Usually, I love a good birthday like the next person, possibly more. I suspect, something about being born on May Day, a time infused with all the potent energy of new beginnings, has always enabled me to convince myself the feeling of that day was something about me and what I have to bring to the world. “Worry not world, I’m here now”, it probably told me, at some subliminal level, as a child, and as I watched all of winter’s tattered clothes get folded up and tucked in a bottom draw for another season, I would feel as though it was all my doing or, at least, a party put on for me. The very fact of me bouncing out of bed with such gusto in the morning was the flipping-point of any bad situation and everything would look brighter from now on, it couldn’t not; oh, the inbuilt optimism of youth!
Yet I’m noticing a far more somber take on things this year. For some days now, probably longer, a different feeling has been clawing at me, gaining its larger territories from me first thing in the morning, just as I wake up, gnawing at my gut. If “a feeling of impending doom” is too much then maybe “deep pervading sadness” is closer yet I can’t seem to shake it off or deny it any more; which, for this time of year, is new enough to gain my full attention. Is it just my age, being (as of yesterday) 51, I ask myself…am I dreading getting older, feeling like I’m “over the hill”…but no, honestly, I dont think its that at all. It feels all too pervasive; I’m noticing its clues everywhere, like a creeping blight spreading subtly and surely into summer’s crops…
I like to spend some time on my own in the run up to my solar return, to go for a walk, yes, even take some pictures of myself somewhere meaningful to me, usually out in nature with my dog. If this sounds like the usual selfie-obsession, I can assure you its not my style; I seldom take such pictures unless I’m goofing around with my partner, the rest of the year. No, it feels like something more akin to that very-useful practice of looking one’s self straight in the eyes, long and lovingly, in the mirror (a practice that so many people will do almost anything to avoid, so arresting yet unsettling…then cathartic… can it be). Like testing the water of where I’m at in the flow of life, this annual benchmark enables me to scrutinise myself, to assess where I’m really at, to ask “what do my eyes tell me?”, knowing they tell truth.
This year wasn’t particularly good news. Try as I might to smile in this, my favourite place, on a sunny afternoon, lying down on a hillock dotted with all the usual wild flowers of spring, I couldn’t seem to raise a smile. Actually, the smile was there but it didn’t spread even close to the eyes, try as I might. No, those eyes looked deadly serious, looked so hound-dog sad, looked deeply concerned. They reminded me of the eyes of the young yet determined Greta Thunberg who appears in my newsfeed daily; filled with all the concerns of an era, the weight on her shoulders of all of us, like a teenage Atlas yet no one much thanking her for all her efforts. My eyes, in those pictures, still haunt me for the deep, all-pervading sadness, the inability to lie, that shines out beneath furrowed brows that had no idea they were anything but neutral at the time. This year, they’re set deeply behind the curtains of fleshy concern that make it look as though my face is puckered into the announcement of bad news to myself.
What is it that has taken from me the annual ability to be frivolous, the usual unconditionality of joy that takes me over, like the skipping around of a Maypole in springtime? Why can’t I manage even one or two minutes of that degree of abandon now; like I haven’t a care in the world? No, thats not quite true, I can still pull that face…with my husband by my side, or when its him holding the camera at me, goofing around…which is why most of my publicly shared pictures look the same as they ever did, my face the carefree reflection of the loveable jester I chose to keep my head above the water of this life. Yes, I’m all too aware, these days, that my husband is the only “thing” that keeps me afloat. On those days when I’m being really frank with myself, I’m also aware that, without him by my side, I doubt I could bring myself to go on another day…I doubt I would see the point. When I’m on my own, which I am much of the time, a vastly more serious person steps in; someone who spends almost every living moment focussed on matters of grave concern to all of us, with our very survival as a species, with the matter of how we’re evolving, whether we’re evolving, whether we’re evolving in time…
Why doesn’t anyone else seem to bear this load? Yes, I know that they do (or course they do); in pockets, many do and those people tend to make a life’s work of activism, of “fighting” to do what they can do for this world spinning out of control). For me, with my “ailments”, all those sensitivities that make me feel like the bearly-on-my-perch canary in a coal mine, I know I can’t go deeply into those activities, I lack the robustness; and so, I have to assume, there are many more like me who are quietly, almost mutely, drowning in compassion and concern for a world that is going terribly, terribly wrong and not enough time to rectify it. The all-pervading feeling of “fiddling while Rome burns” haunts me, these days, when I allow myself to do the most ordinary of things and it takes the joy out of everything; gay abandon no longer feels like an option. There is no “time off” from these concerns, I find; having used up all my holidays long long ago…
For instance, for my birthday, we went to a vegan restaurant in the New Forest (Chris Packham’s favourite, I’m told…and there’s a man who’s prepared to put his mouth and his fame where his concerns are, which is leading to him being targeted by all the shitty underbelly of a world in denial). After that, we did what is typical of many a year’s birthday celebrations and went to a National Trust property for the afternoon. These houses and estates seem to appeal to me less and less, these days, yet, like cathedrals, I find I’m drawn to them…still…for the particular space that they occupy; their locations, not their bric-a-brac. Such places hog some of the most powerful and unsullied energy hot-spots of our world because those who claimed them, historically, were no fools when it came to planting themselves and their dynasties on the power-nodes of the land. So, this time, I felt drawn to a place called Mottisfont Abbey, long since a country house, for no reason except I remembered the gay abandon of particularly abundant roses the one time I’d been there before and knew I wanted to be around some exceptional trees, though I had no direct recollection of what trees were there (I was quite a different person when I was last there…a sleeping version of my current self, with eyes only for the obvious).
