Feeding the Snails ~ on the theme of Nourish ~ by Karen Richards

When I first came to live in Damson Drive, I inherited a square patch of garden that consisted of three ornamental trees, two borders supporting some hardy shrubs, an expanse of lawn, a small shed and a colony of snails. The garden was modest in size and would not have won any prizes but from the first time I saw it, I loved it. The snails not so much!

I wanted to grow things: romantic plants like larkspur, hollyhocks, poppies and peonies; and vegetables like cabbages, lettuce and peas. But the soil was poor and needed nourishment and so, it turned out, did the snails. All attempts to cultivate the borders ended in disappointment. Even when, through the use of composts and frequent watering, I managed to grow something, the snails would slope out in the night and eat it.

I tried growing in tubs and pots, which I raised up and bound with copper wire or tape – I had been told by gardening friends that snails would not cross a copper barrier – but the snails in my garden were made of sterner stuff and tender shoots made a flavoursome breakfast.

It was a dilemma. I felt very unkindly towards those little creatures; so frustrated that they had the audacity to ruin my gardening ambitions. I was told, by several more pragmatic gardeners, to lay down slug and snail pellets and put an end to them but this was never an option. I remembered the story of the Buddha and the snails. How when the Buddha was meditating, in the heat of the day, the snails came and covered his head, sacrificing their own lives, so that He could reach enlightenment and that is why the Buddha is depicted most often with little swirls around His head: not curls but snails. I cannot vouch for the authenticity of this story, of course, but there is wisdom in a tale that makes someone stop before taking a life, any life, and look for a different solution.

Over the years I have done just that. One particularly warm and wet summer evening when I stepped outside my backdoor to find an army of them sliding across the patio. I took a gallon bucket, filled it with the snails to the halfway mark and relocated them on the edge of a woody thicket, over the road from the house. It was ineffective. They found their way home.

It was around this time that I started seeing them differently. Not as pests but as interesting beings in their own right. I started to see the garden differently too – not as ‘my’ garden but as a habitat for all the creatures that lived there. I was merely one of many. So, I stopped trying to grow plants unsuited to the soil. Over time, the lawn became smaller and eventually disappeared, altogether.  There is a pond there now, which birds and insects drink from and which, I am delighted to say, Lillies thrive in, during the summer months.

The soil is still not the best but better for letting the things that thrive in it, grow. Foxgloves seed themselves in parts of the borders on one side but not on the other. Roses seem to love it wherever I plant them. The more hardy soft fruits, such as loganberries and tayberries climb up a pergola alongside a rambling rose, jasmine lollops over some old paving by the shed, meadow grass full of clover and other wildflowers, loved by the bees, has replaced part of the lawn and what vegetables I manage to grow are placed in raised beds.

The snails are as prolific as ever, as are the slugs, but we get along fine. They still eat the lettuce and tender young beans but I have come up with a few ways to discourage them, which we can all live with. One method is to overplant so that even if they eat some, there are still some for the kitchen. The other is to take my vegetable waste, from the evening meal, and place it around the growing plants so that the first thing the snails come across when they are out for a feed, are bean pods, carrot tops and cabbage stumps. It works, for the most part, or at least it gives the tender shoots a fighting chance to get established. It is not an exact science – currently, the leaves on the sweet potato look rather like a doily – but it’s the best method that I have found to date. More to the point, I have come to feel a certain joy in going out in the early light of summer mornings and watching the snails feed. Sometimes, I even find them something special, like a slice of ripe pear, and tell them how beautiful they are and how welcome they are to stay.

See also: Mo Henderson’s book review https://dewonthegrass.net/a-favourite-book-kinship-with-all-life-by-j-allen-boone/

 

An ending and a beginning : The origins of Dew on the Grass ~ by Karen Richards

In the spring of 2019 I met, for the first time, with a small group of fellow Buddhists who were administrators of a website called Bright Moon, which was a platform for practitioners of the Order of Buddhist Contemplatives to come together and to share their practice through discussion forums, articles of interest and book reviews. It was an ambitious enterprise, which was welcomed by many, disapproved of by some and, at that time, had a dwindling number of regular users. So, the administrators put out a request for ideas on how to make it more relevant. I had some thoughts, which I shared, and was asked to attend one of their regular meetings to discuss them.

