For the joy of the sweet green earth.
In my last blog I wrote about the chalice and paten made for me by a potter in Avebury in 1994 and inscribed with that line.
I’ve carried this pottery from place to place since then — homes in Swindon and Birmingham and, for the last 19 years, in North Wales. At the moment, another place is calling me, a forest in Brittany, and I’m at the beginning of making sense of what this might be about. I know that it synchronises with a deep conviction that home, for me, goes hand in hand with connection to the natural environment. But there is also another resonance.
The first time I moved house I was seven. We moved from a run-down Victorian terrace with a cobbled alley out the back and no indoor bathroom, to a new build. In retrospect, the new house was flimsy and built fast to house mass labour for the local industry, but it was right on the edge of a town with both sea and woodland. The local church, a beautiful building 18th Century that I went to because school friends with religious parents invited me, was in a magical little hamlet just beyond the town. The adults of the church provided me with arefuge. The surrounding woodland became the palette of my imagination.
The heady combination of solitude amongst the trees and organ music to a background of ritual and stained glass splendour started my journey into ministry. It was always going to be an interesting journey. There were no women priests and doing a PhD in feminist theology whilst being a working mother did not endear me to the hierarchy, something I’ve written about in the prose poetry collection, Stale Bread and Miracles.
Eventually, after a series of workplace assaults in a difficult parish, and a sense of dislocation from the institution, I left ministry. And now I feel myself turning back, though not to a religious vocation; it is both return and a new venture. As I quoted last week, Eliot puts it like this in ‘Little Gidding’:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Story as home
Ministry, for me was always about story. The narratives of community, people, connections and healing that make sense of life were at the heart of it. Time has a way of circling us back to major themes in our lives. As James Joyce succinctly put it:
Longest way around is the shortest way home.
Now I find myself again immersed in story from a very different perspective. Once again the narratives of community, people, connections and healing that make sense of life are vital. The potter added an extra line to his usual inscription on his ceramics:
Let not those who seek cease until they find and when they find they will be astonished.
I’m back on that search, ready to be astonished. I don’t share the faith that I started the journey with but I do share a sense of hope that making deep connection matters. I do share a belief that the stories we tell are urgent and can be transformative.
The chalice and paten are sculpted with trees — branches, leaves, canopy, trunk and roots. It takes me back in my imagination to the the little wood where this journey started. It takes me forward to a place I don’t yet know, that I’ve visited, but lived with only briefly, yet seems to be calling.
Following the senses
How will I show up? The poet E E Cummings talks about how so often the surface of our thinking, our immediate knowledge and go-to beliefs can be the safe places where we conform to expectations; our own as much as those of others. For Cummings, the authentic self exists in feelings. But this is also problematic. We live in a world where feelings are also manipulated or even mass produced. The ease of ‘likes’ on Facebook, the seduction to create drama in our lives, the evocative pull of pop songs or football chants or religious choruses or even advertising jingles, are all based on feeling. Are these the stuff of authentic selves?
Is the ‘best’ me the one who can have moments of ranting or self-pity in the pages of my journal? Is she the person who on one day feels fatigued and hollowed out, or the one who, on other days, feels like nothing is impossible?
The ‘self’ is so amorphous and slippery, a notion we constantly construct and reconstitute. I suspect Cummings was searching for a sense that the radical and best story we can be is one that isn’t simply consumed ‘off the peg’, but has depth. Despite the slipperiness of a self that is both this matter, at this time, yet always dynamic and changing, we each have narrative threads. We all have stories.
And the stories are anchored in bodies, time and perception. They are anchored in the senses beneath the feelings and the thoughts. They are anchored not only in the individual but in the contexts and communities we live within, the stories and archetypes that resonate with us, and with those we are connected to — people, creatures, all of life.
As a child, as I lost myself by a brook in a scrap of woodland on the edge of an industrial wasteland, the stuff of nature was deeply nurturing. The word ‘matter’ is linked etymologically to the Latin materia, as in ‘substance’ but also as in the inner wood of the tree. It’s also linked to mater, (māter in Latin, mētēr in Greek), that is the ‘origin’, ‘source’, or ‘mother’.
All life is from the same substance. Mother Earth has a Mother Universe. We don’t have to follow a particular creed to appreciate that if we do not honour Matter herself, we will perish with that part of her that we rely on for life. And we will take so much that we are connected to with us.
We need new stories, told for the joy of the sweet green earth. But so often those stories elude us because we don’t live with a sense of connection to all things.
The healing story
Although in our thoughts, in our science, in more and more brilliant essays and in acts of ecological and political activism, the story of connection is recounted,there is also another story of our times. It’s based on another powerful archetype: the orphan. In this story we are abandoned, wounded, motherless children.
A major feature of modernity is the appearance of connection over a very deep sense of isolation. The orphan is everywhere. Externally, the story of the orphan is writ large in refugee crises, forced migration, ecological disasters, wars and conflicts, lives cheapened by corporate greed or even from slavery. Internally, it lives in the shadow voices that whisper that we are not enough, in family dysfunction, depression, feelings of overwhelm or that there is simply too much wrong for us to have the slightest impact.
We are a global orphanage and hurt children often don’t behave well. But there is power in sharing a core wound. There is power in sharing a story. There is the possibility at looking not at our inner orphan but at the orphaned sea choked with plastic, the orphaned valleys burnt in climate change, the orphaned people made homeless by natural or human-made disasters. There is deep solace and acceptance in this and an enormous sense of being able to offer something to the story.
When we realise that we are all from the same matter, then stories of how we belong to the same stuff as stars, volcanoes, magma and light are told. When we realise that we are all in this together, then stories of tenderness, kindness and connection take shape.
Connection changes fear to hope; cynicism to gratitude; hunger to abundance.
Becoming a different story
Thank you for reading — if you’d like to join writers who are diving deeply into the writing life and making transformations, sign up to my email list. You’ll also find free courses on my site. While you’re there, take a look at my book Writing Down Deep: an alchemy of the writing life.