So, we arrived at the Mottisfont estate and, as ever, by the end, I knew I could have “taken the house or left it”…in fact it left me cold. I almost had to do star jumps to shake off the stagnant, heavy energy of its spaces and those who lived in it, with their miserable servants (documents left lying around for “historic interest” made it quite clear how these were just glorified slaves), before it was turned into a mausoleum to another era that (while TV dramas continue to romanticise them) still holds this one in its grip. I do tip my hat at the volunteers there, all of “a certain age”, brim-full of their well-practiced anecdotes, bubbling with tireless enthusiasm for their particular dust-mote filled space yet our desire to linger over the details had never been at such a low. As these white-haired guides all flew the building as a flock, us being the last to tour the house, I was left wondering, who will do their job in another ten or twenty years time; who, of the next generation (my generation) will pass through this respectable turf, prepared to develop so much minute interest in all this stuff, having not cared so very much for it all the rest of their lives? Do the National Trust even have a contingency plan for the mass-extinction of all their volunteers or is this another extinction crisis that we are in denial about?
With bitter irony, I could imagine many people, certain tabloids, the TV news, taking this one far more seriously than that of our species…certainly headlining it more.
“Old” me (a version that used to wonder if I would ever do such a “job” in my twilight years, to keep my brain active…) would have found this sad but now I really don’t. Out of all that we saw there, taking Mottisfont as a location rather than “an estate”, the house struck me as the most surplus to requirements of anything, except as a charming old folly, seen from the outside. If it was just doing its thing by being there then fine, but we are, collectively, preserving it (the endless round of conservation tasks was well underway) at what trade-off with more pressing matters? When told so proudly by a volunteer, for instance how a forbidding and uncomfortable-looking fourposter bed had recently cost £30,000 to build from scratch, the identical replica to its predecessor, built by the same family of craftspeople as before….never to be slept in (so, surely an MDF box with a coverlet would have done the job)…just so people like me could nod sagely as they wander past, I was struck only by the unconscious and blinkered nonsense of it all when there are such pressing needs in the world. How many people could that fund-pot, spent on silken drapes and tassels, have made a profound difference to? What differences could be made to the sustainability of this estate or, better still, some far more impactful location? Like when I heard about the hundreds of millions of dollars worth of pledges that have, quite astonishingly, been made to restore Notre Dame when bearly a fraction of the world’s population will ever get to see it, this relic of another time, I was only saddened by this almost obscene demonstration of human obtuseness. Where are such pledges when we talk about the climate disaster, the extinction of species, the trashing of the oceans?
Yes, I realise, a big part of my all-pervading sadness is the utter disillusionment with my species that I am bowing beneath the weight of; is this the inevitable consequence of gathering all the wisdom of my years, as I was so eager and enthusiastic to do? If so, where are all the other wise ones; let’s show ourselves, we’re all needed now, like never before. Without such wisdom, we are like so many unruly children run amok, heading straight for the sweetie jar of life, again and again, always thinking we can worry about the consequences “tomorrow”, yet quite unable (or unwilling) to grasp what is far more serious and in need of attention, right beneath our noses.
So, yes, I was there yesterday for something else and yet hardly knew what it was until I saw the trees…vast, spreading, monumental oak and plane trees the scale and height and breadth of which I seldom get to wrap my appreciative arms around. The first thing that struck me, as we first entered that lyrical landscape from the bend in the lane was, oh, the trees…and then (the country house itself) a very small pile of brick by comparison, a mere scuff-mark on the land, made out of manmade preoccupations and just so easy to sweep away. Everyone else, or nearly all of them, you could tell, was there for those bricks and mortar, marching determindly towards them, walking straight past these great giants on their path as though they simply weren’t there and yet the one-time abbey turned into Tudor spit-turning, leather tanning monstrosity, then shrunken back to genteel county pad, now mausoleum to a pile of relics, was the very least of it to me; a burp or a hiccough in time, as we too will be if we’re not so very mindful.
