Sunday, 14 June 2015

Walking

Have you ever been lost?

It was a long time ago that a dear friend told me of her experience of losing her way while walking with her dog in the Drakensberg. Her story stayed with me: firstly, because she was so affected by the experience and secondly, because it speaks to the larger metaphor of life journey.

I am directionally challenged. I have a strange penchant for turning left (never right) for no apparent reason at all. I hate reading maps. If I’m given verbal instructions they bounce off my eardrums and I don’t trust my GPS, hence, I often get lost. I’m sure most of us know that fine mix of fear and frustration as we search desperately for a familiar landmark.

Billie, my mad rescue dog who always makes
me laugh.
There are many times too, that I have lost my heart path. There are times when my heart has turned left when it should have taken a different direction. There are times when I have felt lost in a wilderness of pain, where the only way out seemed to be to stop and invite that final darkness. Somehow, there has always been something that has propelled me forward.

I am grateful for the friends (and dogs) in my life who have tugged at the edges of the darkness and brought me home. I wonder if you too have had days where you have only risen from your chair because a dog with golden eyes was licking your hand, trusting that it would be fed.

If you have been lost, don’t think about the thorns and the twisting paths, the residue of pain. Think instead about what or whom it was that brought you home. Wherever you are on your journey, I wish you a safe coming home to self. May that faithful old dog, Hope, always walk the path with you.

Walking
Anyone who has journeyed
Knows what it is to be lost:

For hours, the paths looking the same yet strange,
Travelled and untraveled memory-muddled.
Then meeting that evening Walker, the Moon,
Dragging a sack of darkness,
Empty of the stars too heavy to bear.

Behind you, the old dog,
Panting at your heels,
Believing as always, that you will find the way –
If only for him and his rough, old fur.

There are thorns ahead,
And a riverbank that will ask you
To use your small strength to lift the dog,
Heavier now than you ever remembered.
You may stop, longing for that other, Final Walker,
But the old gold eyes are watching.

Anyone who has travelled
Knows what it is to find home:

The old dog, fed and asleep,
Skin twitching as you smooth his side
To feel the thud of heart under hand.
He dreams of another walk,
You know, it was the golden eyes
That lit the path back home.

Ruth Everson


Sunday, 26 April 2015

Go!


Set sail!

My image, Zanzibar 2014
Do you feel stuck? What happens when you wake up one morning and the voice that has been silenced for so long is shouting in your head?

Life is journey but we often find ourselves on the wrong path. The choice to stay on the path that fate seems to have decided for us, or to take our destinies into our own hands, is one of the hardest tasks we will ever undertake.

I wrote this poem thinking of my own life and the moments when the steps towards change were taken. Some came at a great cost to myself and others. In my heart, are so many of my friends who are caught in their own flux. Some are hesitating on the edge of that leap of faith, others have jumped and are striding ahead, dealing with the
complexity that hard change brings with it.

What does it take, to make that decision to go back to the paths not taken, to find the courage to live an authentic life? The price is different for each us. I don't know what the price would be for you. I do know that life is fragile. We dare not expect to be given years and years in which to change.

Change is hard but it is possible. If the voice that is calling you is strong, listen. It may be time to start practicing the taking of that terrifyingly beautiful first step.

Go!
Do you remember when the door shut?
Was yours the hand that pushed it closed?
Yours the fingers that drove the bolt home?

Now, for years you have walked –
Carrying the door on your back
Straight-spined turned to iron.

You watch: Wives, husbands, lovers, children,
Dressed in your dreams,
Walking away into the day that is no longer yours.

What would it take to make you turn?

There – it’s out – the possibility of turning,
You knew all along the key could be found,
You knew all along the lock could be oiled.

What will it take to make you turn?

There – it’s open – all the paths are still there,
A restless sea still washes the shore,
In the infinite sky of your soul, the North star shines.

One Step-

To cross the chasm at the door:
Writhing with two-headed snakes
Eyes a glow of glittering Janus coins
Fork-tongued as ever they whisper:
Look back, you won’t go
It’s too far
It’s too hard
You’ll fall...

One step –
One long, free, stride.
Practice now on the living room floor,
Then, when no one’s looking –

...Go!

Ruth Everson

Thursday, 1 January 2015

The Song of the Dolphins

The Unexpected Beauty of Scars

It might seem strange to start the year writing about scars but we all have them. We can all show the physical scars and we alone know the shape of our emotional scars.

