Coming Home and Telling Stories

Linton, February 2018
 
I have to remember and remember again
the power of telling a story –
our own and others’ stories,
stories of love and shame and glory –
stories of loss that break and remake,
stories that deify, demonise, hate,
of forgiveness held out as love’s bait.
Stories so bleak that you cry for a week
and stories that fill you with joy so you weep.
Never forget to tell stories…..
 
(And don’t let your meetings be a series of monologues.
That is so f’ing boring. Listen too.
Tell each other stories and you’ll never need to warm yourself by a fire.)
 
I came home and whatever had driven me out to Spain was peaceful, at least for a while. It was snowing at Trumpington park and ride when the National Express coach dropped me off at midnight, and I was very pleased to see Paul walking through the freezing black car park.  We were shoved along by a brunt wind, and then as we huddled in the car we babbled to each other.  How are you? How’s your Mum? Did you eat?  Thank you Paul Richardson – you are the best friend I have ever had.
 
 Sinking onto our bed when I got home was an exquisite pleasure after the hard, single bed of the freezing hostel.  The silk, the cotton, the feathers, the warmth – I savoured it deliciously while knowing I could live without it. A hot water bottle and a cup of tea, a soft pillow and unconsciousness, and when I woke in the morning I had no idea where I was, what time of day it was and why there was someone in the bed with me. There were several long lurching moments before I gained reliable consciousness.
 
What have I learned? That I have a lot more to learn. That journeys, both inward and outward are essential. That mountains are great teachers. Robert Macfarlane says, “The mountains that we climb are not made only of rock and ice, but also of dreams and desire.” And yes, also vision. We inhabit a darksome world where we are stretched between godly and demonic – how can we relate to ourselves and each other when so many people hate themselves and lose themselves because they try so hard, and fail at being someone else? A world that feasts on our hunger because we construct our lives on the things that we own, forgetting that we are so much more, that we are divine.
 
I had not been prepared for the splendour of the mountains, for the silence in which they dwell in perfect dignity. Description emerges very slowly within the one walking among these giants, the one like an ant clinging and crawling slowly up the flanks and along the ancient ledges. Waters sparkle and bubble on their joyful way down to the valley, rivers ripple and sing, foaming  far below.  The rocks all around are tortured in many thousands of ways, as are the mountains themselves, until they crack open into clefts and fissures. Rock of ages….let me hide myself in thee. Words do not reach easily into mountains like these, upon which light falls, travels and moves on. They emerge from a great silence and the only language you can speak is the language of prayer, and love, and you can leave them your tears. I found myself deeply and hopelessly in love.
 
The silence of rock, snow and water brought my heart to stillness and filled me with an inner peace that had been missing for so long. The wild energy and expansion that had prised me apart on my previous visit in October was transformed from an unbearable animal howl into a radiant energy that brought me skipping and running down the mountains. The pain that brought me here leaked out and dissolved into the rocks, the scree and the sky where it caused no harm. I had known that I had to return, it was already late enough, and I am so glad that I finally trusted the instinct had been insistently jabbing at my heart.
 
Thank you lovely friends and family for reading my stories, this is the last one from Spain. You are now part of my journey and I am part of yours. I hope my stories have amused, informed and inspired you a little bit, but more than all of that I hope my stories have given you courage to make journeys and stories of your own.  A final word and perfect poem from Mary Oliver:
  
The Journey
Mary Oliver
 
One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice –
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do –
determined to save
the only life you could save.

Madly Singing in the Mountains

Orgiva  4th February 2018
 
Snowy Pilgrimage to Green Tara
 
 
On the last Sunday of my retreat I had the priviledge of having an official walking guide called Santiago, take me on a little known walk to the Buddhist Centre that is hidden away, high in the Alpujarras. The Dalai Lama and the Alpujarras have a surprisingly strong connection…more about that another time. The forecast was for snow and rain, and right up until that morning there had been doubt about whether it would be possible to walk in these poor conditions. However, I was hopeful, and put all my layers on with a waterproof over the top. I had developed such bad blisters from my boots that I couldn’t wear them any longer, and when Santiago picked me up, he was both amused and horrified that I was wearing sandals. As we drove to the start of the walk, sandals looked even more inappropriate because it began to snow and cover the ground the higher we climbed. 
 
 
When we got out of the van at about 1600 metres up, it was bitterly cold with fine snow swirling in the bracing mountain air. In spite of all my layers the icy wind penetrated right through to my bones so I was pleased that Santiago set off at the kind of pace which would keep us warm. The views at this height were breath taking and as we climbed higher and higher I grew more overwhelmed to the point of tears by the tremendous power, size and natural beauty of these mountains. Up here we were in the National Park and it was full of trees and animals. We followed the tracks of a fox for a while along the edge of an acequia, one of the ancient irrigation channels that create a network across these Alpujarra mountains, taking melting snow down into the valleys all year and throughout the parched summer. We also saw the tracks of a stoat or weasel and evidence of wild boars rummaging and foraging. 
 
 
After an hour or two our way began to descend and we watched the clouds swirl and ebb like sea foam mounding up in the valleys. The cloud eventually reached us, plunging us into a white world of mist where the leafless trees loomed like ghosts. I was very glad to have someone with experience up here as it became increasingly difficult to keep some orientation. Our way took us past a mirador, a viewpoint which would have been spectacular had we been able to see more than 4 or 5 metres ahead.  We continued on, not following any footpath now but descending on an open field and down towards the Buddhist community.  Out of the swirling mist I began to discern a structure ahead of us. This was the shrine of the Green Tara, one of Buddhisms Bhoddisatvas. She was startlingly large, perhaps 2.5 metres, with full round breasts, beautiful hands, one held in a mudra (a ritual hand gesture) and the other facing upwards in a welcoming gesture.
 
 
She was raised on a plinth in the middle of a large man made pond and she was beautiful. I learned that she was the Bodhisattva of compassion and action who comes to help us in our physical, emotional and spiritual suffering and we must circumnavigate the pond three times whilst singing her mantra to gain the benefit of her blessing. Without hesitation Santiago took my hand and began to walk and sing. After a moment of self consciousness, I began to sing too; Om tare, tuttare, ture, soha… Then something strange and mysterious happened. The fog began to swirl around the pond, and overhead it began to get brighter. We continued walking and singing as the light whitened the air around us. My eyes which had grown used to the fog began to water in the brightness, and soon we were standing in sunlight, holding hands and looking at each other in delighted surprise. As we left, the fog swept back in behind us and Green Tara disappeared from view. If you live in a world of dead things this will be a coincidence of precipitation. If you come and live in my world, you will learn that the inner world is not separate from the outer world. It all occurs together in time and place and if we have the eyes to see it, we are surrounded by seemingly magical events that are really only natural phenomena brought about by consciousness and loving intention. William Blake says, “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear as it is, infinite.
 
We spent some silent and prayerful time at the Buddhist retreat centre looking at the beautiful shrines that were scattered at intervals down the chilly hillside. The slower pace meant I began to feel very cold and when I mentioned this to Santiago his response was to resume our walk at a running pace.  For the last twenty minutes we bounded over the rocks and up and down ridges and scree until we arrived back at the van, panting, hot and feeling very blessed and happy.