Mirrors and Trepidations

I’m reading a lot because my legs don’t want to walk, because my easel stands with an empty canvas waiting for paint and colour, because Knox has been folded away and I find it hard to find where my poems are, where they should be going.

I just read a short story by Frances Bellerby which seems to encompass these feelings – meeting up with the blanks, the way in which something which is strange, curtain-like, empty and yet very full comes across consciousness and delivers a sense of both epiphany and impotence.

I feel as if I am standing on the edge. As if I am on one of those roads in the Kalash Valley where the rock bends down overhead, where the road is under the shoulder of the mountain and the view is momentarily obscured but I know that it is there ahead in all its enormity and significance, its open ended-ness.

All this is about the reluctance that I am feeling about going back into the hospital situation and then  the ‘troisieme etage’ for two weeks after. This is the  operation to replace my last hip joint that is grinding and grumbling and giving me a sense of helpless and elderly feebleness. It is an outward condition that is annoying, sometimes painful and that stops me walking and moving easily. It is not however, as I seem to have transposed it, a condition that stops my mind from moving, words from coming. If anything it should be a situation that allows me to open up my mind because it is giving me a lot of time when I can only sit, or rest or think about things.

One of the things I think about, when I put my mind to it, is the work I should be doing with writing. The filing cabinet drawers that contain prose, novels, poems that are the signposts of years gone by and experiences that I can now only recover in the imagining and dreams that I have. These dreams or memories come back to me with increasing intensity. I want to grasp the threads and follow them back.

When I find it difficult to move forward then maybe it is the time to gather in, like a harvest, the significant or important things that have been given by the life that I have led. I love to tell the stories of where I have been, of happenings and I think and dream often of the people I have known and of mountains, beaches, palm trees and the movement of elephant through the bush. Where are these things all going? Do they have meaning outside the drifted imaginings of an old woman sitting in an armchair at the top of a hill in rural Normandy?

We know ourselves maybe, partly by the work we are doing, by the places and people that these ‘happenings’ put us in touch with. When all of that active stuff stops what is there left to do?

I just read Philip Gross’s Spiegel im Spiegel sequence of poems in Scintilla 21 magazine they are about mirrors. What comes back to us, the double us, and how fallible is the mirror in its distortions and reflections? Well it got me out of the armchair and sat at the computer!

In my journal I write down the losses in my early life that are maybe at the root of this sense of unease and fear that I feel at leaving behind the familiarity of home, partner, garden and sky. I copy out quotations about moving forward, blame and a sense of loss. I am suddenly moving forward on the road – the road that is my life, as it is, its happening that is the path that is opening in front of me.

I am so lucky that I have in my head all the scenarios of mountain, rock and pathways that might be the way in which I can go forward towards some kind of marker, some movement in stillness, which is where I sit in my fear at the moment. Maybe this is the first of a new kind of blog, more honest and self-searching that will reach out into my community of friends and poets.

Fare forward traveller. Maybe this is the first step forward.


IMG_9653        Garden coming    IMG_9633     Willow weeping

IMG_9644   Cherry cheering!


Some pictures to lighten the mood!


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Looking for a lovely discipline

‘…..No more those lovely disciplines
we reassure ourselves it’s human to pursue
and no more those sweet acts of will
we briefly treasure or take for granted…..’
from The Lovely Disciplines by Martin Crucefix

Coming to the end of turmoil and desolation I received two lovely and unexpected gifts. They have both taken me back into writing again. The Lovely Disciplines, poems about the ordinary made extraordinary, is full of positive thoughts and words. The title poem takes us into the sad, lost world of those who ‘turn hardly more than a leaf turns/ in being blown to the gutter’. I love Martin Crucefix’s translations of Rilke and this gift of his latest poems was just perfect at a time when I felt rather like the ‘leaf turning’ myself. I had forgotten how one is surrounded by the ‘lovely disciplines’ and how precious they are when they seem as if they are going to be lost. One of the problems with moving house is that the chaos and disturbance can be overwhelming and all the daily miracles of life are forgotten.