Physically, it’s been a difficult year for me. In 2007, I fell and snapped a tendon in my foot. A casual phone call to ask to be ‘popped past casualty’ turned into three major surgeries, the last of which was a triple fusion of the ankle in July. My foot is an interesting mix of bolts and scars. I’m waiting for Stephen King to write a book about a demonic foot. I think it’ll be a thriller.

At the start of December, we went to Zanzibar. We were looking forward to an island retreat and swimming in azure seas. The week before we left, I went for a check-up on what I like to call The Foul Head (TFH). TFH has a lovely basal cell carcinoma, a gift from many years of tanning myself to a cinder. (Are you wearing a hat as you read this? I don’t care if you’re inside, put one on at once!) Sigh, after two years of being clear, my old friend BCC was back. I spent the day before we left for Zanzibar sorting out the surgery that would be required on my return.

Dolphins off Mnemba Atoll, Dec 2014
Our holiday was wonderful and it left me with two recurring thoughts. The first came from a fabulous day of snorkeling off the Mnemba Atoll, in the type of sea that you think travel agents have photo shopped. We were lucky enough to swim with dolphins. Julia had joked with me the day before about the healing powers of dolphins. They didn't, as she had suggested they would, prod me from every angle, but they did leave me with an enormous sense of peace. What a profound experience, to be suspended in that turquoise water and to be part of an aquatic ballet. It was only later, watching the video on my underwater camera, that I heard their clicks and singing. 

The photo, part of this post, will always sing to me. It will remind me that crutches, emotional and physical, can be left behind if we choose to immerse ourselves in beauty and become part of the ballet that is there. Of course life is tough, of course we have been hurt and been responsible for hurt. That is the human condition. The choice, however, to seek beauty over bitterness is ours alone.

The second thought concerns the wonderful plastic surgeon who has worked on TFH over the past eight years. He doesn't do cosmetic surgery. Instead, he chooses to work with the burnt, broken and diseased. It is thanks to him that I still have a scalp; even if it does tell a story like a patchwork quilt. He has removed the diseased tissue with such delicacy. He chooses to give his patients their best shot at being beautiful.

Before the surgery, I had been prepared for the possibility of a third skin graft. I had expressed my fear to my wonderful Julia that I might come back from surgery looking like the Phantom of the Opera. She looked at me with that Julia frown and said: ‘I married you for your heart, not your head.’ She made the choice to see beauty. I will give it my best shot to have the heart that she loves.

Scars are beautiful, if we can make them a reminder of the journey and what we have overcome. They can be a symbol of power.

2015 will bring its scars


. Won’t you remind me, if I forget, to listen for the song of the dolphins?


Sunday, 14 September 2014

Mostly Water


There’s something about reaching the birthdays that mark decades that shifts the space in our heads. Next year, in November, I’ll turn sixty. I teach teenagers – most of them see sixty as being close to death. How could anyone be of use once they’re past thirty?

Grandma Moses
Perhaps I measure myself against this youthful barometer. Perhaps I shouldn’t. Hilary Clinton is eight years older than me and she’s set to be the most powerful woman in the world. I love Grandma Moses (Anna Mary Robertson). She was an American folk artist who only really started painting at the age of seventy eight. She continued producing work until she died aged one hundred and one. One of her paintings sold for over $1.2 million. She’s also proof that you don’t have to look like Kim Kardashian to be on the cover of a magazine. Go Grandma!

Go Grandma indeed! I wonder how she felt as she neared her centenary. Probably the same as many of us do now. The world is too busy; there are too many new-fangled things. Despite this, she chose to make meaning of her world. Instead of retreating, she continued to advance. Her tapestries and paintings showed a gentle world, full of warmth and family values. Hers is a world of hope.

The world has never been gentle but it can be made gentle in places, depending on how we choose to be in it. Hope must take us forward. We must interrogate our purpose at every age. I don’t think I’ll live to be a hundred, but I am alive now.

I've spent the last ten weeks in a cumbersome cast, hauling my not insubstantial self around on crutches. On Friday, the cast will come off. I see it as a metaphor for my life. There are many things that have encased my heart. There have been bad choices, the loss of loved ones and my own wonderful ability sometimes to see myself as useless.  I’m not. Neither are you, no matter what the world is whispering in your ear.

My name is Ruth; I will soon be sixty. I choose to fight to abandon my cast and crutches as long as I have breath. I choose to live the flow, not to wait for the ash and dust.

Mostly Water

I'll be sixty soon.
There, I said it, my number's up.
The house is still standing firm,
As far as I can tell, there's no fire on the moon.