These trees, so huge you couldn’t even frame them in a single shot, were so obviously the main event (their quiet wisdom was palpable; they had played witness to all the other stuff, watched it all sagely and not missed a beat in their tree-ness) along with the spring by their side. Oh, the wonderful, magical spring…the moot font of “Mottisfont” (or “meeting spring”) of times passed, long long before those first bricks were laid. A strangely bluish pool (for such a cloudy afternoon) feeding into a small waterfall, then into a slip stream of the river Test (always one of my favourites), I could feel the power of this water-source without even touching it (which I wasn’t able to do, it being fenced off and signs all over the edge of the stream forbidding paddling…). The trees conveyed its frequency; every leaf and blade of grass there was resonant with it. No WONDER the rose garden here had left such an impression on me all those years ago, no wonder these monumental trees growing and growing; with this water source beneath your feet, how could you go wrong?
Of course, we, as a species, can go very wrong…and we have, and we do…continuously; and this is what saddens me so continuously now that I can bearly raise another thought to counter it, having reached my wisdom years. My “yeah buts” about the human species are rapidly running out and I’m left wondering why we are still so fast asleep; but then any wonder when you notice how the gridlock of learned behaviours holds us fast in our lanes of non-dissent. A day spent at the National Trust is enough to make you see it, horribly, in the repeat behaviours that have not altered one-jot since I was a girl…the same rank and file to purchase pointless gifts and for the tea shop as has always been, the same queue for earl grey and scone (“anything vegan and gluten free, perhaps something less sweet?” meets wide eyed, agape response). The same utterances at other tables from groups of people that look and behave just the same as they always have. The same all-pervading feeling that while these old buildings stand intact, their contents kept neatly in place, everything will all be alright, the national identity preserved for another membership year, the bad news sneaking through any cracks “just hyperbole”, and so we can shirk personal responsibility and continue on as we always have. Well intentioned as these institutions are, they contribute (not least with their choice of priorities) to the preservation of a very dangerous illusion. They give the impression that somebody…way more informed than we are…is taking care of everything for us and with all the meticulouslness of a conservation archeologist, white gloved and thorough; that we can let the experts get on with it, they know best, but what if they turn out to be asleep on the job? What if our future has nothing whatsoever to do with revering and preserving our past (and all its inherent flaws)?
Of course, there are many degrees of this issue with “institutionalised thinking”; our governments are heinously institutionalised, as are our schools, for instance. The NT does such good work preserving these places (which, otherwise, would have been parcelled up and built on as soon as these historic buildings and their previous owners fell into hard times) but, going forwards, we have to get the balance right, between preservation of what’s truly important and, primarily, keeping these spaces protected yet open for public access, use and appreciation. Many of these places are far too powerful to be locked away, we need them now; as potent energy nodes on the landscape, they reactivate divine values and forgotten wisdom in our collective memorybank,
With the launch of my fifty-second year, why do I suddenly feel we are gripping the white-knuckled grip of a culture on the edge of a cliff? And these once-benign places concern me; I seem to see through them all, cutting through their crap like a hot knife through butter now, my rose-tinted goggles removed. They are held in trust (the clue is in the name), just as so many other institutions hold the long-established, seldom questioned, trust of the people…and yet, what if it turns out, they are as misguided as they could be, the very band continuing to play as we all march to our demise? Until we question our way out of the entrenched normality of a previous age, we have no hope of seeing what is really going on before our very eyes. Thirty-thousand on a bed…it still haunts me!
An evening spent talking to my brother, who has just lost the beautiful green field next to his house, its “green belt” protected status and other protective loopholes mysteriously removed just as a developer came along wanting to buy it for housing (back-handers to council members are suspected…yet residents feel defeated before they begin to contest these things…which is what “they” want them to feel) hasn’t helped my mood. Now is not the time for complacency, for any of us, if we can but rally like it really matters. We are, each of us, facing our versions of these scenarios, arn’t we? Each and every one of these opportunities to face up to the crap we see going on is our contribution to the whole momentum of calling to account whatever and whoever is, directly or indirectly, abusing our planet for questionable motives.
So, perhaps, the furrowed brow and all-pervading concern in my pre-birthday pictures were right on the target for this year; the litmus paper in my water source and, it tells me, I was just a little bit too soft before. The sun is shining brightly today, it could almost be any day in any May that there ever was, yet there’s part of me that (I notice) won’t let myself be beguiled into such complacency any more without also noticing the darker underbelly when I scratch the surface oh-so lightly. If I have any pervading past-life memories it is of having experienced cataclysm before; of having wired myself to be the super-sensitive to its traits, this time around, as well as determined enough to speak out about what I see. And if the spirit of Maytime runs through my very veins as my most familar feeling, my home frequency, and yet I’m not quite feeling it this year, am noticing something disquieting in the air, and am sensing our global opportunities for “rebirthing” (as Maytime knows how to do best) are getting desperately more compromised all the time, my deepest feminine intuition tells me to have the courage to acknowledge this and to speak of it, not just sweep it under the rug “this time”. Perhaps I’ve entered an era of my life where, instead of a comfortable demise into tweed and deadheading roses, I’m about to start seeing through all the illusions, all the time (not even able to switch it off for high days and holidays) and if that increases my frown lines then, I guess, so be it.