I found that I had an immediate connection with the three remaining members of the group: Mo, Chris and Ayse. We had trained together on retreats at Throssel Hole Buddhist Abbey in the past and I felt that their goodhearted intentions, in trying to provide a way for the lay sangha to communicate with one another, was definitely something that I could get on board with. I attended several meetings and helped with some of their ‘last ditch’ attempts to save Bright Moon. Finally, however, despite their best efforts, the decision was made to close down the website.

I remember well the morning that the decision was made, sitting in my conservatory on the Skype call – we hadn’t even heard of Zoom, then – a polite, slightly forlorn silence descended on the meeting. Having only been with the group for a short period of time, I perhaps didn’t feel the loss of Bright Moon as deeply as the others, but I certainly felt their disappointment.

Then, I remembered something? Would it help? I wasn’t sure but decided to speak, anyway.

Some years previously, I had been out walking my dogs on some communal land, at the back of Telford Buddhist Priory. It was one of those lovely autumn mornings, full of mist and mystery, and low-lying light. As the sun broke through the cloud, it lit up the dew on the grass, so that the droplets hung like jewels. I took a photograph.

 

Dogen’s words, from Rules for Meditation, came into my head: “This body is as transient as dew on the grass”. “Dew on the Grass, what a great title for a blog”. It was a random thought but one that was worth nurturing. I went home, searched the internet for an available domain name that contained the title (originally dewonthegrass.co.uk ) and bought the rights to it. But that’s all I did. Year by year, the domain would come up for renewal. I would renew it and think no more about it. At the time, I didn’t have the wherewithal to begin the venture on my own.

But then, on that morning in my conservatory, I put it before the others as a way of going on and doing something new and different. They accepted!

Anna Ayse set about putting her artistic flair and technical wizardry to work and designed the website. We loved it! Chris was first out of the traps and produced our very first post, Toad Watch. Then Mo and I ‘put our toe into the water’. We were delighted to receive some fine ‘guest posts’ too. And so, Dew on the Grass was born.

We have always felt that the blog is an offering. Through it, we first help ourselves. We all agree that each time we contribute a post, it is both a searching and an opening of the heart, which we then share with others if they wish to read or view it. We don’t purport to be teachers of the Dharma but to share our experiences of training in Buddhism. We don’t necessarily have any answers, not even to our own questions. We simply hold them up and let them be seen.

This year, we have begun to write, photograph and provide artwork to a theme or topic. There is a discipline to this and it has helped us to move on from posting only occasionally, when the mood takes us, to become more committed and, as a consequence, developing our relationship with each other and growing our readership.

Speaking for myself, within the parameters of attempting to write in ‘Good English’, I write as if no one is ever going to read it. I yield to that which wants to be written.

The second part of the process is publishing the finished piece. It can be quite scary “putting yourself out there”, but each time I do, I know that something shifts in me, I become more honest with myself – more authentic. I think Mo, Chris and Anna feel similarly.

We welcome others to post, too! In fact, we encourage it! We have a few guidelines (which we are currently revising). This is so that the spirit and integrity of the website are upheld. Beyond that, we are open to a wide range of contributions. If you would like to know more, please feel free to leave a comment or message us privately, by email or through our Facebook page. We hope you enjoy your visit.

Every Morning ~ by Karen Richards

One of the nice things about contributing to Dew on the Grass is that when other people share their experiences those experiences sometimes mirror your own, throwing new light on a situation or behaviour, in a very helpful way. When our friend Chris Yeomans wrote her piece on the theme of “Every Morning”, two weeks ago, in which she shares her morning routine of eating breakfast, gazing at her bookcase filled with beautiful cookery books, the quandary of finding time to actually use them and the teaching that arises from that dilemma, I noticed some similarities and differences with my own morning routine and also noted my reactions to what she had written, as I read it.