So Penny’s gift came just at the right time along with another ‘house warming gift’ from Caroline. That is an old map of Taprobana. Although the actual place is debated to me it is certainly Sri Lanka/Ceylon. William Knox, on his return to England, included a map of Ceylon in his 1681 Historical Relation of the Island Ceylon and it is so similar to the Taprobana map that is now on my study wall I am certainly convinced they are one and the same place. Sometimes Ceylon is also called Serendib. Now Knox has been packed away for too long – I had to search for my notes, and the poems that I have to work on are neatly filed but it took me a long time to find them. The excitement of the map has focused me on what I now need and want to do.

We are well settled – almost three months into the move to Les Ecasseries. The huge cattle barn is now nearly empty of our furniture, black bags are unpacked. Our little bungalow has a small kitchen, a living room and two bedrooms. One of these is now my study and Phil has built in book shelves and a fitted wardrobe in the bedroom so that we can ‘fit in’ too.

The bungalow – called a pavilion in French – has a sous sol – a kind of basement. It is the exact copy of the rooms above and was once a double garage and storage space. It already had a sink in what is now a utility room and storage for dried food, freezers, overflow of books, years of poetry magazines and anything else there was no room for elsewhere. The garage now has patio doors leading to the outside and is a wood floored, spacious and bright office and treatment room for Phil. Behind it is a double guest room ready for occupation – everything carpeted and walled and ceilinged, the small window letting in light and it looks very good – actually substantially bigger then the bedroom above! There is a small box room with bunk beds and a linen cupboard and cupboard for the water heater. We have managed to get most of our furniture and ‘stuff’ in – and now we are waiting for guests to come too. It has been an amazing transformation. Outside a new fosse septique has been put down in the back meadow by the lovely and well named David Joyeux – who also removed a lot of hedging with his huge digger and the weeping willow tree now stands at the front of the house in a stretch of open grass.

There is still lots to do including setting up a garden and making workshops and clearing things in the barns but everything we need at the moment is done – it has all been painted and looks like a completely different house. Now I have to try and keep it all tidy – that is the lovely discipline of a small house. I hope that this gives a feel of the place to everyone so you can imagine us here and thriving.

I have had time to do quite a lot of reading but not the focus or energy to write much. I hope to now be more regular in writing proper blogs – but I felt this one needed to be more descriptive. Last week I entered three competitions – one a pamphlet one, one a taster for a pamphlet and one a single poem. I also sent off five poems – this week. I want to set up another lovely discipline and make sure that poems that have been sitting in files and drawers are sent out into the world – Ezra Pound described this as being like sending out babies into the cold. I understand the reluctance to expose them in their weakness to the harsh wind of other people’s reality.

Moving because it is the sensible thing to do as we get older has been hard. The old house was lovely and we were in the midst of such beautiful, remote countryside but it was becoming too hard and expensive to keep up the large house and the land. I am so glad that we had it for six years and the memories, and the writing that has come out of the place, will last for a long time to come. Here we are up on a hill, with a long, long view across a valleys to a far ridge. We are close to the motor way and only two kilometers from small shops. I can stand in the middle of the hallway and vacuum all the rooms without changing plug sockets. In the kitchen we can reach everything while sitting at the table!

There are new and lovely disciplines to learn and to be grateful for. We are thankful for the support and care of all our friends and families and look forward to sharing our new house with them.

Some rather dark photos!




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Now I am old



‘Now I am old, all I want to do is try;

But when I was young, if it wasn’t easy I let it lie,

Learning through my pores instead……

I see more now than then…..

I see it perfectly, except the beast

Fumbles and falters, until the others wince.

Everything shimmers and glitters and shakes with unbearable longing.

The dancers who cannot sleep, and the sleepers who cannot dance.’

