Between Birth and Death

These are troubled days and as it is St Valentine’s Day this week I thought a little escapism into love would do me good. However, for those of us without a significant other, this time of year with the roses and cards can be painful, or seem crass. For me it’s the latter. So I decided to look for the positives.

Trying to establish the facts about St Valentine proved to be more difficult that I thought. Apparently there have been up to five Valentine’s accredited with being the saint but the Roman Martyrology, the Catholic Church’s official list of recognised saints, for February 14 gives only one Saint Valentine; a martyr who died on the Via Flaminia.

So why has Valentine’s feast day has been celebrated as a lovers’ holiday and a day of romance since the 14th century? Some say the date was thought to be the beginning of the mating season for birds. Others say it is because the church wanted to Christianise an ancient Roman pagan festival called Lupercalia, which centred around fertility and purification.Whatever the explanation and whoever is the real Valentine, we have in the western world an annual celebration of romantic love on February 14th.

Some people look to the Bible for inspiration about Love. I look to Khalil Gibran, Paolo Cuelho and Don Miguel Ruiz who each in The Prophet, The Alchemist and The Mastery of Love respectively, use a master talking to and teaching a crowd of people about Love. My favourite is The Prophet, possibly because I discovered it first at a time when I needed it and we always hold our first loves a little more tightly.

Almustafa, the Prophet,  is about to leave the city of Orphalese. He has waited twelve years for a ship and when one arrives the people gather round, desperate for last words of wisdom before he leaves, to tell him “all that has been shown you of that which is between birth and death.”

He is asked to speak about Love and exhorts the people assembled before him:

“When love beckons to you, follow him, Though his ways are hard and steep. And when his wings enfold you yield to him, Though the sword hidden among his pinions may wound you. And when he speaks to you believe in him, Though his voice may shatter your dreams as the north wind lays waste the garden.

For even as love crowns you so shall he crucify you. Even as he is for your growth so is he for your pruning. Even as he ascends to your height and caresses your tenderest branches that quiver in the sun, So shall he descend to you roots and shake them in their clinging to the earth.”

Not for him the slushy, chocolate box fiction of romantic love. He portrays love’s stark reality of light and shade, pleasure and pain, its catharticism.

When asked about Marriage he says:

Love one another, but make not a bond of love: Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls. Fill each other’s cup but drink not from the same cup. Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf. Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone, Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music.

Give your hearts, but not into each other’s keeping. For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts. And stand together yet not too near together: For the pillars of the temple stand apart, And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.”

So many elderly couples I know do everything together and take great pride in this, in never having had a cross word, of thinking and breathing the same way. It may work for them, and each to their own, but for me that kind of relationship seems claustrophobic, lifeless. The merging of two people into one is often written to describe finding one’s ‘soul mate’ but to me a soul mate is one who helps your soul sing its own tune in harmony with theirs, not get it to sing the same notes.

Someone recently commented that none of my characters in fiction are happily married or in successful relationships. I hadn’t noticed it before, but she’s right. I suppose as a writer I’ve brought my own experiences to my work and haven’t seen many examples of what I would say were ‘successful’ relationships. The couples involved might describe their relationships as successful, but seen by me, the outsider, they are too full of compromise, to the point where the individual has vanished. But I guess it’s all down to perceptions and the choices we make.

So whatever your status and views on love this Valentine’s Day, I wish you peace and joy.

“This day has ended. It is closing upon us even as the water-lily upon its own tomorrow. What was given us here we shall keep, And if it suffices not, then again must we come together and together stretch our hands unto the giver”

 

 

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Harvests

A couple of weeks ago I set off early for a walk and met a couple of friends on their way to hunt wild garlic for making pesto. I wished then luck and carried on my way. It was a beautiful Sunday morning, the church bells were calling the faithful to prayer, the air was warming up but still retained a sharpness on my bare arms and the birds seemed to be delirious in their acrobatic antics high in the sky. As I made my way past well-tended gardens I was greeted by the scent of mimosa and vivid colours of magenta, cerise, orange and yellow. Drifts of cherry blossom were disturbed by my passing and hawthorn hedgerows were covered in sweet-scented may blossom.

Towards the river the houses thinned and I passed through the edge of woods where the last of the daffodills nodded and bluebells and forget-me-nots sheltered beneath the trees. I stopped at a small bridge where the river cascades over rocks and has ground out a small cup shape in one of the rocks below, where people throw coins for good luck. The day was magnificent and i let the brown breath of the river wash over me. Further on I passed fields and an old churchyard where huge crumbling Victorian gravestones sit and rooks perch above on branches. This used to be a favourite place when I first moved to the area because I love graveyards and reading headstones to find out about the people wo lived and died there.

I took the path down across the suspension bridge, found a seat and turned my face up to the sun. Relaxing, I let my mind drift as I allowed my other senses to take over from my eyes. After a while my mind returned to the garlic hunt and how many natural harvests we have here in the form of free food. I collect garlic for salads and cooking, raspberries, blackberries, elderberries, loganberries and boysenberries for jams and chutneys, apples for cider and apple jelly, and lots of friends collect the sloes for gin but I’ve still to master that one. So much abundance on our doorstep, so much to be grateful for.

But there are other harvests I’m grateful for. That day, with its cornflower-blue skies and golden sunlight, is one of many I harvest in order to commit to memory so I can draw down and use later, like the fruits I turn into jam. On dark days, when depression or rain threatens, I pull them up, spread them over me and remember that all things pass. But all things are also useful, if we know what to do with them.