Drought

Look at the dried earth
Hardened, so that water only
Sits on its crusted surface

It will take months of
Above-average rainfall
To restore the depleted reserves
That lie far, far underground

It is only gradually that fluid
Can be absorbed, softening
The ground into a place
Where things once again can grow

It takes so much gentle healing
To recover from a scorching summer:
Nourishment, patience, and time

So why would you expect
Your own heart to be any different?

Note: Inspired by an email from Thames Water explaining why the current housepipe ban cannot yet be lifted. Although we have had 100cm of rain in October, only 6cm have been added to the deep reserves.

Photo by redcharlie on Unsplash

I leak poetry

I just wrote a poem, called The Level.

Last week I had the observation that this was an interesting metaphor for internal balance.

And tonight I wrote the poem.

I did it in approximately 6 minutes. Because it was 8.35pm when I remember looking at the clock, and it is 8.42pm now.

I thought maybe I would just write an observation, a prose piece. But what came out was poetry. With a flow I can’t control.

Some things need to be carefully crafted – some poems call for that. And I am a big believer that the more effort we put into things the better they tend to be. (I read a quote by Thornton Wilder about this years ago, and it stuck with me as a valuable truism for a writer.)

But somehow with most of the poems, they just flow out.

It’s a strange feeling, like something I am powerless to stop.

As I write this, it is giving me surprising flashbacks to the process of giving birth.

The image we always see onscreen is of a women pushing, labouring to get the baby out.

But that’s not what it was like for me.

I was induced, and the labour was so fast and furious I felt completely at the mercy of my body. If anything, I tried to tell my body to slow down, to soften, to wait.

It was futile – the baby was coming whether I would or not.

And there is an echo of that feeling in this writing.

The poem is coming, and all I can do is soften and ease the way as much as possible.

I don’t know how this part of myself was locked up for so long. I remember the last poem I wrote from a place of inspiration. I was around 10 or 11 years old – just at the point when my homework became so demanding there was no energy or imagination left for things like writing poetry.

To think that sat dormant for 25 years.

How could this part of me have been locked up? How could I have lost it?

But to me this proves that the parts we are disconnected from never really leave us.

Because the tap is turned back on.

And for better or worse, I leak poetry, wherever I go.

Photo by Joe Zlomek on Unsplash

The level

I tilt the level
Trying to perfectly
Balance the caught breath
Of the bubble trapped within

Perhaps if it is carefully aligned
Everything made straight
Then the world will
Make sense

And maybe
If I can tilt myself
To the right angle, then
I’ll be at peace with what is
And with what is trapped inside

Note: The initial concept for this was inspired by a book I was reading (chapter 4 of Into The Wild).

Photo by Eran Menashri on Unsplash

The selvage

The thread is fine now
As thin as gossamer
Shimmering in the light

There is a strange beauty
In these times
Of holding, and letting go

I never believed in the fates
Spinning, weaving
Waiting, releasing

But now I see your place
In life’s tapestry
So clearly

My eyes may be wet
Yet my heart is full
You are part of the pattern
Forever

Note: This is a poem I originally wrote for a very special man, Richard Cooke, who passed away last month. He was at the centre of possibly the most generous and creative family I have ever encountered, people who are incredibly dear to me. The sadness of his passing was accompanied by a great sense of love from those around him, and a life well-lived – a passage into the beyond that was moving to witness, even from a secondhand distance.

In the last few months, a number of people close to me have experienced loved ones entering these end of life stages. I was repeatedly touched by the grace and bravery that accompanied these moments, and I found myself sending these words to them as well.

Although this poem originated with Richard, it has also come to mean something much bigger – which seems an even more fitting tribute in its way.

So if you need it, this poem is also for you.

Photo by Ethan Bodnar on Unsplash

The rumble beneath the surface

Things have been a little quiet on this blog.

But that’s not because the writing hasn’t been happening.

Time feels strange these days – whether a hangover of the pandemic or the strangely elastic nature of living with chronic illness, I’m not sure.

I think it was overyear ago that I took my first step towards sharing the work on this site a bit more publicly – around the time my second cancer diagnosis happened.

This was intentional: I knew that writing my way through it would be essential.

But when the experience began, it felt like I was a climber perched on a sheer rock face, and all I was doing was holding on for dear life. I couldn’t look up or down, or from side to side. I couldn’t see out into the world beyond me.

