All effort is only ever attempt. To live proximate may be to live close enough.
I live too in the essay- in the original sense- essayer- to try.
What if writing is only ever a road to carry us closer to what is possible to say? What if art is merely portal to something more nuanced or intriguing?
To try, to attempt, to remain in sight of beholding — isn’t this worthy of the effort. It’s what we learn by moving closer that brings us into contact with all that is essential after all.
In a world so focused on linear outcome (if I do X, I’ll gain y), and the metrics which measure success by virtue of the masculine demands of scale, reach and the guaranteed quantifiable; the value of the effort – the attempt- is so often overlooked.
I am interested in the circular attempt at returning to the questions which keeps haunting me; the questions which only a dive into the unknowables (and therefore the unquantifiables) of creative force can round. They are prompt to bring into form the things that keep nudging; invitations to put words or paint or action around what is seeking form, to give music or voice to or to bring to attention to, as a gesture of life itself.
To attempt is to be in conversation with something much larger. And to stay proximate to that may be the best conversation going…
There is a turning in the air in what seems like more ways than one. Summer has begun to shed its coat, as September enters into us with the fall of leaf and berry. It brings to me the notion of abandonment, not the withdrawal definition of that word, but the act of engagement, of recklessness. With complete abandon.
As the back to school momentum pushes the busy dial, it is easy to fall back in with the uniform, the quotidian. It may be that we place expectations upon ourselves without questioning their origin or authority, and we may fall into routine out of habit rather than belief in valency.
I think, in general, I’ve become an advocate of pause. It is not a pause as in stopping fully, but a pause to make room for abandonment, and to figure out what is worthy of our attention and time; what is to fall into.
I’ve been reading a book back to front. It’s a copy of Nan Sheppard’s ‘The Living Mountain’ with a forward by Robert McFarlane and an afterward by Jeanette Winterson (with those as bookends it must be a treasure). The afterword appealed first. Winterson has always held a place in my own canon, and once again, I was blasted.
In a few brief pages she speaks of what she calls, ‘total time’, at odds with linear time; the chronological ticking. ‘Linear time is exhausting’, she says, ‘Life has never been more rushed. This present way of being is not a truth about life or a truth about time; it is propositional. We can disagree.
It may take ‘falling into’ to be convinced however.
Ever fallen in love and felt like time was stretched, until it reached the skin of your affection?
Ever been so absorbed in an act of making, that you felt an eternity knock on your sense of being?
You’ll know that the clock is malleable.
As I am writing these lines, Milly, my dog, is dropping her toy at my feet and insists on play.
I give myself over to her for a few minutes, finding myself on the floor and tugging on a rag. The game is in the chase. Once the object of the hunt is caught, she just wants to play again. It could go on for a very long time but I return to the page, knowing that art is antidote. Engagement is antidote. The game we choose to play can be our medicine. But we must choose to abandon ourselves to the pulse.
So back to Winterson. And books. And reading. And art making, in the broadest sense, and with particular emphasis on making.
‘Books work from the inside out’, she says, ‘They are private conversations happening somewhere in the soul. And later she adds, ‘You need not believe in the gods to believe in your own soul. It is that part of you that feels not obliged to materiality’.
Which takes us back to disagreement.
I believe we can disagree with the given notions of time and our demands on it. And I think it is also to do with deconstruction.
We build up stories of who we think we are, how we should spent our time. Some are cultural narratives, some are constructs. And many are destructive. Capitalism is a narrative. So too is patriarchy. So too the materiality which is keeping us from our soul. Equally there are built and carefully constructed narratives of what it means to be successful, worthy, beautiful, and winning at life. And I want to tell you, I think it time for mass disagreement.
We disagree by questioning the stories we are living by, and abandoning the ones which are not fit for purpose.
We disagree by falling in love with the multiplicities of enchantment.
We disagree by giving ourselves back our art, our words, our language, our poetry, our bodies, our pluralities
We disagree by not building businesses which places profit before the very earth which sustain us.
We disagree by not handing our antidote over to power which insists on making it smaller or less potent.