The first thing that struck me was the photograph of her bookcase. Many of the cookery books are ones that I use on a daily basis – Hugh Fearnley Whitingstall’s Veg every day’ and ‘Even More Veg’; Helmsley and Helmsley; The Hairy Bikers.; The Green Roasting Tin – It felt good somehow that we had both invested in the works of these chefs, there was a feeling of camaraderie and togetherness. It gave me an approving glow.

I was also struck by the neatness of her bookcase. I looked at mine – not so neat! A little whisper of self-judgement floats by. I must tidy it immediately but of course, I don’t.

And then both the skill and wisdom of her writing began to hit home and I could see other parallels to my own morning routine and life in general, but from a different perspective.

Every morning, when I come in from taking my grandson to school, I make a cup of coffee and get my head around the day ahead. Some mornings have medical appointments for my husband in them; some are dedicated to chores around the house and garden; once a week I have lesson planning to do for the two after-school students that I teach, and all will have some time dedicated to meal planning, which involves the use of my cookery books. I like to sync the meals with my veg box that arrives, each Tuesday morning, from an organic farm that I use, and find the cookery books invaluable.

I notice Chris doesn’t do this and I wonder if my ritual and, some may say, obsession with healthy eating and attachment to my cookery books, to the point that many are now falling apart, is in some way spiritually unhealthy.

But I notice something else, too. Chris acknowledges in herself that the books represent an ideal to a perfect lifestyle that involves a beautiful and productive kitchen garden, great cookery skills and an aspiration to a more ‘mindful, peaceful, focussed life’ and that is my aspiration too!

My house, my garden, and my bookshelf are rarely in perfect order and I often find myself playing a game of ‘catch-up’ to try and get them that way. And, in the pursuit of perfection, there is that slightly uncomfortable breathlessness of always living one step (or more) ahead, in a future created in the mind, where everything is ‘alright now’, unlike the present, which ‘isn’t’.

My Marigold Engevita is still in date, my cookery books are daily used, but the koan is still the same. I too need to work on compassionate acceptance of myself and the life I have; letting go of ideals, in the process. Thank you, friend, for that teaching.

Every Morning ~ by Mo Henderson

Our second post, in the series “Every Morning”, is a reflection on Buddhist training, by Mo Henderson. In it, she reminds us that “Every morning is an opportunity to begin to see again and to trust what is actually happening naturally.” Thank you, Mo!

Beginning daily life

‘When I was at Eiheiji monastery, my life was really perfect because all the 120 monks practised according to a schedule. We got up at 2:00 a.m. and went to zazen. Even though we felt sleepy, we just went to practice. There was nothing to bother me, and every day my life was just like organic energy, going perfectly.
But after three years I went back to my small temple. Immediately my situation was completely different. My temple was at the foot of the mountains, far from the village. Just a cat and the old priest were there. I had to do many things: wash clothes, fix the meals, doing everything by myself. It was completely opposite from life in the monastery. My life became very busy, just like a business. There was always something to do. Time was haunting me. Everyday life was always haunting me, and I was very confused. So even though I understood zazen in the monastery, it was not good enough. There were still lots of things I didn’t know.

Daigen Katagiri-Each Moment Is the Universe

SAMSUNG

Someone in a social media group I belong to gave reference recently to Dainin Katagiri’s experience (above) at Eiheiji monastery and, although very different, it triggered memories of my own experience as a lay person on retreat at Throssel Hole Buddhist Abbey in Northumberland.

I first attended Throssel in the late 1970s and received instruction and guidance on how to practice sitting meditation (Zazen). Over the years I have attended many more retreats, the longest being 3 months. When on retreat I was so well looked after and joining the community brought a sense of belonging, with warmth, hot meals, showers and good nutrition, all within a daily schedule, which included meditation periods, dharma talks and discussion. There was nothing to be responsible for apart from my own attention to following the schedule. The sitting meditation periods seemed to come and go with ease and, after a few days, I began to feel a ‘flow’ which seemed to bring everything together as it naturally is. I began to be more aware of those around me and of what needs to be done as a community.

In the early days going home was quite a culture shock! I was immediately confronted with all the different identities most of us experience in our daily lives. Being a mother, wife, daughter, sister, employee and now Buddhist lay person, how was I going to make time to develop a suitable schedule of continuing practice and to fit it all in?

