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.
Robin Wall Kimmerer’s remarkable books of essays, Braiding Sweetgrass has been a balm and buoyancy aid over this last year. Her words, rooted in her deep knowledge of plantsand grounded in her own wisdom tradition of her people-she is a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation- are meditations on reciprocity, gifting, stewardship of the earth, and true love. Her words carry both weight and wonder. Her message is clear: it is time we offer our gifts, in our fullness and in our gratitude, in service to Mother Earth.
The last lines of her epilogue in the collection have been my constant companion. I read them when doubt and fear start to erode my courage, or when I am beginning to question why I do what I do. They are words I share at the end of each writing workshop I host, and they are words which come with an invitation: to create, with the power of this potent time with us, in return for the privilege of breath: These are those words. My wish is that they may become your companion too.
‘The moral covenant of reciprocity calls us to honour our responsibility for all we have been given, for all that we have taken. It’s our turn, now long overdue. Let us hold a giveaway for Mother Earth, spread our blankets our for her and pile them high with gifts of our own making. Imagine the books, the paintings, the poems, the clever machines, the compassionate acts, the transcendent ideas, the perfect tools. The fierce defence of all that has been given. Gifts of mind, hands, heart, voice and vision all offered up on behalf of the earth. Whatever our gift, we are called to give it and to dance for the renewal of the world.
To protect the wild outside we must also protect the wild inside.
It is… the urge to run against the grain; dance until our blood flows to faster; splash paint on open canvasses; swim naked in cold seas; write all night with only the moon as a guide; sit around camp fires letting tales and tears flow; wander the back roads getting lost over and over again; digging our hands deep into fertile soil; stargaze ourselves into nothing but awe; let the poems flow through us, the music and song too; and love with abandon every atom of that oak tree, and every sprig of greening too.
It is all that, to protect the wild. Plus…. it is a refusal to be tamed by forces which will profit from the repression of our expression, creativity, sexuality, diversity, identities and the essence of our humanness; our capacity to imagine and create from there.
And so it is that when we can let the wildness out we can let the wildness in too, until we realise we are all made of the same matter, after all, and we are bound together in this intricate and intimate choreography of wild-life.
It’s not all steady and gentile, the rhythm of our creative tides. We can cross continents before the burst of energy overtakes us. But, as sure as the waves of our inhale and exhale, the waves of creative energy are ever-present. We tend to them by showing up to our craft; we nurture them with our attention; and we tune into them with a willingness to let them transform us too.
For as we create our art by offering our gifts to the world, our art and our gifts also create us. This is the wave of generous reciprocity in cyclical, flowing, action.
How can you nurture trust in your own creative flow today? .
Nature teaches us that smallness and delicacy are intricate to the very fabric of creation. Through the filagree threads of veins and chlorophyll filled cells, life flows. Every healthy eco-system relies on the rightful place of those who take up their position. From the giants of the forest canopy to the microscopic mycelium, every element has a role to play. Wholeness is constituted in parts.
Yet, like so many things out of balance, our social, political, and economic systems have been predicated on the idea of scale, infinite growth and power ‘over’ rather than power ‘with’. One glance at the headlines will tell you how we are going with this. In short: not well.
I think it is time to reclaim the power of small.
Small means using less, buying local. It means looking for solutions in the margins. Small can squeeze into gaps, plug holes, turn quickly, change direction, pivot fast. Small is the handcrafted, the bespoke, the individually tailored, the limited edition. It’s tending to a close network of intimate friends. It’s deep connection. It’s seeing the beauty in the detail. It’s realising that the resources to keep producing in the way that we have been are not infinite. Small is acting on a knowing that we are stronger, together, then focusing our time and attention on where we can best make a difference.
So, if you are feeling ‘small’ today, how might that be a good thing? How can you use it to your advantage? And what might you notice and catalyse from here?
Remember: a small pebble can have a big ripple effect and the beginnings of a garden are in the seeds.
The blank page. One of the most inviting, most intriguing and scariest places I know. Here is where I face myself- the layers of self, the multiplicities, and write myself forward.
It is the place I go to find a pocket of communion with the inner world- the access point to the creative stream, the clarity before intentional action, the place from which the future can grow. It is a re-wiring and re-writing of the story I’m living out. The place of re-invention, of renewal.
When I don’t know where to begin, I ask the page, ‘Who am I today’, and the page responds with the unfolding.
It’s a question I offer to you too. If you are stuck, if you want to begin a journalling practice, or if the blank page is beckoning, you can ask, ‘Who am I today’? And see where the words take you. Then tomorrow, ask again. And the next day, and the next…