I've been to ceremonies, dedicated to dust,
I've scattered a lifetime of ashes,
But I'm not ashey or dusty yet -
I'm mostly water and running.

There's a river raging through my heart,
Tumbling in torrents through my thighs,
Wearing boulders to rocks in the bend of a knee,
Turning pebbles to sand in the palm of my hand.

Of course there have been droughts,
And dams and silt and stink and mud,
We all know the ebb and the flow,
The nights, thick and awash with blood.

But, in the delta of my heart,
Something fertile-fresh is stirring.
I may be close to home, who knows?
Still, I turn to the scent of the sea.

Ruth Everson




Saturday, 23 August 2014

Garden of my Heart


When I moved into my current home there was no garden. There was a grove of trees up in the corner and a few leggy, pink petunias pretending to be a flowerbed. There was scrubby grass and hard dirt in abundance. In other words, there was nothing. Over the years, I have broken my back and my bank balance in an attempt to transform my garden.

I love the birds. There’s not a morning that I don’t listen for them. They are my morning alarm. I love the tall trees that shut me off from neighbours, making this a little sanctuary away from the noise of the world. I love my tall African sky. I love the pool, paid for, ironically, by TV scripts written for Ethiopia. But I have been unfaithful to my love.

My garden has had to bear the brunt of my emotional landscape. After a particularly hard time a few years back, I abandoned my garden. The grass was mowed, the plants were watered, but I didn't kneel and dig my fingers into the earth. The worms were found by the hadedas, not by my spade. The orange fire of clivias blossomed despite my neglect.

I can remember an April day, sitting at the edge of the pool, broken (I thought), beyond repair. I can remember a hot, December afternoon and the phone call to tell me that my brother, Mike, had died. My only solution to that horror was to go out into the garden and mow the lawn. Restoring order to the grass seemed to help me restore order to my soul.

My garden is not just a place of sorrow. It was here that Julia and I, surrounded by friends and family, were married. As I write this, I can hear the wind chimes that were bought to remember that day, stirring. Here is the place where we gather for lunches and braais. Somehow, in the roots planted so long ago, love was planted too.

It’s time for me to go back into my garden. I have plans for a new garden space that will require knocking down a wall. There’s a perfect spot for a meditation bench at the top of the garden. There are things to be done.

I’m saying it’s the garden that needs work, but I know it’s not really that faithful outside space, it’s the garden of my heart that needs to wake to a new season. Yes, here too, there are walls to be broken down and things to be planted.


Perhaps the garden of your heart could do with a little weeding? Or, let's just share a prayer mat together.

I place my prayer mat  
Beneath a high-domed Cathedral sky
Where words fly on Sparrow wing
Into the infinite Blue ear of god.

(This is an extract from my poem 'Cathedral Sky' as published in 'Landscapes of Courage'.)

Sunday, 8 June 2014

The Gift of Giving


I couple of Saturdays ago; I came home to find Julia with tears in her eyes. She told me that she had been given the most amazing gift. To give this context, you need to understand that Julia is used to receiving gifts. At the end of a school year, she receives so many gifts that it takes more than one trip from school to bring them all home. Many of these gifts are extravagant.

Julia teaches at the St Stithians Thandulwazi School on a Saturday morning. The purpose of the school is to empower underprivileged learners and to help teachers who want to improve their skills. Julia teaches English to the teachers. One of the women was so touched by Julia’s passion and desire to make a difference, that she had brought a gift.

I was intrigued to find out what kind of gift had caused this depth of emotion. On the table was a crumpled plastic packet. Tears streaming down her cheeks, Julia opened the packet. There was nothing shiny in it, no layers of gold paper, no ribbons or bows to be seen. The packet was full of monkey nuts.

The gift was from a young intern teacher. She told Julia that she had no money to buy a gift, so she had gone out into her little patch of garden and gathered the nuts for her. She offered her gift with sincerity and dignity.

The story of Julia’s gift has stayed in my mind. Here was a woman, who, like the widow in the Bible who gave her two mites, had given more than the wealthy could ever give. The story in Luke goes on to say that she, “out of her poverty put in all the livelihood that she had.” (Luke 21:1-4 New King James Version)


I was touched by more than this though. Julia wanted to give something in return, but as we turned this over in conversation, we understood that this would diminish the gift that had been given. Instead, the following week, Julia took some French books for another of the teachers who was trying to teach herself French. She paid it forward.

I’m good at giving gifts but I’m not good at receiving them. Sometimes, the greatest gift is to be able to accept was has been given with grace and then to pay it forward.

There is a great gift in giving.