We disagree by building bridges rather than walls. We disagree by attending mass protests or we disagree by moving into conversation with the stranger in ourselves; we get to choose our own scale
We disagree by pausing.
OK. Rant over. But I am tired of being nice girl, good girl, not speaking my mind girl. For what? Fear of being liked? Or fear of rejection?
We disagree by not running our lives by fear.
So, it is understandable that I find myself turning to writers who have always blended lines or refined the margins. Most recently I have been finding refuge in Virginia Woolf, Michael Cunningham, Maggie Nelson, Joy Harjo, and as of today, Ocean Vuong.
(We disagree by reading novels in the middle of the day, on a Monday, when one really ‘should’ be thinking about official business)
But it is because I want a literature of representation as much as a society of representation. And I think we can build new worlds with our words.
It starts with our inner language. What is the story we are telling of ourselves? What is the game we want to be in? What is our art? What our antidote?
Honestly, I’m tired of advice. I think we all need our own space to discover our paths. We need allies along the way, for sure, and mentors and mirrors, and tools, but to pause, to listen inwards, to trust in the deep currents of our souls, below the noise of materiality and obligation. Can we make room, if only for a few moments each morning, to listen. Inside us all is a story of infinity. Once we meet each other there, there is nothing but enchantment. And I think we could all use of dose of that.
So before you pace ahead into the busy dial of your day, may I invite you to write your own list of disagreements, and begin the great deconstruction, in your own reckless way.
Books mentioned or motioned to above:
The Living Mountain: Nan Sheppard (2011 Canongate edition)
How We Became Human: New and Selected Poems. Joy Harjo
To the Lighthouse: Virginia Woolf
The Hours: Michael Cunningham
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous: Ocean Vuong
Bluets: Maggie Nelson
The Argonauts: Maggie Nelson
Most days, I try to think of myself as 90, or 105. I try to imagine the life I have lived, and what those old bones have walked through. I like to think of the things those hands have touched, or moulded- the meals made and shared, the books written, the hands held too, the touch of animal love, and the feeling of paint and words running through it all. And frequently, I imagine that 90 year old self, writing back to this younger self of now, offering her advice, her wisdom, her spirit, her encouragement.
I write letters from her to me, and from me to her. It is a beautiful collapse of time, and presence. Her old hands are already in my younger hands; my younger hands are also hers.
She helps me prioritise what is most important, in the long term. It is usually the simple things: time with family and friends, time dipping of my limbs in salty water, and time offering what I can to the commons. She keeps verbs like ‘serve’ and ‘create’ close. And she reminds me that the things I will treasure most are not the things I own, nor accolades or awards, but the web of connections in which I have been fortunate to part of the weave, and my own eternal dance with the creative spirit.
Success is redefined when you sit regularly with the 105 year old in you.
If you are finding it hard to prioritise, try writing a letter from your old bones to your younger bones. Think of what they have learned, felt and experienced. Then ask yourself, are you living into the future these bones are seeking for you? There is so much wisdom under your own skin. Write to it. Your old self is listening… maybe you just need to ask.
*this exercise is incorporated into my one to one mentoring process and my ‘Design Your One Wild Life’ programme. Autumn slots are open now for bookings.
You can listen to an audio version of this essay here:
Lúnasa. We mark another threshold. The year is in spin. As I write I sit by the growing harvest. Tomatoes are ripening on the vines, courgettes are bulging with giving. It is the season’s swelling with its sensuousness, and its gift. Here is evidence of moving through the change: the time of the winter dark, the labours of the spring, a summer of responding to the light. Here is evidence of being in relationship with conditions which yield to growth. Here is everything to learn.
Lúnasa (or Lunasagh) marks the beginning of the time of harvest.A cross-quarter celebration in the Celtic wheel, resting mid-way between the summer solstice and the autumn equinox, named after the sun God Lugh. Lugh was said to be a God of many gifts and talents— a Master of the Arts and Culture — who yielded a cunning sword and a swopping presence, who harnessed the light energy of the sun. The time of harvest was a time to celebrate, and into this dance with the seasons of life Lugh now still invites us. So today, on this first day of Lúnasa, I will take his invitation into my hands and turn it to my plate.