Early attempts were without success, only the weekly meditation group brought respite from a totally busy daily life. I remember thinking I was a total failure and needed to try harder, why couldn’t I be like ‘others’ who seemed to be much more successful than myself? How on earth did they manage to get time to themselves? Gone was the ‘flow’ of life I had experienced at the monastery.

After battling for what seemed forever, I realised I had a habit of dividing myself into parts, I was viewing all the different roles in my life as separate entities, one part being a mother, another being a wife, and so on, not to mention work, gardening, pet care etc..etc. No wonder I felt exhausted and unsuccessful in time management. At the monastery I had learned an important lesson in living a wholesome life, I eventually realised the schedule was geared to help me let go of being attached to what I was doing and to continually let go, change and move on to the next event.

Every morning we had early sitting meditation and events changed throughout the day, until tea and quiet time last thing in the evening. I believe the ‘flow’ of life I experienced was due to just simply having the opportunity to be there wholeheartedly without distraction, allowing everything to unfold, without me choosing to identify myself with any particular role. Could the busy lay life I had at home unfold in this way?

I very slowly discovered this may be possible, without needing to stick to a set schedule and without thinking I owned my own time. While on the one hand, it was good to have a plan, on the other hand, I needed to be flexible within that. In my view, acceptance of what actually happens each day is essential and the time devoted to things and others is not ‘my’ time, it’s just the continual practice of being with daily life. This involves paying attention to whatever arises. The roles I had were still the same, but somehow they didn’t feel as apart from each other.

Sometimes I feel the ‘flow’ of energy in a wholesome way and other times I can get distracted. Being part of a sangha community is always a reminder for me to continue practice in daily life and to remember not to neglect the formal sitting meditation, which, I believe is fundamental to being still and aware in order to see and trust life and to know that truth embraces everything. Looking around me, I believe I can begin to see the wider sangha, friends, neighbours, animals, and nature more clearly and learn from them too. Every morning is an opportunity to begin to see again and to trust what is actually happening naturally.

‘When we teach and enlighten things by ourselves, we are deluded.
When all things teach and enlighten us, we are enlightened’.
Koho Zenji

 

 

Every Morning ~ by Chris Yeomans

This month, Dew on the Grass is featuring work on the theme of “Every Morning”. Our first post is a lovely piece written by Chris Yeomans.

Every morning at breakfast, I sit down at the table opposite my shelves of cookery books. Instead of reading cereal packets, my eyes stray to the titles. These people are my friends and heroes – Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Nigel Slater, Nigella Lawson. My eyes run over the titles: ‘River Cottage Veg Every Day,’ Much More Veg’, ‘Tender’, ‘The Green Roasting Tin’, ‘How to Eat’, ‘Elizabeth David on Vegetables.’ And on and on. My breakfast companions. My comfort. My hope.

What do they represent? Some sort of fantasy ideal world to which I aspire, where I will prepare beautiful, healthy, delicate dishes, honouring the raw materials and nourishing the soul. And connected to this, there is the lifestyle. Have you ever seen Nigel Slater’s garden? It is perfection. If I lived there in that house, well then surely I’d cook? And River Cottage is my personal Field of Dreams, although of course in my world, the animals would be pets and wouldn’t end up in the pot.

Even Mary Berry and Delia – if I could just be more like them. I would whip up a cake at the drop of a hat and serve sweet delicacies to my appreciative friends.

But the truth is that I don’t often open those cookbooks, and I don’t make the recipes within their covers. Life takes over. The quick, the convenient, the familiar and the easy end up on the dinner table night after night. Sometimes I take the books off the shelves and browse through them. I even mark the pages with stickers of good intention. But I don’t do it. I don’t choose even one new recipe, make a shopping list, plan the time. Or, to be honest, sometimes I do buy the ingredients and then never get round to using them. The Marigold Engevita in my cupboard is dated May 2021. I can’t even bring myself to throw it away.