 Ruth Stone in In Person: World Poets.  Bloodaxe2017

Hannah, my granddaughter, and her boys visiting for the day on their way to holiday in Bergerac says, ‘Your room looks like a writer’s block!’  And so it does.  Now it is totally empty and I am writing on a table in the corner of the living room which contains a sofa, two armchairs and Phil’s treatment couch.  Most of the house is full of beautifully wrapped and labelled boxes that belong to the people who are moving into our house in thirteen days.  We have had six different moving dates, this one actually has times for signing so it looks as if it is for real.  It’s hard to envisage cats in their travelling boxes, beds finally unmade and ready to go, the last minute cleaning and putting in place.  Most of our furniture and possessions, including all my books, not neatly wrapped and unlabelled, are in the large barn at the back of our new house.  They have been there for several weeks now as we moved them in anticipation of a moving date nearly a month ago.  The plants from the garden, cuttings from the greenhouse, precious bits of bushes and shrubs are all lined up behind the barn just like a garden centre on the last leg of a sale.

It is so curiously disorientating this moving business.  I am finding it hard to read, to settle to any kind of writing, even the donkey writing that needs doing before we leave. I have the list of magazine emails, competition entry forms on my computer but dates pass and nothing is sent off or done.  It’s as if there is a real block sitting in the front of my head.  Sometimes I can almost feel it, want to shift it bodily with my hand.

This is several weeks of nothing much happening apart from cleaning and making meals – there are no long term domestic tasks, no garden produce to pick and freeze or make into jam or sauces, pickles or puddings. It is the kind of ‘free’ time that I usually long for when I can read, write and think without interruption.  Except that I can’t.  Something in the loop in my head, going round and round over the trivial and unnecessary, uses up all the creative energy.  I am so tired I fall asleep in front of the telly, then I go to bed and later creep down here to try and do something and to escape the weird memory fall that cascades into my empty brain.  It is an anxious, feeling memory game.  Guilt and regret about things left undone, words unsaid, unkind and thoughtless actions that must have hurt and disturbed people in the past.

I am remembering clearly names and details of things from long ago – it’s a bit worrying as I think about how old people, losing their grip on the everyday and immediate, retreat into old memories and early parts of their lives.  I am very aware of my age in a way that I have never been before.

I felt today as if I was too old to start again, as if I had left everything too late.  Then something lovely happened.  Kay left me her new Bloodaxe Anthology ‘In Person: World Poets’, that has a DVD accompanying it.  There are interviews and readings from different poets from all over the world.  So my empty sitting room today has entertained Robert Adamson, Tomas Transtromer, Jack Mapanje and, most wonderfully, 94 year old Ruth Stone talking about her life from her house in the Vermont hills.  Nearly blind at the time of the interview she says her poems by heart and her voice as she speaks is so strong and moving.  And there she is, old as the hills, with a smile on her face, and a wonderfully engaging way of communicating.  Tomas Transtromer, whose poetry I had not read a lot of, with his gentle face and loving wife supporting him, wrote two volumes of poetry and a memoir after suffering a stroke that left him without us of his right hand and unable to speak.

Where is the end?  It’s in our own heads and hearts.  It is in the refusal to attend to the immediate moment, to allow the spool to unspool and to spoil as it weaves in and out of reality, boredom and the past.

So here I am, in the small hours, sitting in this echoey room, at the unfamiliar table, starting to marshal the thoughts, to string together words, to regret the waste of time, to know that there are many times ahead of positive, happy and productive life.  A new house, small and undemanding will be a good place to write.  Like my earlier writing pod  I made in my Park home in Falmouth there will be less Adlerian demands from the domestic front.  There is a small garden with a wall on two sides, trees with red candles of flowers and a hedge around it – it seems to be the perfect retreat for writing in, on my green round table and a garden chair.

I am looking forward, I am writing about it, I feel the need to communicate again.  I have my most important books with me.  Robert Knox seems pertinent in his own dislocation and need to make a new home in an unfamiliar place.  I will start working on the Knox poems again tomorrow.  Now I will go quietly to bed, unwoven, relaxed, feeling whole again and thankful to my friends who are my imagined audience.

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‘Tell us Preacher! Tell us who is we!’

from ‘ The Wine of Astonishment’ by Earl Lovelace quoted by Kei Miller in Manifestos: Poetry Review Spring 20017

Poetry Review has a new section, Manifestos, where poets state what their poetic purpose and meaning is. In other words ‘who is we?’. Kei Miller lifts this into the context of responsibility and asks what is the purpose of the poet today when the bodies stack up on the shore, women’s bodies become weapons of war, the barriers go up.