This year is the first time I have planted my own kitchen garden. It was an experiment in learning, in tending, in harnessing. I had a longing to get my hands dirty. As a house renter, I’ve always had one eye on my next move, with wanderlust tethering me more to my passport than to the soil. Why plant if I would not be around to see it through a season? Why make a commitment to place when I did not know where my place was? In other words: why belong?
Something in me has been shifting. Maybe it is an ageing thing — a natural development cycle of the human psyche— but I think it is more than that. I think it is about place and relationship. And, dare I even say it, I think it is about love.
Love seems like a big, bold and daring word right now. Love in its expanse, in its ecstasy. But to say ‘I love you’ is to declare a commitment which my freedom and independence, wanderlust and longing go into commotion with. It makes my world spin. ‘I love you’ can put the heart of terror into a heart like mine — I have one of the ones forever seeking. ‘Love’, it should be such a nice word, a benign kind of word. So why does it seem like a such trap? Language is a limiter, if we let it. Is it time to reimagine our words?
The problem with ‘love’ is it has been romanticised. Gushy, sexy, sassy. The love of first sight. The love of the hot summer fling. The wooing. Sure, it is glorious, and don’t we all enjoy the flutter (and perhaps the classic rom-com) but deep love, long love, enduring love, the love of the infinite, is crystalline and multi-dimensional. It can not be defined. It holds things together. You could say it is a force.
I sit beside my assortment of vegetable containers —old fishing boxes I have re-purposed— and examine the courgettes. A friend of mine helped me to set the boxes up, and with her tutelage, I have been tending to them for a few months. I feed the plants each week, water them each night, say hello to them as I move in and out of my doorway. These plants have created new movements in my day, and they have become friends, good friends. And each day, as if in return, the plants give more.
My neighbours have been good to me too. The elderly couple adore my little dog. They let Milly onto their laps, and sometimes their bed. They say kind words about her, and then we chat about the sunshine and the summer. These are simple exchanges, but it is clear— we share a love of this place, and of the creatures which inhabit it.
Back by the vegetable boxes I choose the courgette wisely. Which one for them? One ripe for picking reveals itself to me. As I cut it, I say thank you. From sun, to soil, to leaf, to fruit, to hand, to neighbour – it feels like tracing an ancient lineage of connection. My passport has been quiet for months. On this first day of August, as the sun God Lugh calls us to be in celebration of our gifts, I think I have never felt so free.
So, am I ‘in love’ with a tomato then? Or a courgette? Is that love? It would make for a very strange romantic comedy. But here again we have a challenge with words.
The problem with being ‘in love’ is the preposition. To be in love implies we can be out of love too. I much prefer the Irish philosopher John Moriarty’s description, that to be, is to ‘be towards’. So to be in love, is to take love as a given, an absolute, and then is to turn towards a deeper love. To love is to orientate ourselves in the direction of the feeling. In that sense, to love is a verb, an act. It is a moving in direction towards the thing we are seeking. To love is to move oneself.
So, I wonder, what if this life is all love- the way the earth moves, and the sun offers, and the tides swell, and the heart grows, and the wild churns. Then, to fall out of love is to fall out of conversation with the currents of creativity, generosity, connection, and relationship which runs through our body and the body of the earth. To fall out of love is to fall out of remembrance that every moment is sealed with relationship, for what is breath if not a giving and a receiving, if not a communion with the other. What the tree breathes out, I breath in. What air is mine to inhale, is also my neighbours. Perhaps love, in its essence, is a continuous conversation with this web of life- trees, plants, breaths, neighbours and all.
So why is it, that when I speak about love in the way I just have, it feels almost cringy.Free love. Peace and love. Is that what I have become- the plant-talking, tree-hugging crazy lady? Actually, I don’t think that at all. I think it is to do with the original problem; that the word love has been so watered down that we have narrowed what love is and what love can be: fierce.