And this, of course, is about aspiring to a more mindful, peaceful, focussed life. I’m trying not to use the word ‘should.’ But if I could clear my diary, stop chasing out to meet friends, sort out my ‘to do’ list, get on top of other household chores…. If I could stay peacefully at home (and I do have a lovely kitchen, so that’s one excuse gone), then would I feel better? Would I be a more spiritual person? Would I be at peace? How many more years’ training do I have to do before I somehow achieve that frame of mind? Oh, dear.

Maybe I can just work on acceptance. Of me and my failings. Maybe this week I’ll try just one new dish.

 

 

 

Upstream revisited ~ by Karen Richards

In our final blog on the theme of ‘This is a Map to Where I Live’, Karen shares some passages from Mary Oliver’s book, “Upstream” and juxtaposes them with her own childhood experiences. In a way, what Oliver expresses is a neat distillation of the spirit of the blogs on this theme, which have preceded this one, and which were published on the 8th, 17th and 22nd of May respectively. Thank you to all who have contributed.

“Over and over in the butterfly we see the idea of transcendence. In the forest we see not the inert but the aspiring. In water that departs forever and forever returns, we experience eternity”.    Mary Oliver

When I was a child, around four or five years old, I had a treehouse, built in the boughs of a walnut tree by my father. It had a floor made of wooden pallets, a small square of tarpaulin for a roof and a short ladder, to help me get up into the lower branches. Here, I would play with my dolls, draw and meditate. Not the formal meditation of an adult, which I would learn later, which is a more disciplined and directed act of reflection, but a continuation of the natural meditative state that children are born with and remain in for as long as the world allows.

I would stay in my tree for hours, often looking out across the cultivated fields adjoining our rented smallholding, which spread out in all directions. I enjoyed staring into the distant woodland and watching the bird and animal life nearer to me. Sometimes I would create stories in my mind about the creatures who lived amongst the trees. At other times, I would just sit quietly and look towards the horizon. When it rained, or even in a thunderstorm, my mother would simply bring me a plastic mac and Sowester and go back indoors.

When I was six, we left the smallholding and the treehouse. My parents bought a small house, just down the road. Here, my ‘playground’ widened to include the meadows, brooks and lanes nearby; lanes full of cow parsley, primrose and vetch, in spring; blackberries and cob nuts, in autumn. When my social circle widened, and I got my first second-hand bicycle, summer holidays would see us cycling for miles, only stopping to eat the jam sandwiches and elderflower pop that our parents had provided.

That time was a gift. It grounded me. It allowed me to remain in a state of innocence for much longer than most children are able. Whilst my senses and intellect were developing, commensurate with my age, I was not subject to unneeded or unhelpful stimuli that would drag me prematurely from a natural state into a world of wants and desires. I was a primitive, in the most positive sense of the word.

Soon life would change. My father would leave us and my mother, distraught, would sell the house.  I would move from the gentle meadows of childhood into the far more rocky terrain of adolescence and the realities of the everyday world. But those early formative years, steeped in nature, had done their work, they developed an inner trig point, to which I could return, whenever I felt blown off course.

When later I became a Buddhist and learned to meditate more formally, it was a homecoming. I still meditate most naturally out of doors, in the fresh air, on a garden bench or sitting in a field.

Mary Oliver writes, again:

” And we might, in our lives, have many thresholds, many houses to walk out from and view the stars, or to turn and go back for warmth and company. But the real one – the actual house not of beams and nails but existence itself – is all of earth, with no door, no address separate from oceans and stars, or from pleasure or wretchedness either, or hope, or weakness, or greed” 1

1. Mary Oliver, Upstream (2016) p114;

Humans, birds and other creatures ~ by Mo Henderson

Continuing with our theme of ‘A Map to Where I Live’, Mo Henderson prompts us to accept the “challenge of getting to know who we are and embrace reality with trust” in order to “be aware of the needs of our neighbours in the communities where we live”.

When spring begins in the temperate zone of Northern Europe myriads of birds come together in numberless bands to fly northwards. Here, where I live in Northern France, swallows arrive to rear their offspring, having made their miraculous 6,000-mile journey from South Africa. Amazingly, many return to the same mud-built nest, made the year or years before, enabling recycling of their previous home once again.