It does feel as if the world as we know it is disintegrating – or should we say, that in a real way, other worlds are coming to our shores, into our purview. What he is saying articulates my own thinking and feeling. Words have actually gone away because I couldn’t make them encompass the world that I feel, that hurts, that takes the breath away.

The world of poetry seems unreal and hard to engage with. Submissions and competitions, views and critiques, tensions and cliques. If, like me, it is a world you can only know through reading magazines, internet and social media it seems almost wholly composed of people circling round from workshop to workshop, course to course, reading to reading. There is so much to know about but what does it all mean and what is my place in it?

I am not educated for poetry – no degree in literature, no prior knowledge of poets or significant others. I have not read the classic poets very much and I feel my way into what I read through reviews, friends’ recommendations, the sharing of poets like Kei Miller. Sometimes it is overwhelming, I think I can never have enough time to dig it all out, to discover the etching on the bone, to take the scalpel to experience and so to responsibility.

I am going to try an exercise in remembering some of my own poems, very few of which have emerged into the public world- which does raise the question of who, or what, I am writing for. What significant lines of poems come to mind when I reflect on what I have written?:

‘When snow stands
knee steep these tree-ed shelves
mark the pathway.
This is the incidental mapping made by women
working against the pall of sky,
the faint whisper of ice.’
from Reading Elizabeth Bishop in the Himalayas.

‘It’s a mystery when you look at your hands
in the silence after –
a brush still mingling hairs
an unused tea bag
a pink purse unzipped and empty.’
from Earthquake

‘..children buried with their books
a mother mouth stuffed with dirt,
holding a baby against her breast.’
from I ride the Karakoram Highway

‘at such crossings I am suddenly alone.
Crowds shuffle behind.
We are all stripped.
Some lose country, face, the game.
For the rest a cold wind chills near the heart.’
from Crossing the Border.

‘Sitting on the stone steps, washing my feet
everything settles. I reach a balance here
in this drought prone, unlovely plain;
where a picked flower dies in an instant in the hand.’
from Being on the Mountain

‘There are many ways to die.
Our driver hedges bets;
at each tin box or smooth clay purse
rupees dropping through his wet palms.’
from Understanding Peacocks 2

‘Nightmares, earthquakes
the baby floating down the river,
the body caught from the tide by rocks.

The night turns in its jacket.
I am waiting for the split,’
from In the Night

More than enough quotes – if you are still with me what does it all mean? Why is there this need, this passion to nail down the experience and to see the particular in the universal – maybe one more!

At 3 a.m.

opening the back door
and there’s the moon
gleaming orange
in the bare branches
of an oak tree behind the barn
never seen so clear before.
Drifts of blue cloud in the moon beams
give distance to the stars.
At first only one or two,
nearly a morning star
and others late to leave
and then I see
they’re all strung up
high as a human eye can see.

This icy morning
stamped with the particular.
This moon, these stars, this barn.

‘Stamped with the particular’ maybe manifests a bit. The urge to scalpel experience to find the particular within and to see how it resonates with the universal. When you are in the middle of writing, or living, it is hard to see the patterns, to understand what is happening. My last two long series of poems – ‘Bringing Home the Himalayas’ – about the experience abroad and the particular at home, though still in the country as a stranger, and a long poem I am working on about Robert Knox’s Historical Relation of the Island of Ceylon and my own experience of life in Sri Lanka I think are trying to marry these two things. If it is to be worthwhile, to be shared, to be responsible or in any way useful then poetry has to live its life in the common world, to find a way of articulating human emotions and the existence of hope in the mundane and the destroyed.

My own sense of loss relates at the moment to leaving this house but brings in on its tail all the losses of the world. In my journal I write ‘The hinterlands of waiting, these intimations of loss.’ Have I made a manifesto for why I write, why I call myself ‘poet’? I am not sure but the exercise of writing this has been a way of looking at my poetry in a different way and by this reflective sifting I am also looking back at my life from a different perspective.