Have you heard a visceral cry of a mother having lost her child? Have you noted the story of the whale who carried her dead calf on her back? Have you felt the waves wrap themselves around your limbs with a pull to draw you back into the elemental waters? This is love too: fierce love, instinctive love, elemental love, maternal love. These are the undiluted dimensions of love which I think can redeem us. And they need to happen, quick.
I am thinking, almost constantly, about what is happening to our mother, our home. ‘Our house is on fire’, says Greta, and Greta is right. She states the facts so we can listen. But some nights, I can’t listen at all. Instead I cry those primal, fierce love tears. It feels like I am smothering, so I shake. The last thing I want to do is be numb to it all. I know it is not time to block things out, so instead I try to turn towards a maternal kind of love. It feels like the only thing I have.
But who am I to write about maternal love when I am not a mother? I have never felt the swell of limbs growing inside of me, or the thunderous push to birth a body, but I am telling you, I feel things, big things. That maternal, that deeply feminine impulse to life is encoded into the DNA of our creativity. It is the coda which maps the most fundamental of human capacities: to mould imaginings into form, to be drawn into relationship with the birthing energy primal to our being. From the cosmos of my belly, I pull out words and I labour for my dreams. It is that elemental. Male or female, we each carry creativity in our biological code. It is our birthright. Maybe it is our remedy too.
This is my love dream:
Wild love: the love of waves; the love of the tumbling shade of a chestnut tree; the love of the skin of dusk on a trembling field; the love of animal presence. Tactile love: the love of damp moss under the arch of the foot; the love of hands on cold salty pebbles; the love of breast on bone; the love of kisses on breasts; the love of the velvet underside of a silver leaf. Relational love; the love of intimate conversation; the rising tide of friendship which takes me deeper into mystery. And the unknowable love: the love of the whispering of remembered dreams; the love of the dark revealing; the love of love itself.
Beyond the conventional definitions of romantic love, we reach an infinite undefinable. There we become partners to an intimacy with life itself. We realise it is all love, all along. We realise we can write a new story of love for ourselves, and this too is freedom. So, yes I am seeking to be towards love, in partnership with the infinite. I am seeking a body to partner with, but that is not my primary orientation. Alongside skin, I am seeking soul and communion. Perhaps I am looking in the right place so, under my fingernails, as the damp earth begins to take root.
Those tomatoes, those courgettes, those peas which the slugs ate, the herbs and salad. As my hands move into and out of the soil, turning the harvest to the light, offering some to my neighbour, and returning some to my plate, I realise I am in consort with the pulse of life itself. This is sensual life, the life of Lugh’s sun, the birthing energy, my form of mothering. I am still not a mother, but I can love the wild as if it comes from me. And I can love that stone and that tree as my kin. And I can feel my bones rest against the umbrella of a cave as if it is my own home. Why? Because it is.
Love as a verb can bring you home too.
Lunasa. On this first day of August, I celebrate, I give thanks. Tonight I will take a courgette. I will turn it into ribbons. I will pair it with pasta. I will cook it with gratitude on my lips and I will eat my fill. There is plenty to go around, so long as we mother in return, moving our hands in big gestures of undefinable, infinite, creative love. This is big love. And towards big love I am ready to be harnessed in every direction.
How are you all being out there. Yes, being. Really, how?
I wonder about these things. How are you all being, because I think we are all doing too much.
Can I let you in on a little secret, my TV indulgence – the UK version of First Dates! Oh, I love those awkward first encounters, those glances, those nerves. I love when someone shows up fully as themselves –unapologetic, boldly daring to be just as they are (Why is that such a rarity?) I feel sad when I see someone holding their pain against them, like a shield. And I cringe when that first question, which kills it all, is so often declared, ‘So, what do you do?’
Gosh love, you can do so much better than that. Instead, tell me, what are you curious about these days? What is bringing you alive? What is bringing joy? Tell me, what makes you tick? What keeps you up at night? What do you hold dear to your heart? How are you? These are the questions which build trust, open doors, welcome connection. These are for starters.
OK. I’ll go first.