I am always fascinated by the way these little birds illustrate what mutual aid means for them. Watching them gather together for safety at night and collecting to migrate in swarms when they are ready to return South. They instinctively show a protective force, an energy of protection for all of their species. Coming together at nesting time is common with many birds and if one visits a nesting ground, there is often a sense of peace and harmony. Even the weakest of little birds benefit from this cycle of nesting gatherings. If a large bird of prey approaches to steal eggs or chicks, they are immediately surrounded and chased away. I have seen this happen at a local sea bird nesting area on the shoreline rocks near where I live, when eggs and young chicks are threatened, the birds will rise up together and chase the invader away. Also, I see it with crows in the forest nearby, gathering to chase away a hunting buzzard.

With birds and other animals, mutual aid seems a natural phenomenon. For example, the enormous ‘effort’ the swallows make to rear their chicks and ensure their survival, whether biological, instinctual or with an element of feeling and belonging together. After all, today many countries are naming animals now as sentient beings, capable of experiencing fear, stress and pain, both at a physical and psychological level, and I would add a sense of ‘universality’.

How capable are we humans in today’s world of climate change, pandemics, and social and economic divisions, to be aware of the needs of our neighbours in the communities where we live? To connect with others in a way which is helpful for all. You are probably already doing so if you have ever shared a meal with a stranger, realizing it was easier and better to do it together, instead of depending on others to do it for you. Have you ever quickly run to help someone who has fallen, without even having to think about it? I believe there is a natural sense of belonging at the heart of human nature and offering to others is part of that heart, albeit sometimes unconsciously. What is our natural ‘rhythm of life’? There seem to be many things which distract and divide us from being at ‘home’ and aware of the needs of our local community and the wider conditions which are so closely interconnected.

In my own experience, sometimes I sense my body ‘knows’ but my mind can be separated and ‘homeless’. Listening to my own heart means being present wholeheartedly with body and mind. Being at home with myself involves a certain kind of ‘effort’. The most basic, traditional definition of ‘Right Effort’ is to exert oneself to develop wholesome qualities and release unwholesome qualities. I often struggle to understand what it is I need to do to be helpful to everyone. However, life is what comes to us and, as I understand it, we don’t need to search for how to help, we simply need to be aware of what is happening, be still with it and respond, this may mean doing something or nothing.

‘The right application of effort in training is a bit of a paradox. If we do not try to make some changes in our lives, what is the point of undertaking training in the first place? But letting go of things such as “trying” is itself one of the changes that we need to make! What are we to do?’      Daizui McPhillamy ‘The Eightfold Path’.

I have learned many a lesson through the experience of becoming distracted by over-concern or attachment to working projects and the subsequent consequences of dividing myself from ‘the heart of the matter’. For me, being still and at home with myself and others has often been a challenge.

‘The danger of division is insecurity and uncertainty. When the mind sees division not intellectually, not emotionally, but actually, then there is a different kind of action’.
Krishnamurti
Research has shown that birds, animals and other creatures who help each other are more likely to survive in an evolutionary sense. They can act in a natural sense whether instinctual, biological or as sentient beings. Where are we humans heading on an evolutionary scale?
‘But whatever the opinions as to the first origin of mutual-aid feeling or instinct, in the practice of mutual aid, which we can retrace back to the earliest beginnings of evolution, we thus find the positive and undoubted origin of our ethical conceptions; and we can affirm that in the ethics, progress of humanity’.
(Mutual Aid: A Factor in Evolution by Peter Kropotkin page161).
Can we as human beings spread our wings and rise up like the little birds to protect and bring safety to help others each in our own unique way?  Unlike the birds we have choices, but first we have the challenge of getting to know who we are and embrace reality with trust, not knowing what comes in the constant changing and unfolding of life, but realising this is truly our home, wherever we may be.
Mo Henderson

Where’s home? ~ by Mia Livingston

Mia writes in response to this month’s theme, The Map To Where I Live


My parents loved to travel, and created the chance to do it with their work. (They’d both worked their way from humble beginnings into careers in development economics and science.) My siblings and I travelled with them. As a result, I grew up moving countries and sometimes continents every few years.