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ought a poem to be? Answer, a sad

and angry consolation.  That’s

beautiful.  Once more?  A sad and angry


Geoffrey Hill  (The  Triumph of Love CXLVIII)


Certain books, certain readings I come to, without any curtain of misunderstanding or obscurity, even if what they say seems to be difficult and obscure at the time.  I wonder at this, at the way poetry catches the mood often long before the meaning.  PN Review this month seems particularly to reflect this and the quotation from Hill is part of a short essay by Peter McDonald’s article on Yeats, Hill and anger.  It sends me back to Broken Hierarchies – a book where the overused heft is the only word to describe taking it down off the shelf.  Heft in every meaning of the word.  And here we go again.  I don’t know if it is the effort of trying to make sense of things global, national, personal or just the impotent anger and the sense that there is no sense in trying to make sense any more.


Well out of that morass of mis-meaning the sense of loss.  This time of year, in Normandy, you can see very far.  The hedges have been coppiced, trees de-branched their untidy limb s trimmed to hard knobs up high, un-shadowed trunks. Grass is beginning to grow across the fields but not high enough to comb in the wind, just lifting its head.  Then , suddenly, there is colour and movement in the ditches.  Outside the hedge the ditch is lined with painted celandine and opening narcissus and daffodils.  Colour begins to bring shape to the tulips in their troughs, I look anxiously at the wisteria to see if it is beginning to bud.  Then, as I riffle through the poem Broken Hierarchies I find,

‘the holding burden of a wisteria

drape amid drape, the sodden

copia of all things flashing and drying.’

and I am again in the land of loss.  These last months how many of the poets I love have gone – Hill, Bonnefoy, and now Derek Walcott.  I came late to Walcott but his rhythm and word spin holds me in a whirlpool of joy and I re-found John Berger and his special way of looking when his obituaries took me back to his books.  Leonard Cohen and David Bowie whose music and words are part of my history have also gone.  The trees lose their leaves but they come again and the ground and sky is pregnant just now with spring renewal – but with people it is different – all that remains is poetry as a sad and angry consolation.  I always regarded myself as a steward of my houses and it has never before felt so hard to be leaving – but it is another sense of loss and a failure of will to want to move and change.  However – my last blog had a strange corollary as someone I didn’t know sent an obscure message to all of my followers about her mother dying and some people misinterpreted this as my daughter writing to say I was dead.  It is re-assuring that so many people have written to say how pleased they are that this is not the case and to say how upset they were to hear this mis-news.  It was a sort of renewal and a spring of the soul if not quite of the body and I looked with attention and focus at the world around me – so glad to still be part of it.  On the internet a house is advertised which shows wisteria crowding all over the front of it – perhaps it will be the one?  So we move forward – hope eternal springing in all senses.  How comforting hymns were when it was possible to believe and hope in what they said.  Sometimes I find myself humming them to myself and wonder if it is a step too far to remember that underneath are the ever-lasting arms.

In French lessons we have looked at memory and read Marcel Proust and the madeleine in its original – so spare and powerful his writing in French.  Conjugations sometimes settle into a pattern – maybe I am improving slowly.  In the meantime I am going to rejoice – in lamb-like tumble and jump – in my head at least.  Happy springing to you all!





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I am missing my mother

I am missing my mother.  I don’t understand why but for the first time since she stopped following me around the Himalayas I find myself wanting to talk to her, tell her things, show her what my house is like. The clue is maybe the word house. We have put our house on the market for all kinds of logical and sensible reasons – the most pertinent of which is probably that we cannot afford to stay in it any longer. Last night on the telly there was a super-lively and orangey woman introducing a programme about amazing houses around the world. At the end I stretched back in my chair and looked up. The ceiling of the room I was sitting in seemed as amazing as some of the intricate and carefully architected corners and reaches of these amazing millionaire-type houses. Two huge beams, still retaining their woody exterior and trunk-like quality, support shaved lengths of old oak. Between, the plaster of the ceiling is faintly creamy in the firelight. It is a bit like living in a novel. It’s the kind of place I have always dreamed of living in. There is a complete silence when you step outside in the night under a cold sprinkling of remote stars or early morning as the light starts to appear behind the line of oaks down Phillipe’s field, faint in the mist, creamy and pink against the black.
My house fits me – like a glove we say – a glove that is imperceptible in its closeness and the way it allows me sensitively to touch and feel the intricacies of the space around me. It is a space I can spread out into, where I can be absolutely myself.
So why this yearning feeling for my mother and even, this morning, a sense of my sister, dead now for many years, whose face appeared to me so real and human? Maybe I have been too busy in my life. When both my other and my sister died I was away – in the Himalayas and in Eritrea.
When my daughter’s baby Ishbel died at birth I saw her for a moment, dancing in the sky with ribbons, as I sat under a palm tree in a garden in Southern India. A garden which eventually became the garden of the Ishbel Christina Memorial Home where her memory was celebrated by the children that passed through its doors, supported and cared for by Charles and Jyothy my lovely Christian Indian friends. It was a very simple place where the children slept on mats on the floor (there were usually twelve of them) and ate simple food  and chanted their homework from their dog eared textbooks.