The greatest gift is in receiving the giver’s gift into the heart. 

Saturday, 19 April 2014

Do you ever feel stuck?


Look closely, you may find pearls in the grass.
Every day, when I drive onto the beautiful campus where I teach, I see guinea fowl running through the grass. Their tiny heads are a startling flash of colour; their bodies are pearl spotted, feathered plumpness. I love their silliness but had not given them much thought until a friend made a comment about them.

She told me, that in captivity, guinea fowl lose their distinctive blue markings. The metaphor caught my attention at once. In captivity, we lose the brightness of our soul. We are held captive by the needs of others, by our own self-limiting beliefs and often by circumstance.

I facilitate a course called ‘Investment in Excellence’. The first module deals with this question: Do you ever feel stuck? I know very few people who don’t feel stuck somewhere in their lives. What ‘unsticks’ us?  I think it’s pain. When the pain or dissonance caused by the situation we're in gets too intense, we must move or die.

Back to the guinea fowl, as much as I searched for a reference to the bird losing its colour in captivity, I couldn’t find it. If you have a better source, please let me know.  I did, however, find this story. The guinea fowl is classified as Numida Meleagris. Meleagros was a Greek prince whose four sisters were turned into fowls. (I know, foul fate.) The Queen blamed Meleagros for what had happened to his sisters. The grief was too much to bear and so he killed himself. (The Ancient Greeks were always doing stuff like that. I’m surprised the Greek nation survived.) The sisters were so distraught that they cried until their tears became the pearl-like markings that we see on the  feathers of guinea fowl today. (They really must have cried him a River Styx.)

What should we fear? I fear the absence of the ‘pain’ that will lift me out of the dark hole of stuckness and towards a more exquisite world. I look back over my life and value the pearl tears that shine in my plumage. I look at those around me and applaud those who share the pearls of their humanity. I draw courage from those who dare to show their vulnerability.

‘Go upright amongst those who are on their knees
Among those with their backs turned and toppled in the dust.
You were saved not in order to live,
You have little time, you must give testimony.
Be courageous when the mind deceives you, be courageous.
In the final account only this is important.

From The Envoy of Mr Cogito by Zbigniew Herbert


Wear your pearls with courage. Give testimony, like the guinea fowl.

Sunday, 9 March 2014

Path to Beauty

Path to Beauty

One more step.
The path is steep and steeper still,
You could stop here.
Here, amongst the broken rocks,
Fit the sand of self into the cracks,
Sift down, down into darkness.

One more step-
The path lifts to nothing and nothing still,
You could stop here.
Here, fear will hold you still,
Hope will push you on.
You, must, move – the path will not.

One more step,
Under a sky stretched blue and bluer still
You must stop to look,
Amongst the sand and sun-jagged rocks,
Roots, push, down, lifting leaves to green,
Impossibly, alive, on a path to beauty.

Ruth Everson

Life is a bitch. There are times when one more step, one more morning, one more week, seems impossible. I have sat at the bottom of the dark hole of depression. I have, it seems, spent a lifetime fighting with my own particular demons.

Recently, I have thought a lot about a little story that I read a couple of years ago. I don’t remember its author, so I can’t acknowledge it. A woman is drowning in the middle of a lake. She is holding onto a large rock. From the shore, people are crying out to her to drop the rock.
“Let it go, you’ll be able to swim!”
“I can’t, it’s my rock,” the woman replies.

To the onlookers, the solution is simple, but for those of us who carry the rocks of hurt and fear, it’s hard to let go.

Without hope, we cannot take one more step. My salvation, always, has been the friends and family who have chosen to love me at my most unlovable. Somewhere close to all of us, is someone who feels unlovable. Stand in front of them on the path with your arms outstretched; swim out into the lake. No one should sink on their own.

(The photograph was taken by the talented Lynn Barbour.)





Wednesday, 1 January 2014

A Gift of Stones


At a lunch recently, our hostess asked us to tell a childhood story of Christmas.. I was caught unawares by the sudden prickle of tears brought by the deep memory that came unbidden.

It was Christmas Eve. The boys were off doing whatever it is boys do at the seaside: searching for crabs in rock pools; swimming out beyond the waves; coming home salt and sun bleached. The girl, even at seven, didn’t mind being alone. The garden that encircled the holiday cottage was a tropical tangle of banana trees, Frangipani and Hibiscus. Shadowed wings flitted through the trees. Lizards, faster than her reaching fingers, slid into cracks and crevices as she approached, but it wasn’t the lizards that she wanted.

