our ears if we even think about chucking them
out.  We become as frantic as the tree
owners themselves: the apples must get used up!
Buy the corner shop’s entire supply of custard – we’re going to need
it!

Thus we find ourselves in the kitchen, sleeves rolled up and
hands busy peeling, chopping, slicing, mixing.
The light outside begins to fade and the windows steam up with the heat
from the oven.  We keep checking on
cooking progress because we can’t quite remember if we’ve done it correctly – I’m
sure those were the ratios my grandma used to use – oh if only I could ring her
up, she’d definitely remember – of course they didn’t have fan ovens then, I’m
not sure I’ve accounted for the different cooking times correctly – does it
matter that I’ve used ordinary rather than caster sugar? – I don’t think it’s
important – is it flour or sugar that you sprinkle on the top? – it seems like
so long since I last made a crumble, now when was it?  Must have been last autumn, you know, doesn’t
the year pass quickly…

Here we are again.
Peeling, chopping, slicing, mixing, just like last year and the one
before.  Just as our forebears did.  The seasonal glut of apples connects us with
those who went before in the same way that it links us more directly with the
source of our food than the usual reliance on industrial agriculture and mass
consumption.  

The seasons of the year and the seasons of life were
well-known to earlier generations but they no longer shape our lives to the
same extent.  Modern living provides many
advantages that we should be grateful for, but in losing our link to the
changing of the year we have also lost our sense of interconnectedness to each
other and the world around us.  Yet the
autumn apple brings it all back to us.  They
evoke particular memories along with something deeper, a more ethereal sense of
remembering.  We may not be able to put
our finger on exactly what it is, but as we peel and chop and slice and mix, it
slowly comes into focus: the depths of existence, glimmers of what lies beneath
the surface appearances of life.  

And when we have remembered what it is that we always knew,
we get to eat the fruits of this profoundly spiritual labour.

****

This week, then, let us learn what the autumn apples have to
teach us.  Pick some up, whether from a
friend, road-side stall or your regular shop, then get curious about what the humble
fruit has to offer you…

Maybe experiment with meditating about your apple.  If you uncertain about doing this ‘freestyle’
then there are some instructions about how to go about doing so here.

Whether you love baking or loathe it, how about cooking your
apple in some way?  See what the
experience brings up for you in terms of memories or associations (it could be even more interesting if you don’t like baking).

Get out your journal and set a target (say twenty minutes or
three pages).  Then put ‘apple’ at the
top of the page and start from there, simply writing whatever comes to
mind.  It may begin as a list or
capturing a particular moment that comes to mind, but who knows where it will
go from there.

Play apple-bobbing!
Children are not required but it would probably be fun for them too 🙂  There’s the hanging from string version or
head in water version (I was never a fan of the latter).  

And don’t forget to share your responses on the A Life Of One’s Own Facebook page or via
the #fourthquarter2015 hashtag on Instagram and Twitter.  

Week 3: Life. Death. Nature.

image

Are you still spotting the signs of autumn that we looked
out for in Week One?  It’s pretty hard to
not notice, whether it’s the pleasant stuff such as pavements strewn with
conker shells and acorns or the less pleasing aspects like the encroaching dark
nights.  Nature and the changing seasons
throw it all at us, often at the same time: things we think of as positive and
those we label as negative.  We can’t
have one without the other.  Those
gorgeous crisp starry nights also mean cold and frosty mornings.  There is the riot of glorious technicolour as
the leaves turn and then fall.  And on my
word, how good are they at the minute?
Talk about going down in a blaze of glory.  Some trees are so beautiful at the minute
that remembering to breathe – or keep my eyes on the road as I drive past – is difficult.  This spectacle is soon is followed by the
sludgy mulch of decaying foliage on the paths, treacherous and icky – and if
you live in the UK, also the cause of annual ‘leaves on the line’ train travel
disruption (really this is a thing in Britain.
I’m not kidding).  Then the trees
stand bare and brown through the dark cold months when we would welcome a blast
of colour and joy.

This is the paradox of nature.  Life and death intertwined…and inevitable.  The two ultimate opposites, coexistent and
concurrent.  Life and death are constant
themes in nature but never are they more visible to us than at this time of
year, when the trees, fields and hedgerows offer us their bounty and their
beauty for a fleeting moment before apparent dormancy takes hold.  In a few weeks, it will be hard to imagine
the lushness of autumn was ever with us.
At times it may even seem hard to believe, to trust, that life will ever
flourish again.

We can’t cling on to all that we are enjoying about the
season right now any more than we can turn the world on its axis to avoid
darker nights and colder days.  Wishing
it were otherwise can be tempting but is ultimately frustrating and certainly
futile.  But we can learn, slowly perhaps
at first, to accept the turning of the year just as we accept the rising and
setting of the sun.  They are the rhythms
of life, and those of death too.

Not clinging does not mean, however, that we can’t
celebrate.  Let us enjoy this blaze of
glory for those precious moments that it is with us.  It will be gone soon, which is all the more
reason to embrace and enjoy it now rather than simply skipping to mourn for
what will follow.  The crown of autumn
may be fleeting but perhaps that is part of the challenge, part of the allure –
it makes us present to this very moment, these very weeks.  We have to be present centred, not day
dreaming about our summer holidays or worrying about the festive season ahead –
the past and future are merely distractions that rob us of the jewels we
possess right now.  Here.  In this place.  In this moment.

Gather these jewels whilst you can.  Start a nature table, create an altar, give
over a shelf to celebrate and recognise autumn whilst she is with us.  It doesn’t have to be big; I love the little
collection gathered in a bowl, as pictured, which a child put together during a
garden working party I attended last Saturday.  Simply pick up tokens that catch your eye.  Conkers, acorns and leaves are the obvious examples, but there is really no limit.  The adventurous (and suitable knowledgeable) amongst us could forage for all edible items.  Or if you can’t get out into nature, how about bringing to you by searching your books & the online world for evocative descriptions or amazing images?  And please do share your collections, your creations, your responses, either on the A Life Of One’s Own Facebook page or using the hashtag #fourthquarter2015 on Twitter or Instagram.  I’ll be adding further thoughts and (hopefully!) inspiration through those streams across the week ahead.  I’d love you to share with us too.

Worship the amazingness that is the natural world in autumn.  Be in awe of what is happening around us
right now, because before we know it, it will be gone – as surely as day is
followed by night, and life is followed by death.