Children in school with the new textbook The children in Ishbel Christina Memorial home taking dinner

Charles had been part of the team that piloted the primary textbooks from our Andrha Pradesh education project.
Sometimes, when my legs won’t work properly and my head is muzzy I try to make a tally of things that have been worthwhile in my life. There have been so many things that were happy, good, friendly, wonderful, but worthwhile? I think the primary school textbooks that were developed by the British Council in Andrha have to count as being that. They were printed in their millions, with pictures and rhymes and games and stories, and across the state, which was then one of the poorest in India, teachers became enthusiastic about teaching and learning.
We developed the books in a wonderful place. Rishi Valley school is the place founded by Krishnamerti, where he spent the last part of his life in rooms, a place that still has his books in the library with its long windows opening under the neem trees and where I walked with a white umbrella – the same as he had in the photographs, thinking that maybe he had walked under it too. There is an acre of land for every child in the school. It is semi desert country, arid hills and sparse vegetation, yellow earth underfoot and with plenty of snakes. The huge banyan tree that Krishnamerti sat under as a young man and had his revelation of how his life would be – not the ‘saviour’ of the world predicated by Annie Besant, but as a teacher and spiritual guide to anyone ready to stop still and listen to his common sense talks. His spirit resonates throughout the school where children are listened to, learn to preserve and care for the natural world, learn to care for each other.
The grounds have an area where dhobi red clay huts, simple and with no ‘frills’ are available to visitors, people like myself who came to use the facilities in the holidays, other teachers and eminent visitors. We all had the same plain furniture, simple surroundings, vegetarian meals with butter milk to drink, woke in the night to the sound of the chokidars beating the vegetation and whistling to keep the snakes and wild animals away. Outside the house, around the edge of the campus, people placed saucers of milk and turmeric patterns on the ground for the appeasement of the cobras. I only saw a cobra once, sliding into the bushes, no child had ever been bitten by a snake in spite of their prolific presence.
It was here, in these amazing surroundings, that I worked with a wonderful team of Indian teachers and teacher educators, on the basic outline of the Class One textbook. In the morning I walked the umber sandy path to the rocks to sit and watch the light rising behind Rishi Kunda, the sacred mountain. Years later I wrote a novel where this place was a pivotal place for the romantic heroine, where she met her lost father before I kind of lost the plot. The friends that I made there have been with me, in my heart and imagination, ever since. The Ishbel Christina Home closed down and became an ordinary house again when I and Charles and Jyothi retired. Now I hope it resounds with the echo of their grandchildren and that some of the orphans bring their own children to play their too.
The funding for the orphanage came partly from the daily allowance I received as a member of the project. The first time I went to India I was briefed on the project in Delhi where I stayed for about a week before I went off into the middle of Andrha where we were starting the project team-building and planning. The British Council, in their wisdom, wanting to keep their workers fit and well, had marker hotels that we were expected to stay in. That time it was the friendly but to me very grand Ambassador Hotel. I received my daily allowance in hundred rupee notes, tied together with elastic bands, in a plastic carrier bag.

scan_20170108-5     scan_20170108-7

Children outside Jaladaniki wait for the puffed rice    Charles in Jaladanki at Christmas