What am I curious about these days? So many things! I think wonder is at the heart of everything. I’m learning the names of wildflowers and wild things in West Cork, sitting low with them, watching how they unfold and bloom. Bee orchid, heath orchid, speedwells, common vetch, a meadow brown butterfly, and what I think was a cinnabar moth. I am interested in their mythic and medicinal qualities. I am curious about how learning the names of things helps me to see more, then encounter more, and then be altered more. The naming is a shaping thing.
Then there are the stories. I am interested in the old stories – the animal lore, the fairy ways, the legends. I wonder about reviving them, and whether they can give us the kiss of life, restoring a natural order of breath and being in direct relationship to the mystery which binds both.
You see, I am starting to work on some new books, and late at night, when the sea has calmed and the stars are doing their twinkle, I welcome the stories in. They bring me to my knees sometimes, in reverence and in awe. There is always so much to learn, and I am humbled at that door.
And I am increasingly fascinated with our relationship to the creative process- how ideas form, then express themselves. I wonder too how might we best prime ourselves to respond. I am thinking that walking has to do with it. Perhaps it is to do with travelling at the pace of story. These days, I am keen to walk slow.
A story arrived recently, you see. There was I, just moving along not thinking about anything in particular, and there it was, sitting on my shoulder, then knocking on the corners of my heart, willing me to open it. So I turned a blank page and the story entered through some strange cognitive dance to begin its journey into form. We are still dancing, and it is spinning me in its web of narrative wonder. I’m trapped, in the best kind of way. And I feel so alive I think I might burst.
So I think this creative force is everything. Life-giving. Even regenerative.
Let me tell you about a woman who inspires me. She’s an artist, Jackie Morris, who lives by the sea and has a studio in her attic. She brings stories to life through gold and imaginative forces. She paints labyrinths on stones and rests them in rock-pools and waves. She paints hares and herons, charms of goldfinches, wrens and otters. On the page she let’s them encounter poems. And it all glows.
Just the other day said something which I immediately transcribed into my journal and circled in thick pen, to remember:
‘In a world that is increasingly dark and aggressive’, she said, ‘making beauty is an act of rebellion, and that is what I am trying to do’.
Something deep in me shimmered when she said this. I recognised myself.
So, I want to tell you, with a degree of rage and a degree of grief, that I agree, things are shifting on this great spinning sphere of ours, and I think we can all sense we are moving into darker times. I admire how the Guardian newspaper is demanding in the language for this. They have moved their words from climate change to climate chaos; from global warming to global heating, from climate skeptic to climate denier.
We need strong language. We need strong acts of rebellion and defiance. And we need beauty. For what is there to dream for if not beauty and joy, if not hope through regeneration, if not a vision of another way.
So, what keeps me up at night? All this. All of it. Always. But it is also the poems, and the tides I am falling into. You see, some nights, when the moon is full or near full, and when silence has surrendered itself to the skies, I feel the pull to the shore. I walk until my feet meet the lapping. It is a place where wonder dumfounds me. And so I wait there until it moves me to the edge of new dawnings. This week, while waiting, I read Eagle Poem, one of Joy Harjo’s gifts to us;
To pray you open your whole self
To sky, to earth, to sun, to moon
To one whole voice that is you.
And know there is more
That you can’t see, can’t hear;
Can’t know except in moments
Steadily growing, and in languages
That aren’t always sound but other
Circles of motion.
Then, when I fell out of that poem, I landed in Underland. I was marvelling at the words of Robert Macfarlane, reading them on a hillside as swallows swooped by. He speaks of dark places, underground- what we hide there, what is revealed there, and what we have yet to discover. He has a whole chapter on fungi and mycelial networks. And he writes words such as these:
‘Nature, too, seems increasingly better understood in fungal terms: not as a single gleaming snow-peak or tumbling river in which we might find redemption, not as a diorama that we deplore or adore from a distance – but rather as an assemblage of entanglements of which we are messily part. We are coming to understand our bodies as habitats for hundreds of species of which Homo Sapiens is only one, our guts as jungles of bacterial flora, our skins as blooming fantastically with fungi.
