Circle magic

Last week I sat in a circle of women: women who listen to my deepest fears and joys without judgement, fixing or advice; women for whom ALL of me is welcome; women who do not hold me hostage to what I may have shared at another time and in another place.  This is my safe place to be; where I hear my own wisdom as I give voice to feelings I hide from myself.

I heard another woman’s joy at finding her place of spiritual connection and the ease with which her life flows now.  I found her mesmeric and inspirational. I wanted to take her home in my pocket as I am struggling and feeling pointless.

Walking the hills on Saturday with another circle woman, again I heard a story that fed my soul: a story about surrender, non-resistance, non-attachment and the inner peace and joy conscious living brings this woman even in her darkest hours. Indeed it was suffering that brought this woman to a decision: enough – there must be another way.

At her suggestion, this morning I opened Eckhart Tolle’s book on Practising Living in the Now and there it was: surrender; surrender to what IS.  I gobbled up the chapter.  Later, digging over a couch grass infested herbacious border, I focussed on what I was doing.  I was present.  It felt good.  And very different from my normal mental torture on how many other beds there are to dig, whether I should be pruning, sewing seeds, planting or doing office work.

Refreshed, I came indoors – my back was beginning to ache and my wrist was twingeing. I decided to empty a drawer full of belts and check whether the key to the safe, which I had secreted carefully before going to The Gambia and have not been able to find, was there.  It was not, but that was OK as it was another drawer carefully checked and tidied.  I knew the key (and spare) would turn up sometime, hopefully in time for my son’s July wedding so that I could give his bride the old/borrowed item I had promised.  I decided to look in my husband’s pants drawer: there was the key!  I put it in my usual hidey hole.   And there was the spare.  I had checked this drawer in rising panic several times over the last month without success.  Strange how acceptance of what is seems to work!





Gothic soul food

I have been searching for soul food since our return from Africa – I felt emptied out and needed to fill.

Would my heart be filled at Monday’s life painting group under the penetrating gaze of Doug Binder, who sees an emanating light in the melancholy of the model as he/she strains to hold a day long pose? Arriving late I disturbed the strange silence of the life room; I had forgotten a canvas, rootled around and found some horrid hardboard, balanced it on my travelling easel which collapsed noisily. Fifteen heads swivelled round; ‘Morning, Sue’ said Tony. The familiar faces were seated exactly where I had left them more than 3 months ago. My fellow artists were ranged around a male model, his over-developed torso musculature and long penis presented a human landscape challenge I did not enjoy.

Later in the week I sat down with ‘When breath becomes air’ by Paul Kalanithi, a much acclaimed memoir by a brilliant neurosurgeon examining his life values in dying well as he succumbs to an aggressive lung cancer. I devoured the book overnight, gobbling the beautiful prose and failing to digest its wisdom. In the morning I googled Felicity Warner and her soul midwife school desperately seeking meaning for myself in being with the dying, a gift I have thought about often.

Yesterday I took a friend to York. After a delicious late lunch of eggs Benedict in Mannions, a cafe which does simplicity brilliantly, we wandered through The Shambles to the Minster. We were early for Evensong, a service which I used to love, yet attended for the first time in 40 years at St David’s last September. Then I was transported listening to the choir, feeling the visceral organ and surveying the ancient coffered ceiling. Would the English perpendicular have the same effect?

The choir were practising as I gaped awestruck at the medieval stained glass East window trying to unravel the story of Genesis. Eventually I realised relevant panels were missing, being refurbished as part of a massive cleaning exercise relearning the expert craftsmanship of these masters of light and tracery.

The doors to the quire were opened at 5pm and we took our seats in the wonderfully ornate carved wooden stalls. As the ambient light sank the red and white cloaked choristers were illuminated by candlelight; they chanted plainsong Psalms, harmonised a heavenly Magnificat and Nunc Dimittus before singing a Brahms anthem. Exquisite Evensong, a beautiful soulful full stop.

The art of giving

Often I have said that I receive when I give. For me volunteering is a great way of giving of myself physically, intellectually, emotionally and spiritually.  I prefer giving of myself to donating money, although it would be fair to say that volunteering seldom is cost free.

Money pours into The Gambia, but to what effect? I felt anger seeing the staff of major charities and NGOs driving around in gas guzzling 4x4s bearing personalised plates and living in secure, quality accommodation paid from ‘administrative expenses’.  It seemed to me that too many projects are unsustainable, or major overseas donors benefit to the detriment of locals. I could wax lyrical about the iniquities of IMF interventions.