Children in the sea with Charles



The second time I went to India I was more savvy. I bought my shalwar kameez in the street market and stayed in the YMCA for 70 rupees a night. The rest of the rupees went to help re-build Charles’s house that had been destroyed in the cyclone. They formed the basis of his dream to help the orphaned and neglected Christian children that his wife taught in school or who attended the tiny church that Jyothi’s father had built deep in the bush. In this way our textbook project helped educate children who would not otherwise have been in school, or perhaps even still alive.Every time I went to work in India I would leave Hyderabad on the overnight train for a long weekend in deep Nellore district, picnic at the seaside with the orphans, my and their seaside treat, eat and play with them, and become a part-time preacher. This last, unexpected development. was due to the leadership of Charles in the local church and to Jyothi’s father’s church Jaladanki in the jungle.

Whenever I worked in Pakistan, India or Sri Lanka I was seen as a ‘Christian’. Both unexpected and yet very touching was the faith that the small Christian communities placed in a white woman – who therefore must be a pillion of Christian faith. As a somewhat shambolic Quaker, whose faith involves silent sitting in a circle waiting for gathering in the light, I was often put on the spot. A young man cleaning toilets in an education centre in Lahore takes my hands in his and asks me to pray for him, a teacher talks to me at length about the Bible and living a life of faith, the train inspector interrogates me on a biblical text.   Charles is more pro-active. Before I arrive, thankfully giving time for reading up on the twenty hour train journey, he sends me the text that I will be required to preach on at Sunday church. Sometimes this is in the local church where there are pews and a raised platform, a ragged orchestra of boys playing the hymns and rows of women, old women who were once bible women who travelled around the villages and who, in their old age, have no family to support them, are destitute and supported by the church. Someone presents a squawking hen to the minister which we later eat for lunch I suspect.
Sometimes we travelled out early in a hired Ambassador car to the jungle church. We were greeted at the stopping place by small boys with whistles and drums. We carry a big hessian sack of puffed rice for distribution after the service. The track is small and winding to the small rectangular building. There are no seats, the floor is jam packed with women, children, some men sitting on chairs around the edges. Charles and I are pushed forward to the front where the service is conducted noisily and enthusiastically, hymns, lengthy prayers, and then the ‘Word’. Charles translates, not always exactly I suspect, putting his own slant on things and I try to become the Quaker channel for the light that is the experience of ministry in the meeting. I try to talk of love, light, endurance and joy – for these are people so poor that I cannot imagine their lives. They live in the hinter-land of a country where social security is not even a concept and where medical treatment is a matter of payment. Afterwards the rice sack is opened and the children whoop and jump around, the women cluster around me, touching, holding my hand – their hands are tough and hard – the heat and the smell make my head spin. At last we detach ourselves and move back along the path, wave goodbye and slowly head back home to the quiet of eating a shared meal with the children who have returned from their church nearby.
Once I was met at the station, unusually in the day rather than the middle of the night, by Charles who whisks me off to the local hospital. We have to ransom an old lady he says. One of the bible women, who Jyothi feeds and clothes, has been in hospital with an infection in her leg. Charles has persuaded the doctor to operate rather than amputate – she is already stone deaf how can she also be leg-less he explains to me. So we pay the ransom that Charles has promised the doctor would be forthcoming on my arrival.
Now why my mother? Why these dreams, day dreams, thoughts of her? Why do I so much want to be able to tell her things? I can only think that she has become my listener, my confidante as she used to be. And now I am reflecting a lot of the time. Gathering up fronds and threads, looking back on things in my life, wanting actually to nail them down, make them visible. There are things I want to make a witness to. When my mother died I was in the Himalayas, I had said my goodbyes to her before I went – she opened her eyes for the first time in days and gave me a lovely smile as I stumbled away from the hospital ward.
When she died I was travelling and I heard her so clearly, on my shoulder as it were, going through the journey with me. I shared with her all the people, places that were so important to me. We sat together under the apricot trees with the women, ate curry with friends, drove over precipitous roads under the bluffs of mountainside. She was full of wonder at the places I had been, the people I knew. We travelled together until her funeral when she went into the stars, rather as Ishbel Christina had danced across the sky.
This is the poem I wrote about her:
Today they bury you and I am far away

up to Phundar in the night,
rocky edges pressing the road.
I know because I read it
we are climbing high
but the dark refuses a horizon.
On a wide corner the jeep slows
I hear water spilling down the mountainside.
I know it is blue (see above)
extraordinary tropic blue.
Blueness splashing from rock to rock.