Which makes it very difficult to work out what feels right to share.

So instead, I got very very quiet.

But things are different now.

I recently completed a surgery that I hope will be the close of this chapter for a while. So I find myself looking up and out again. I am able to raise my gaze, and feeling brave enough to bring these words into contact with the world.

I have over 400 unpublished drafts of poems, poets, and odds & ends in a folder.

But I’m not in a hurry.

Bit by bit, I hope to bring them into the light.

Some of these things are easy. Some of them are very difficult to speak about in public. Baby steps.

I’m hoping to get the newsletter going (which I set up, but never actually started), so people who’d like to can know when there is something new.

But in the interest of starting small, I finally took the leap to do something I’ve been thinking about for at least a year. Today, I made a Facebook profile page to put new posts, instead of just quietly putting them here and letting them dissolve into the ether of the internet.

Setting it up, it felt like it took me ages to decide: whether to use a photograph of a flower as a profile picture, or to put my own face.

But I increasingly think that one of the bravest things we can do is let ourselves be seen. And I know that the people who are interested in my work at this stage is the people who already know and love me.

So I went with a selfie, taken on a good day on sunny walk. Largely chosen, my vanity will admit, because my hair looks really good – you would never guess it is still growing back in peculiar tufts underneath. But mostly because in that picture, I feel well and I am happy – smiling slightly, with glasses slightly askew. What more can a person ask for?

I know better at this point than to make promises. But hopefully this is the start of a new chapter, a season where it’s possible to release these bits of writing gratefully into the world.

Photo by Tanya Grypachevskaya on Unsplash

Teatime

The tragedy that
A full fridge
Is cheaper to run
Than an empty one.

So the columnist
Advises placing
Bowls of water
On bare shelves.

Now in homes
Across the country
Hungry children
Will open the door –

Only to be met with
Their own reflections.

Note: This was inspired by an article in The Guardian. I understand the necessary practicality of the advice, but it struck me right in the gut.

Photo by Jawad Jawahir on Unsplash

Flowers for Rose

You asked me to write you a poem
About bringing you beautiful flowers
I thought about spinning slow verses
Unfurled in deliberate hours

But amidst the hair pulling and shouting
And laughing and singing and climbing
I find I’m increasingly doubting
That you give a fig about rhyming

So these quick-crafted lines must suffice
And although concentration is nice
And finishing is pleasant
What you want is presence not presents

Note: I was working on The Book Concert when Rose asked me to write her a poem. I started with just a few lines, but meanwhile she shedding glitter everywhere in her new Sleeping Beauty Halloween costume, stealing my glasses, putting her feet on me, singing songs, and putting clips in my hair.

I read her the first three lines and she said ‘that’s great, thanks!’ and I thought, ‘it isn’t done!’, but it was about the gesture.

So somehow it seemed best to embrace the unevenness, the changing rhyme scheme, the not-quite sonnet-like form, the line that doesn’t scan. Because that is far truer to parenthood. And a gift should be about the recipient.

I just asked her if she wanted to hear the finished poem, and she said. ‘Not yet, I’m still finishing your hair, dear.’

If there’s anything a poet should know, it’s that timing is everything.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Mother meditating

What is the name of the mudra
Where you sit, hand folded over hand
Around the waist of a small child
With bits of snack still stuck to their shirt
Who pulls your grip even tighter
Insisting your hands are their seat belt
Whizzing off to imaginary galactic adventures
In the rocketship of your lap
While the ragdoll copilot dances merrily
On the tiny peak of your fingers
And your belly presses rhythmically into their back
Transferring the energy of your breath to that little body
Building warmth between you.
What is the name of that mudra?
Or is it simply beyond words?

Note: I’ve been really trying to keep up with my meditation practice, which has meant I’m not always alone when I do it. In some ways, this is quite distracting, but it can also have its own magic. I’ve been journalling about what this feels like a bit already, but I wanted to try to turn it into a poem. I actually wrote this on the tube (my first trip into London on a busy Saturday night since the pandemic hit and/or I got sick for the second time). It was a busy train and this was a wonderful way to take my brain elsewhere. I escaped back into this moment so fully that I missed my stop. Twice. Maybe if I am able to channel my focus that effectively, that means the meditation is working?

Photo by William Farlow on Unsplash

It drives me crazy when people talk about ‘put on your own oxygen mask’

It’s been floating around for years, but at the moment it feels like it’s ‘EVERYWHERE’.