At the other end of the scale, it seems that almost every frequent visitor has at least one project they support, from paying school fees for a local child to bringing in container loads of books, bicycles and clothing. And here the benefits of giving seem most tangible, making a difference to individuals lives.

There are some hare-brained schemes, like the Dutch couple fund-raising to build a swimming pool where local children can be taught to swim in an attempt to avoid the frequent drownings in the rip tides and undertow of the Atlantic rollers. And there are tough schemes, like Samaritana who are attempting to take prostitutes of the beaches and teach them skills to earn less dangerously, but turning a trick or two pays infinitely better. The ex sex workers output needs to be sold in the USA or Europe at market rates.

In reflecting on the art of my giving, I suppose I am attached to an outcome – that giving makes a difference, but maybe this is a salve for my conscience and sensibilities? Perhaps what is important is the act itself, no strings attached.

After shock

Bitter orange notes waft through the house as golden shreds simmer softening for the B&B guests breakfast marmalade; my iPod at full volume shuffles my crazy musical tastes; workmen march muddy boots over cream carpets searching for the fault that keeps us incommunicado – home!

Yesterday morning I caught up with local gossip at the village sub-post office: who had died; who was having an affair and with whom; who was moving out (gnome house) and who had moved in (a famous artist). There is always something or somebody to talk about in our small community of some 200 souls.

Susi started a queue; earwigging the conversation, she told me she had spent weeks living in a compound upcountry in The Gambia. Pam announced that Lorraine, John’s new wife, is leaving for The Gambia shortly – she regularly visits to run school birth control classes. On the way home I bumped into Babs walking Charlie, her Yorkshire terrier; some 15 years ago Babs spent a season cooking at the Kombo Hotel. I felt another rippling shock realising the links between this small Dales village and the village of The Gambia: how small is the world?

This morning, I greeted James, our new vicar, as he staggered across the road carrying old hymn books from St. Mary’s to the vicarage; we chatted, despite his weighty burden (‘good exercise’ he said), about the weird contradictions and discombobulating effect of transplanting between Africa and Europe; how so much is hidden in our free speaking society whilst the opposite applies in the more censored Gambia; how questioning the probity of our values and culture might result in a world of uniform greyness; and of the benefits of aspiration and beauty.

The phone is ringing! We are connected. We are home.image

Dream catching

A couple of days before our flight home I dreamed I was arrested at Banjul airport and thrown into the hotel, the infamous Mile 2 prison. My big mouth had got me into trouble: sounding off about the lunatic pronouncements of His paranoid Excellency Sheikh Professor Doctor blah blah, the ridiculous tourism master plan, FGM, The Gambia as an Islamic State, the collapsed economy, the cerebral palsied hidden in fear of bad juju and so on. I had been troubled by instructions to be careful over blogging and today can feel the constriction in my throat from unspoken feelings and observations.

I am feeling unbalanced and sad; the minute I crossed our home threshold, our 3 months volunteering seemed a dream: a busy, short dream. I have been trying to catch the tail of the dream since.

I have a different perspective to Chris, who seems angry, writing off the experience as an expensive waste of time and energy – I sense his powerful sense of justice has been disturbed. I have known for weeks that I was going to miss The Gambia: the night heat with its addictive red dust earth and lemon balm scent; warm, friendly smiles – white teeth in blue black ebony faces; colour; the constant chatter communicating nothing but ensuring loneliness is unknown; and being so very valued for our contribution even for things about which we knew nothing, like opening a restaurant!

We have worked hard and given much and I know this strange exotic dream will give more in return. We have learned much. I was depressed by some questionable business dealings I uncovered in preparing a strategic review for a not for profit organisation, but an evening with some highly educated white Gambians gave me a fresh perspective. Kamal and Mandy are second and third generation Lebanese immigrants, their forefathers settling at least 150 miles inland as required in this part of Africa. Over a family feast of tabouleh, roast cauliflower and tahini, hummus, Baba ganoush, grilled meats and fruit platters sprinkled with halva we discussed how Africa confronts, with the power of a full frontal assault, the sensitivities of our developed world view and values. Yet lift the veil and the UN (useless nits), IMF, major corporations and our own home grown non-doms play the same game of favour, self-preservation and lying by omission. It is easy to get aerated by recipients sweet shop mentality towards funding, lack of project sustainability, iniquitous distribution of wealth, illiteracy, food security, women’s empowerment and much more. For me, the question is what I am going to do about it?

I feel Kettlewell is too small right now, but maybe this is an over-reaction; I want to change the world, when I know the reality is we change ourselves first and our true impact is in being the change we want to see in the world.