Then when I fell out of that book, I fell into the musical spells of Cosmo Sheldrake whose cuckoo calls and owl songs, dawn chorus and recordings in hot air balloons —full of whimsy and delight—had me dancing to my shadow and reaching for the stars.
Ok, maybe I do need more sleep! But they are bringing me alive these words, these songs. Dreams too. And visions. You see, I have been thinking of gathering again, and of learning spaces. I have been thinking again of creating a place where we can get intentional about the lives we are called to lead, and learn the skills which are required to take us there. It is an old dream of mine, but resurfacing and reforming. I’m listening. I know I don’t have a choice. I know the vision is there to mould and shape me too. I bow in reverence to the gift of insight. It’s a carrier. I follow.
And by the way, I am curious about the human conversations we need to be having about our humanity — the very essence of it — in the face of Artificial Intelligence and automation, and all these machines. It is about being, and what makes us so. But sometimes it all feels too much, and so then, as counterpoint, I want to learn how to make sourdough, and other fermented things. Call it gut instinct too. My current sauerkraut is a little bit ‘off’ though, so I have a long way to go. But I am liking the tactility of the learning. That my learning might be edible, all the better.
And so while all this is taking hold, I am also learning about literary agents, and publishing houses. I am posting my first chapters, in envelopes sealed with kisses, even as my heart pounds and imposter syndrome shifts from kindle to flare. There was a bloom of self doubt- as in the cancer kind of bloom —as that envelope dropped into the postbox. But it was the pull of the shore, and of my vision which is pumping me onwards. I’ll keep posting, I promise.
And so, what do I hold dear to that heart? All this, all of it, always, and, of course my white fluffy scruffy waggle of a woof. (how could i not!) In fact I hold so much dear that sometimes I think I might explode. So, I want to let you in on another behind the scenes, an explanation so to speak, that if you meet me in person, I might seem a little distant, at times. I say this, because I have been told this. So I want you to know that it is not you, I promise. It is just that I am trying to hold it all – the rage, this wonder – so that I might put it to good use, and maybe even make things of beauty to be a part of the rebellion. So, can I tell you that I am trying, but sometimes I bump into my fear and shyness instead. So it is that you are meeting, the part of me just trying. We can get through though, I promise. I may just need some of your breath. I’ll give you some of mine in return.
So, back to that question. What do I do? Now you know why I think it is the least interesting question of all. I am still trying to figure it out, after all, and in the meantime, there are dreams in the shape of books, and gatherings, and vegetable gardens, and swims. Always swims.
So, let’s scrap all this definition by doing? Instead, let’s ask, ‘what’s alive to you today? What’s coming into view? Where is wonder leading you astray? How are you being today?
My new ‘Design Your One Wild Life’ mentoring programme has just been announced too.
Not sure what direction to take next? In a transition, or a rut, and need some fresh thinking about your ideas, options and callings? What to get intentional about your next moves?
This is a process combining design thinking, values and purpose work, inner reflection and creative practice. The process will help give you the tools and clarity to create a vision for your life, and build prototypes of action.
It is about what you want do, and how you want to be while doing it all.
Earlier in the year, I hosted a week in UCD’s innovation Academy for 24 undergraduate students. They said some amazing things.
I think it is something everyone needs, at various points in their life. It is a process I have used to constantly build my future forward, and it is something I am offering now, so we may live into intentional, values-driven lives- with careers, relationships and inner and outer lives in alignment.
The word ‘belonging’ has been circling, for attention, and praise. What does it mean to belong? Why does it matter? And how do we cultivate it?
I think of the intimacy of belonging to our own physicality. It is an inhabitation of our own particulars; our curves and mounds, our gait and the spaces where our limbs collide. It is an awareness too of our skin as both border and as porous membrane—protector and gateway as one. Belonging in that sense is not a fixed state but an invitation to participate in our own embodied vibrancy as a living being. To belong is to dance, to move, to open arms in gestures of embrace and to celebrate the act of celebration itself.