Her hair, free for once of the tight, white bow that her grandmother insisted on, swung over her eyes as she bent to look for her treasure. It had to be a certain size, small enough to fit into the packet hidden under her pillow. The narrow, silver packet was covered in green and red patterns of holly and mistletoe. She had taken it from her mother’s horde of wrapping paper.

The pile of stones grew larger. Finally, the girl sat down to make her choice. Each stone was tested. She ran her fingers over the surfaces, feeling the hard smoothness that whispered of history. There was a safety in stones; she could feel the ancient certainty of being in their weight. Carefully hidden in her pocket, she carried her treasure inside. She slid it into the packet – perfect.

The next morning she waited for her mother to find the packet amongst the pile of gifts being handed out. Then, there it was, with the scrawled ‘To Ma’, so difficult to write on the silver paper. Her mother’s blue eyes lit up. It was beautiful, just what she wanted. Perfect.

After lunch, the girl took her new Christmas annual into the garden. She went through the kitchen, still littered with plates and the debris of the day. In the corner, peeping from a pile of torn wrapping paper, was her packet, still heavy with its stone.

Why did it matter? To the child, it was a treasure discarded. To the adult, the memory was a reminder of how easily I sometimes dismiss the things treasured by others. I still love stones. I have brought them home from Stonehenge, the Great Wall of China, the base of the pyramids at Giza and the courtyard where Nelson Mandela broke rocks. I have been given a stone from the middle of a town called Nowhere and from Auschwitz. In my classroom is a pet rock called Horatio, kept in the cage made by my grandfather so many years ago. From the top of the Drakensburg Mountains, there are three stones brought from the place where we buried the ashes of my mother, father and brother Michael just before Christmas last year.

We all have our treasures. Let’s guard the right to love who and what we love, no matter how strange it may seem to others.


(My book of poetry, 'Landscapes of Courage', is now available on Amazon in Kindle format.)

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Torn Between Two Lovers


 

(It’s not what you think.)

My life, to quote Carole King, has been ‘a tapestry of rich and royal hue’. For as long as I can remember my tapestry has been stitched, not with fine and silken threads but with words.

I can remember, even as a little girl, the excitement generated by the yellow blocks of paper that Mom would bring home from work. I drew pictures and invented words and worlds that took me away from the loneliness of being the youngest child and only girl in our large family.

When I was twelve, I won my first writing competition. The story, about the 1820 Settlers, has long since been lost but I still remember what it felt like to write that piece. The story was submitted to the competition by my English and Maths teacher, Mrs Dorothea Knox. I still remember what it felt like when she beat me with a long wooden ruler with a metal edge. She called the ruler Mr Persuasion and wielded it daily on those of us who did not shine at Maths. I never shone.

In high school, I won other writing competitions but was given zero for an essay in Matric. The teacher didn’t believe that the poem that I’d started the essay with was mine and so accused me of plagiarism in front of the class and refused to mark it.

I’m torn between two lovers – the lover-words that dance through my life as both demons and angels. They love me and destroy me.  It’s always been my words that have shaped my life. They have taken me around South Africa, to Botswana, to Lesotho, to the UK, to Egypt and to China. They’ve also taken me to hell.  The poems and fragments of poems leap/crawl in my head when I’m teaching, when I wake up, when I’m shopping. It’s a madness; my head is never still. I crave stillness, yet when I’m still, the fear comes.

There is always fear: fear of writing; fear of not writing; fear of not being good enough; fear that words unused will evaporate.

It’s fear that joins us. I think most of us are torn in some way. We live one life and long for another. I’m not sure that there is another life. There’s just this and what we can make of it in the time that we have.

There are choices though, the choice to choose love over fear. Behind the fearful thorns of words, is also the lovely stillness of words.

My name is Ruth and I am addicted to words. Whether I ask for it or not, they weave me into the world that I must inhabit. I choose to love them.

(*Torn Between Two Lovers is the title of a song made popular by Mary Macgregor in 1977. Yes, I’m old enough to know the words.)

Be still with me for a moment.

The nature of Things

Birds chirp-chip at silence,
A woodpecker knocks out
A morse code message:
...-.-.--
(Stay)

The old winter sun
Leans against my back,
Buck come on cautious feet,
Sipping reflections of trees
And sky from the water's edge.

The wind lifts my tiredness,
I am air and cloud and wings.

Sky-feathered  kingfishers
Catching hovering time,
Plunge me into the water,
Deeply drowse drowned,
I am part of
The nature of Things. 

Ruth Everson