They have gone
the sad procession of the dead
who no longer wake to the bite
of morning mountains
remaining only a drift of ash turning in the wind.

This long journey, dust sealing up the eyes,
ends on a sudden lip of land.
A light hangs in the dark,
not a night beacon but a shower of brightness;
a small lake and a surround of peaks.
Over all, a bowl of stars
crowding the sky,
bringing it down
spiral by spiral
to the rope of land.

Printed in A Speaking Silence: Quaker poets of today, edited by R.V.Bailey and Stevie Krayer. Indigo Dreams.2013
I think my mother has allowed me to access these memories and made it possible for me to write about them without getting tied up in anxieties about colonialism, the politics of aid or missionaries. She has helped me to lift the edges a bit and allow the underlying context of people and things to come through a bit. None of it was neat or well-arranged or even probably ‘sensible’ at the time, but it was my reality and somehow, now, I need to share that – as if I was just talking to her.


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‘….a poem is a little machine for remembering itself’, says David Wheatley in his review of Nicholas Barker’s Visible Voices in Poetry Review. Because I know I have read this quotation elsewhere very recently I go to the internet – which actually fails to identify the poet/poem – probably because Wheatley has summarised the quotation in his own words. After that I skid backwards in my wheely writing chair across the room to take down my Oxford Dictionary of Quotations.  Metaphorical or possibly real dust blows from the pages as I open it and look down poet, poem, poetry.
For a moment I am back in previous times when I frequently used this book, often wandering far from the original search as something caught my eye and I followed it up.

These quiet meanderings through words don’t occur so often nowadays. Partly this is because I seem to read more slowly, need to read things twice over – ten times if they are what I am trying to remember in French. It is, however, and I say this as someone who in a weak moment before New Year signed up to a daily ‘de-clutter’ homily, a way of making sense of life, a way of celebrating the slowness that old age brings.

One thing I have noticed particularly about this ‘life phase’ is that I am fascinated by degeneration and change in the physical things around me. I remember a friend whose father was a painter telling me that a painting on her wall was one of many that he had painted, as an old man, of a plate of mackerel as they disintegrated.

On my window ledge at the moment there are five moles, lying on their backs in a row, their pink paws reaching out into the air. The taupis man placed them there the other day. I was the only sign of life, how ironic, that he could find –sitting in my pyjamas reading at my desk when he tapped on the window, raised four fingers, smiled broadly and went on his way. He returned a week later to add a further mole he had caught in his traps.
I find that he lays out his moles, for which he charges 2 euros 50 cents a mole, in a public arena so that there is no question that he has caught them in the mole-hilled vicinity rather than taken them from the boot of his car.

At first these tiny black creatures shone in the sunlight, like sleepers on a beach ripening in the heat. Then came hard frost and they stretched out frozen and sparkly. Today the orchard is encased in ice. A pall of ice blocks out the sky and the apple trees, like ersatz Christmas trees, shine down their white trunks. The moles have gone grey. They have collapsed towards each other, they have become an amorphous heap of mole rather than the individuals they were yesterday. Their touching pink paws that have pulled at my heart strings every day have thinned to transparency, just a tiny patch of red remaining in the centre of those perfectly formed hands. So my initial revulsion at these tiny deaths has turned, over the days, into a kind of affection.       I write about them every day, I am integrating them into my slowed down life.

This seems to be what is happening with my vision – fascination with tiny things, finding details in pots, pictures, flowers, vegetables, anything I ‘come upon’ that I have never noticed before although they have sat on the shelf or grown in the garden for years.

My New Year’s Resolution, which I had not made on the 31st of last year, seems to be that attention and detail, the latticed beauty of the fragment hornet’sIMG_8601.jpg nest, the stipple of a split piece of bark, the curious kink in the cat’s tail when she waves just the end of it, are to be my rejoicings for the year. I’ll bury the moles today, when the ice thaws, thanking them for the insight and their company.

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