So I think of belonging as in invitation too. To belong to a tribe, a family, or a community is to be open to receiving ‘the other’, and a willingness to be changed by that encounter. I am who I am only in relationship. Reciprocity of being is encoded into each exchange- whether my encounter is with another human being or with the more-than human world, for I can only belong in connection to the eco-systems which help to define and cultivate me. It takes a village. Always.
And I think of our belonging as a response to our own indigenosity to the earth. With our presence here we are granted prescience; may we use it to see we are all stewards; guests to a deeper, longer ecology of time and cosmos. Belonging, in that sense, comes with a responsibility – to safe-guard, protect, commune and in doing so become more of who we are.
But how can we protect that which we feel we don’t belong? How can we love that which we feel estranged from? Perhaps the first steps is to come home to our feet on the earth, and our breath in the air, and our water in the rivers, and the ocean in our blood. We are all in perpetual cycle. To belong is to live fully with this interconnected knowledge too.
How can you cultivate a deeper sense of belonging today? What do you need to invite or welcome in for you to foster a more intimate, reciprocal relationship to the community around you?
I think productivity is so over-rated. We can fill our days with busyness, but doing what? What are we producing, to what end, with what consequences?
What if, instead of productivity we focused on efficacy. Is my energy flowing towards things which matter to me? I am contributing to the changes I want to see in the world? Am I treating my time as a precious, non-renewable resource.
I feel so grateful to live by the sea, even more so here on the West Coast of Ireland. These daily moments and lingerings on the shore, help me to stay connected to the energy which brings me alive, and gives me a chance to figure out my priorities. Sometimes, I spend hours down here, being very non-productive. But, when I return to my desk or other commitments, I know I am more focused and more effective. The time to wander and just be, is fuel for everything else. Doing more is not necessarily doing better. It’s just more.
What if better, was in fact, less. And what if less, is in fact, the key to what you need to help you figure out what matters most to you. So you can do with more intent, more clarity, more impact, more preciousness. Doing less is not lazy. Doing less may, in fact, be the most effective thing you have done all week.
Perhaps one of the most underrated and most needed qualities of our time. The smile to a stranger, the sharing of a glance. Then the acts —of conversation, courage, concern and generosity.
A stranger stopped me on the street yesterday. He just wanted to talk. He told me about swifts, about how amazing their flight patters are, how they never land, how their nests need to be high. He told me that with all these cottage renovations going on, how their habitats are in danger, and how he is building nests in his garden for them. His eyes spoke of the miracle we are all in. Kindness.
Another man stopped me yesterday. He spoke of the plastics problem, how they are a scourge and how he is trying to clean up his act. He is using less, planting more, getting involved in some local action to stop the construction of a plastics factory. He was full of sacred rage. Kindness.
A friend opened up her garden to me. She is growing an edible paradise. She led me around the beds, telling me about all her planting tricks and all the wonder. I left with an armful of cuttings and a stack of new learning. Kindness.
Another friend, who has knowledge of foraging, brings me out to find some treasure. The elderflower are in bloom. I whisper thank you to the trees, then take a share. My fridge is full of cordial now, to be passed down the line of neighbours and friends.
I am sitting up on a headland, looking out to sea. Milly comes by my side, and leans in. Her weight is company and companionship. Kindness.
And then, perhaps one of the greatest kindnesses of all. I am seeing a negative thought pattern begin to spread its tendrils in my mind. I pause. I go for a nap instead. Finally, finally, I think I am beginning to learn. Kindness.
What if the currency of the world was kindness? What then for the swifts and the oceans, the stranger and the friend? What then for the wanderings of our minds? What then for the opening of our hearts?
I met Alessandra in what turned out to be the last year of her life. We had been overlapping for years. There were people we knew in common, shared networks. Ours were parallel lives which never quite touched, until the redwoods brought them together.
We met in a bubbling pool. The giants rose in front of us, lending us their shade and turning us to awe. The trees leaned in to listen: click. That was the sound of us meeting: the clicking. Our connection was instantaneous and immediately sealed with two vital ingredients for a long and lasting friendship: laughter and listening.
