The Odds of Heartbreak

The odds of heartbreak fluctuate
On boards where bookies
Calculate and shout the names of cherub steeds
And sacred ratios 

In verbal rivers, oral streams 
Of mathematic fantasy 
Blinded gamblers forget themselves 
And their vertigo 

They climb the heights to touch the clouds 
That don’t exist 
Then hit the ground where demons wait 
Holding gilded mistletoe 

Here on the market of broken hearts 
Where numbers light up 
The stagnant dark, where Cupid draws 
His sharpened bow and arrow 

To hit the assholes of the lost 
Shoot them down 
At any cost, until they give their souls 
Like Plath or van Gogh 

Where devils deal red-lipped queens 
And trade jokers 
To cheat the kings, counting cards is a must 
Because everybody knows 

That variables so volatile 
In the house of love 
However hard we try, cannot board our ships 
They’re simply not our cargo 

But still at the trader’s gate 
They spin the wheel 
Widdershins, to play and draw by G-force: everything 
Washing colours from the rainbow 

You cannot win where nothing’s lost 
Just enter your heart 
And a coin to toss, for dreams are the currency here 
In the hollow halls of hope 

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The Sea Saint

The last day; as grey
As the hair of the year
In thin light; a veil
To shroud blessed foresight

Lead me, shining one
Down to the shore
Take me on board and
Teach me faith in the sea

Rise up without oars
Or sail or rudder
Open my arms to the wind
And the birds’ wild chorus:

Acclaim the old!
Hail the new! they say
Ride the waves and cherish
Their ceaseless rise and fall!

“You Are Something Else” Art Exhibition by Vanessa Baird and Mette Hellenes – a review

Kode Art Gallery, Bergen 

9th December 2018 

Diarrhoea and child abuse, hallucinatory cartoon characters and corrupted childhoods, drowning brown people portrayed as Jump Jim Crow-like caricatures in troubled seas, white rape victims, murdered women and a dying grandmother cut off from the fountain of youth with only the underworld of Hades awaiting her. This is all very dark material. And yet it is a riot of colour in pastels, on over forty, 5-metre strips of canvas from floor to ceiling. Awe inspiring, grotesque, uncompromisingly taboo subjects relentlessly cladding and surrounding the room like a fucked up, but ornate wallpaper. 

I don’t think that this is a coincidence. This is the background to our lives; horrors of privilege and under-privilege seamlessly intertwined. Looking at it, examining it closely is almost too much to take in. But take it in we must. It confronts us, shocks and leaves us grieving. It is truly painful to look at, but a necessary sort of pain. The mobile phones distracting victims of first world horrors give us a clue as to what our position is in all this. The feelings I am left with are sorrow and grief. The questions this art leaves me with is “How do we treat ourselves? And how do we treat one another?” 

There’s another place I have seen such depravity and abject suffering portrayed pictorally: the Buddhist Wheel of Life. In cartoonish detail, with layer upon layer of symbol and meaning, the Wheel tells woeful tales of the six realms of existence and the suffering therein. It is beautiful, yet grotesque and frightening, just as this piece is. But it also alludes to the hope of enlightenment. I wonder if this does the same somewhere. I can hear the words of rapper and poet, Akala, in my head as I try to make sense of this assault to my senses. He talks about the British middle classes, but it could just as easily apply to all of the first world: 

“In my experience they can’t help but be smug
After a lifetime of what they think’s just good luck
They’re still more anxious and more thankless
Unearned privilege weighs like an anchor.” 

and 

“Absolute power corrupts absolutely
But absolute powerlessness does the same
Its not the poverty
Its the inequality that we live with everyday that will turn us insane.” 

The narrow strips, positioned so closely together, one portraying unmade beds, shitty toilet paper and white people in self-inflicted pain right next to black people drowning in seas of trouble; oceans of suffering haunted by empty orange life jackets and dead children, confront us with the fact that all this pain is related. Perhaps the inequality that we are dependent upon, corrupts and harms us too? Perhaps the inequality that kills and maims the underprivileged, sends the privileged insane? 

The first moral behaviour displayed universally in young children is fairness. We are, as a species, hardwired towards both fairness and altruism. We instinctively long for and gravitate towards equality and kindness. And yet societal structures and our privilege erode these moral instincts. We look on impotently as refugees drown in the Mediterranean and as impoverished peoples perish and suffer due to their inherited and continued oppression.  