‘Put on your own oxygen mask first.’

It’s a great metaphor – it’s visual, and anyone who’s ridden on an airplane will have heard it.

People say this particularly to encourage people who struggle making space for self-care to take it, but it often doesn’t work. It certainly doesn’t for me.

It just annoys me. The way that it is deployed feels like the new version of ‘greed is good’. I’m not debating that taking time to consider our own feelings and needs is essential, but the way this dictum is bandied about seems to be in a really self-centered way. People say it with a tome that feels more akin to ‘stay in your own bubble and just worry about your oxygen.’

I think why it doesn’t seem to work and drives me so bonkers isn’t the core idea, but the fact that people leave off the second half.

‘Put on your own oxygen mask before helping someone else.’

The point of putting on your oxygen mask is not to nonchalantly sit there leafing through a magazine while someone next to you struggles to breathe. It’s to secure your own oxygen supply to then enable you to turn and help others.

And honestly, I think a lot more people who struggle to justify taking the time they need to look after themselves would find it a lot easier if we focused on using the whole phrase:

‘Put on your own oxygen mask before helping others.’

Let’s remember why the airlines need to say this. It’s because the human instinct is so strong to look after the people that we care about, that we want to turn to helping them first before we care for ourselves.

That impulse is actually a beautiful thing. It is generous and compassionate.

The problem is that it isn’t actually safe or good – either for yourself of the person you are helping.

Yes, you have to ensure your own well-being first, but it doesn’t mean you have to forget about the other people.

Maybe this just reveals a flaw in my own thinking, but I feel like it gets talked about as a binary choice – either put on your own oxygen mask, OR help someone else.

When really, it is an AND. Put on your own oxygen mask AND help others. Ideally, not just the person you love sat next to you. But the person across the aisle who is panicking, or who can’t quite reach, or who is travelling miles above the earth alone.

We struggle to choose ourselves because it feels like a betrayal of the humanity that we have nourished, and it is hard to tease out what is best when needs are in conflict, but the best thing is always to look for the AND.

I feel like the task of adulthood – or maybe just personhood – is much more like a scale.

To be able to hold in one hand, our own needs. And in the other hand, someone else’s. And to try to find the balance between them.

Things will swing out of sync – sometimes by a little, sometimes by a lot, but the goal is to look for the balance.

That seems to me what is getting lost in the current political climate. I’ve been so heartbroken to see the recent Supreme Court decisions that are gutting human rights.

Whence comes this insistence on dictating how others live? Why is it so hard to try to make equal space for our own needs AND someone else’s?

This seems like it should be a hallmark of community and our approach to the world.

There are of course some people who can’t get negotiated with – who only want to hold out their own hand without any room for complexity. There are places where this attitude enables violence and inequality that cannot be tolerated.

But in the places where there are no easy answers, which it seems like is much of life, I feel like the right approach is like this:

To let our own bodies be the scale, finding the tipping point between our own two hands outstretched in different directions. There we can hold with love our own needs. And hold with respect those of others. And to do our absolute best to let them both matter and to find the balance.

Oxygen masks for everyone!

Photo by Suhyeon Choi on Unsplash

Sky and Soil

flying and falling
the difference
between
looking ahead
to open air
and
an anxious gaze
at the ground

Note: This was inspired by a bird flying outside my window.

I played with different versions of this poem. Initially, there was more structure – firmer sentences, more words, capitalisation, punctuation, but it felt airier stripping that out. I tried to tease out exactly what phrases captured those feelings of an optimistic vision ahead and staring down in dread; there were so many more words I could have used, but I thought these feelings might be familiar enough that stripping back the adjectives would engage the reader’s imagination even more.

There was a version of this where ‘looking’ was ‘a look’ – making it a poem free from verbs (suspended in a sense?). But instinctively this contrast felt better, and actually highlights the difference between verb/doing (‘looking’) and paralysing ourselves with the fixed state of a noun (‘an anxious gaze’).

It was interesting choosing a photo to match with this poem, and made me reflect again how much those visuals can impact the feel of the words. Photos that were bright or that featured a crowd of birds had a totally different feel. I actually pictured a calm sky when I was writing, perhaps something blue and hopeful – but this image of an ominous mist or brewing storm feels like it makes the message land even more powerfully.