By virtue of synchronicity we had been assigned as roommates for the next few days. We were attending a gathering about Being on the west coast of California. She had travelled from Oxford, me from the west coast of Ireland. We joked that the Europeans had been put together for safe-keeping. For the next few days we listened to the talks, shared ideas, shared travel tales, and dreamed. She told me of her love of writing, and the books she had bubbling. Then she shared stories of her work in war-torn places and her aspirations to move forward into the new frontiers of psychology and service. After all the chat, when the night was turning back into day, we read poetry to the stirrings of the forest. I marvelled at this new friend, this old soul. There was little sleep.
From the forest it was time to catch a ride to the city. Another new friend, Juliana, had opened her heart and home to us too, and so we followed. There were days of more wanders. The streets of San Francisco offered us their colour and their memories. We lingered in bookshops, getting lost. I’d find Alessandra between the pages of poetry and the pages of memoirs. We ate Japanese food, and hunted down the best bakeries. Our cameras came out on the backstreets. She loved the murals of the Mission, and our lenses took us down the alleyways. Here was someone you could wander with—a rare find, a keeper.
When the city got too much, we —Alessandra, Juliana and I—found our way back to the trees. We hiked an ancient trail through ancient woods. There was talk of what it means to truly live, what it means to really serve, and what it means to fully love. As the woodland floor gave itself over to our footsteps, the trail led us to a high meadow where we picnicked overlooking the redwood canopy. Beyond was the sea.
You could feel the pull in her. She longed for that sea, for its power of place and its power of movement. I think she longed for its waves to work their mysterious way on her too, into her deep corners, and the places of yet unacknowledged hope. She knew there was peace there. Looking on, I could see why, for Alessandra and the sea were kin— moving mountains with their tides, dismissive of obstacles, strong and soft in equal measure, quantified in flow and never in stagnation.
That day, the mountain led us back to a harbour. Another bookshop. We passed Mary Oliver’s Felicity between us, weaving the gift of words; each pass another thread in our bond. A friendship gets woven in words, it seems, with poems being among the best of them. Then we caught a ferry back to San Francisco. The wind was now sharp, the light golden. I stood on deck for a few moments, until the wind got the better of me and I retreated below to read from Braiding Sweetgrass, my new book purchase, an essay about strawberries, wisdom and gifts. Alessandra stood outside, hooking her camera to the sunset, the wind and sky all open, the water nothing but glistening, her face nothing but a mirror to the light. Here was the life she loved, condensed into this moment, and her next footfall and her next blink. It all happens so quickly, and she knew it.
I soon returned to Ireland. She returned to the sea. From a little house she had rented by the ocean, we shared Skype calls and more laughter. By summer the calls were fading. I heard the pain was in. So I sent poems, and blessings from my land, and when their was no response, I walked to the waves and sent them out there too.
Brevity is never a mark of meaning. Sometimes we meet someone whose blueprint for laughter and living, wonder and mischief, imprints itself on the map of your own life, your own becoming. Alessandra’s mark is indelible. She has given me signposts and clues. She has reminded me that in these footsteps and these paths, in these backroads and these sunsets, in that tree or that way, in every inhale and each exhale is a preciousness to hold and behold.
‘Don’t worry’, Alessandra requested.
She meant the Mary Oliver poem. So I read it aloud for her:
‘Things take the time they take. Don’t worry. How many roads did St. Augustine follow before he became St. Augustine.
Then we laughed.
Now, when I read it, I’ll forever think of Alessandra. The memory of those days made all the more precious with their brevity. Her memory, and her blueprint, my forever friend.
Dedicated to the wonder and mischief of Alessandra Pigni
Let patience and failure be bedfellows, for to be a great teacher is also to be a diligent student. To be a great writer is also to be an avid reader. To be a great friend, is to learn to be a friend to ourselves. To be a great whatever, is to be an apprentice to the part of us that longs to grow. In that longing their will be flaws and detours, errors and mishaps. There will be learning we’ll sometimes call slow and sometimes wonder if we are moving at all. Our patience is in the honouring of the journey ahead and also in gratitude for the path, however wandering, which takes us there.