Useless, grieving, unable to respond to the tragedy around us, we the privileged distract ourselves with technology and dysfunctional behaviour, and pretend that we are not in the same sea of suffering as the under-privileged. Our politicians pander to our cowardice and refuse to take the responsibility our privilege demands. In truth, it hurts not to help. We are morally paralysed and begin to die on the inside. We distract ourselves, intoxicate ourselves, self-abuse, abuse or ignore the vulnerable in our own midst in a dysfunctional attempt to avoid feeling this necessary pain. This art helps us to connect to, reclaim and acknowledge that pain as valid and warranted. It mirrors our pain and alludes to the wisdom it might teach us. The message I take home is quite the opposite of the exhibits title “You are something else”. The message is “You are NOT something else. You are they and they are you.”

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The First Time I Went Into the Woods

I remember the first time I went into the woods. I went in and came out changed. The date was 21st December 2003 and the place was Short Wood, just outside of Oundle in Northamptonshire.

I didn’t go in alone. I went with a group of volunteers from the Wildlife Trust. We went to coppice hazel poles. We drove there in the morning from Northampton in a land rover. It rained and I remember initially not looking forward to a day’s work in the sodding wet.

A red kite flew over as we unloaded the gear and entered the woods. It was the shortest day of the year: midwinter. The sky was grey and the light thin. I have of course been in woods before, but only as a tourist or daytripper. There is something very different about going into the woods to work. The woods suddenly become something much more than merely pretty; they become necessary.

Charles Eisenstein once said that you cannot have community unless people need one another. In the same way, I would assert that one cannot really appreciate nature, an ecosystem, the woods until one has felt reliance upon it in some way. Through direct reliance upon an ecosystem, we also develop respect for the species that are part of it.

What is an oak tree to a dog walker? It may be admired for it’s beauty, it’s colours and fairytale-like forms by someone walking their spaniels on a Sunday afternoon. They might even develop an intellectual appreciation of oak trees if they read about their history and ecology. But how does this experience compare to that of a woodcutter? Someone who must humbly square up to a mighty oak grasping just a few mere hand tools. A craftsperson who, in order to live, must approach an unavoidably impressive individual, a towering monster, with the intention of taking it down.

When one is reliant on nature in such a tangible way, when one must truly meet it and take from it what one needs to live, one senses it’s true might and power. This is what I felt for the first time that day. In all healthy relationships, there must be a balance of power. A sense of “you need me and I need you”. This stability and mutual respect can only really be maintained through a certain degree of fear on both sides. An anxiety that the other party could retract their co-operation or love, depriving you of what you need.

In our abstraction away from natural environments, we humans in the post-industrial world have forgotten how to fear nature. By that I mean relate to nature in a healthy way. Of course, we still fear nature, but in a less wholesome manner. Our fear is a prissy, neurotic and cowardly fear that results in brutality and ecocide. Our fear is played out in a post-manual reality. A reality of best before dates, microfibre cloths and disposable latex gloves. One where we would rather sculpt our bodies in hygienic, temperature controlled gyms than get our hands mucky outside. We shy away from interacting with nature and the risks associated with it. We outsource direct interactions to faceless corporations who anonymously trash ecosystems at our bidding, leading to brutality and ecocide.

But nature actually needs us. We are a keystone species, after all. That is a species who affects all others in an ecosystem. We (used to at least) manage, maintain and truly be a benign part of diverse habitats, including coppice woodlands like Short Wood. But in our crazed hunger for capital, we now only really exploit nature. The balance of power is all out. We mine nature for all she is worth and more. Like an abusive spouse who batters their partner, but still expects everything from her; we do all the taking and nature all the giving.

We abuse nature, but she can and will eventually abandon us. We should be afraid of that. We need to be scared in order to enjoy a healthy relationship with nature. I felt fear of the woods that day. A real sense that it could hurt me. I might gash open my arm with a bow saw. A falling branch might knock me out or break a limb. A thorn in the undergrowth could pierce my skin and cause an infection. This was the woods as they really are. The woods as they always have been for thousands of years and to countless generations of people before me. A place of risk and necessity.

This heightened state caused me to become more alert to my surroundings as I worked. I noticed the wind blowing through the bare branches above me as I sawed and chopped. The screech of a jay. Long-tailed tits twittering, blue tits nattering. But above all I noticed the strange and steady tempo of this world outside of my own mind. It’s barely perceptible consistency, to which there is no beat. Only a careful unfolding marked by the passing of night and day, and the changing of seasons.

Being in that strange world is so different to the hectic claustrophobia of normal life. Sitting in the woods without a ticking clock. Just sitting, eating a cheese sandwich with my back to an oak tree that might have started it’s life five, ten or fifteen generations before me. That is a feeling one doesn’t forget too easily. It is a feeling of balance and humility; of “I need you and you need me”. It is a feeling I had yearned for for many years and which I still need now.

Everyone else felt it that day too, I think. We talked about about the ancient practice of coppicing, of its benefit to biodiversity. We talked about the techniques passed down from generation to generation. We covered the coppice stools with brash because deer apparently don’t like putting their feet through masses of twigs to eat the new shoots in spring. We talked about the winter solstice and paganism, of the Saxon graveyard in another Northamptonshire wood, Everdon Stubbs.

The dogs ran through the forest as a brash fire sizzled in the rain. Our voices and laughter rang through the trees, as our ancestors’ might have done as they worked. We talked about cooking roadkill on a spade and about all of the different things one could make from coppiced materials: furniture, tools, charcoal and firewood. We drank coffee and noticed the dark green ivy against grey bark.

My arm ached terribly on the way home. I was dog-tired, but in order to get to sleep that night, had to take painkillers to ease the muscle pain. I might have been scared off woodland work for the rest of my life. Instead it changed my life forever and for the better. That day I met the woods as a whole human being. I took nature by the hand and greeted her with respect and humility. I took some of her limbs and she hurt mine in return. It was almost as if the feeling, the respect, was mutual.

Pixie-led in an urban backwater

Have you ever been pixie-led? Led astray in nature by forces that defy you? I have. My story borders on the comic, but was pretty terrifying at the time. It took place in Northampton, England, in the unlikely setting of Brackmills Industrial Estate. It was a scorching hot day in July, in the early noughties.

Brackmills is, like most industrial estates, a pretty grim place to be, especially when one considers what it is built on: pristine flood plains and ancient meadows of the River Nene. Destroyed for ever and replaced with the least aesthetically pleasing buildings and infrastructure imaginable. But I was a student in desperate need of money and had been tipped off about jobs going in the mammoth Tesco distribution centre. I had somehow wangled an interview, which obviously went badly because they never got back to me. They probably took one look at me in my flowery blouse and pink ballet pumps and thought “no way!”

I had walked there from town because it was such a gorgeous day and a few remnants of those flood meadows, like Barnes Meadow nature reserve, remain. The footpaths are/were fairly well maintained and marked, but like all urban-wild places, they can be pretty frightening sometimes too. Especially for a twenty something young woman on her own. But it was the middle of the day, I’d be fine, I thought.

I came out of the stuffy warehouse after the interview and walked along the road. I had studied the Northampton A-Z before I came and memorized the route. Or so I thought. My ridiculous colour coordinated handbag was not big enough to house such an object, so I had left the map at home. The heat was beating down on me and I started regretting not applying sun cream or putting on a hat. An embankment of bee orchids surprised and enchanted me, but I had no camera to hand. I hadn’t even brought a mobile phone. No water either.

I carried on along the road and got a bit confused about the way at a flyover for the dual carriageway. I continued on at ground level, not wanting to dirty my ballet pumps by scrabbling up the embankment. Neither did I fancy walking alongside thronging traffic in the midday sun.

The path led away from the road through scrub and this is where my memory gets hazy. I can remember reasoning with myself that there was another crossing point, a bridge even, to get me across the river. I followed the path onward.

The sun got hotter and I became thirstier. I had no sunglasses. My skin began to redden, but being a headstrong young person, I pressed on. Mild panic started to arise when the path became marshier and my pumps began squelching. But I had come so far now, it would take ages to go back. There had to be a crossing!

I started worrying about who else might be this far along the track on a weekday afternoon. What sexual predator was lurking behind trees, what freak or weirdo was waiting for an opportunity just like this. What opportunistic criminal couldn’t help themselves if they chanced upon a lost and lonely naive young woman like me?! The sweat soaked my long hair and dripped off my nose. My eyes were weary in the brightness, but my fear and beating heart kept my wits about me.

I got to an elevated railway track that cut across the flat plain, forming a wall between me and where I needed to get to: the River Nene. In my hot and bothered, now blistered and burnt stupor, I carried on along the path that was now just a cattle track. To my short-lived delight, it led to an underpass below the railway track. I could see reeds and sedges through the passage. Perhaps, if I could just go through, I’d get a better view of any crossings close by?!

I squelched through grasses towards the underpass, my ballet pumps now completely destroyed and caked in mud. The underpass, to my horror, was full of stones, deep puddles and cow pats. Obviously a place the cattle came to shelter in bad weather. But there was nothing for it, I had come this far, I had to go through and find a way back home!

I squelched forward, through the stinking shite, the foul puddle now completely overwhelming my powder pink ballet pumps and pop socks. How my bleeding and burst blisters stung as the filthy water met them! I cried. How the hell had a job interview in Brackmills ended in ankle deep cow shit and second degree sunburn?!

At the opening of the underpass I went on tiptoes, straining to see over the reeds and willow scrub. I looked both left and right, attempting to see a crossing. And then I heard a strange sound. A sound I had never heard before. An alien squeak that reminded me perhaps of a small dinosaur, a velociraptor in Jurassic Park. It couldn’t be a cow! Then there was a rustle and out of the scrub trotted a weird creature, about dog-sized with tusks protruding from its lower jaw. I froze. With odd jerking movements it passed right in front of me, literally about two metres away. A muntjac deer. It sauntered past unperturbed and disappeared into the undergrowth.

Tired and bewildered, I accepted defeat, turned back and started the long walk home, barefoot, thirsty and stinking of shit. I spent the rest of the day in bed with sunstroke, and I have never attempted to “memorise” a map again!

This was the first time I was genuinely scared in and by nature. I told my friend about my ordeal and she said, “You were pixie-led!” Pixie-led or bloody stupid, I don’t know which, but meetings like this with nature, even the frightening ones, have only strengthened my bonds with it. Or should I say them?

Stripes in the Sky

A riddle poem.

It’s there in the lighting of a candle

In an evening ritual

Of sitting for the welfare of all beings

 

It’s there in the stripes in the sky

On a summer’s day

With my son, pointing up towards the clouds

 

It’s there in the see through panels

Of the greenhouse

That will grow our food in case there’s hope

 

It’s there in the far off blasting

And moving of rocks,

Older than anyone could possibly imagine

 

It’s there, bound up in ties

That should not be broken,

But have been, like pottery smashed beyond repair.

 

It’s there in the hum that is life and death at once

Ceaseless motion;

This fever of doing that will leave us undone.

How to tell my child that the world is dying

Dear child,

Every day my life is full of reminders that the world is dying and that we are killing it. Life on Earth is in the process of disappearing because of the systems we are part of. Let me explain: each morning, I put on a pot of coffee and drink a glass of orange juice. We eat toast with butter and jam, and we have a nice breakfast. It all seems innocent enough, but behind most of the things that we do, eat, wear, buy and think are normal, are complicit with ecocide. That coffee, even though it is organic and fair trade, has travelled many miles and is wrapped in plastic. It has been grown and harvested with the aid of machines and the area in which it was grown, was once a pristine tropical habitat.

Fossil fuels were burnt, emitting tonnes of carbon dioxide into the air and hundreds of thousands of species were sacrificed, just so that mummy and daddy could have their coffee in the morning. The same applies for the orange juice, the flour in the bread and the sugar in the jam. The butter, which is made from milk, came from cows fed with soya beans and corn grown in the same way.

When we get dressed in the morning, all of our cotton clothes were made using fibres from plants that require enormous amounts of water, drying out the land, and poisons that kill wildlife. Again, they were farmed with machines that used gallon upon gallon of oil, belching out greenhouse gases. The soil was ploughed, causing it to wash away after harvest, leaving less and less in following years.

We only had breakfast and got dressed, but these innocent daily activities require systems that kill, pollute and destroy the very things we need to survive. They wash the soil into the sea. They kill plants and animals that clean the air and keep us company in this world. They pollute the air with gases that will cause the planet to heat up and wreck our stable, life-giving climate.

Now imagine all the breakfasts in all the homes of every person each morning, all over the world. Imagine the destruction that comes from that. And then add onto that all of the dinners, lunches and trips in cars, buses, trains, planes, ferries and boats we humans take, pumping out those same lethal gases. We are killing life on Earth and our own kind with it. We have been doing so for quite some time. There’s no way we can survive without them, our brothers and sisters, the plants and animals.

So why do we continue living the way we do, you might ask? The truth is, there is not much point in changing our ways. No matter what we as a family choose to eat, drink, wear or how we choose to travel or work, the system around us will not change in time to prevent the worst from happening. We are headed for a black hole no matter what we do. So we might as well enjoy our breakfast and love each other in this final hour.

I am so very sorry that this is the truth you are faced with. You don’t deserve this fate, but you deserve to know the truth. There is no future. If you live to have children, they may die horribly and prematurely. It is not your fault and you cannot fix it. I could not fix it. The system grew so big, that noone could fix it. Try to enjoy what little time you have left on this dying planet. Do what you love. Love who you love and live with what grace and dignity is afforded you. Survive if you can, but fret not if you can’t.

I love you, I always have and I am sorry we could not fix the problem that we both inherited. We are made of stuff from the stars and were always destined to return to them. We just didn’t realise how soon that would be.

All my love