Maybe this sounds like an incredible way to grow up; I don’t know. In retrospect I think I was lucky, though at the time, of course, it was all I knew. On the one hand, I was jealous of children who never moved or travelled; they seemed to have a lot more friends and confidence than I did. I felt insecure and anguished from never having the chance to attach to people and places outside of my small nuclear family. On the rare occasions that I did make a connection, I would soon be forced to leave them behind, and most likely never saw them again.

On the other hand, I lived like a very small social anthropologist, living literally side-by-side with people of every age, class, and from almost every corner of the world. I was endlessly curious about their lives, drives, ‘loves’ and ‘hates’; all the ways in which we humans are different from each other, and in which ways we are the same.

I adored where I lived aged eleven for almost three years, in Zimbabwe. This was in the 1980s after Independence, when to many Zimbabweans the country felt more safe, strong, free, and full of possibility than it had before. It seemed a perfect environment for a young pre-teen.

The author as a girl in the Botanical Gardens, Harare, Zimbabwe. Copyright Mia Livingston

When my parents’ work contract ended, I desperately tried to stay on my own, by getting myself adopted by a close friend’s missionary family. My parents were understandably not willing to let me go however, and I braced myself for another repeat of grey and angst-ridden Swedish suburbia. Sweden was my family’s “default country”: most of us had been born there, and our passports and my father’s work HQ were based there.

A year or so later, my family was supposed to move to Indonesia. At the last minute however, my father’s new work contract fell through. Somehow I ended up living on my own in Jakarta aged only fifteen because I’d already been enrolled in school there.

While living alone in a completely new culture was a shock, just like in Zimbabwe I fell in love with the country, the school, my new friends and opportunities.

Unfortunately at the end of the school year, again I was not able to find a way to stay. I was told to return to Swedish suburbia again, where I despondently stumbled my way through the remaining years of secondary school.

By the time I finally graduated school I felt exhausted, lonely, and out of sync with my peers. I was eighteen and had struggled to live on my own for three years, as well as having attended nine schools (in four education systems, on three continents). I hadn’t even begun my adult life, but I knew down to my bones what love and loss were.

Looking back I can count how by that time, I had loved and lost four times. Not in the romantic or familial sense that people usually mean when they say that; rather I had lost the sense of somewhere to call “home”: somewhere to belong; familiarities that I’d slowly built, with continuity of friendships, interests, and relative safety. A comfortable-enough place to eat dinner at night, and to sleep. Somewhere to be happy, or comforted when I was sad.

Humans tend to naturally and mostly unconsciously build healthy attachments to the place where they find themselves. As a toddler, I naturally attached to wherever I lived. As a teen however I found far greater belonging and joy in Zimbabwe and Indonesia, than in what others called my “home country”. I realised that to some extent—if there is some sense of safety, joy, and connection—it is possible to choose where (and who) to attach to.

I moved to London to study, reasoning that a degree in Development would allow me to work in the places that I loved. What I learned instead was that engineering would have been far more useful, and  I was not an engineer. Nor was I cut out for the other jobs in demand where I wanted to live — English teaching, business, medicine, politics, and missionary work.

I was drawn to psychology, the arts, and journalism. But with the exception of war reporting, these careers typically required years of slow growth: building a work portfolio in a small hometown, as my parents had managed to do, and then maybe by your 40s working your way up and out—if you can and wish.

I tried it. I wanted so badly the traditional and sensible approach to work. However by the age of 29, despite my best attempts, I was no closer to the sense of connection that I yearned for. Instead, I had battled clinical depression multiple times. I felt unable to bear any longer the shadow of alienation that followed me around, and yearned for a place—any place—that truly felt like home.

With a sense of urgency, I approached the puzzle the other way around. “Maybe I should save up and move to somewhere I love first,” I thought, “and THEN try to find a local job once I’m there.” It was risky; I would have to leave behind my job, friends, fiancé, and the house he’d bought (that I had never felt at home in). But my life was in my hands, and I felt that I had no choice.

For almost one whole joyful and adventurous year, I worked as a columnist in Thailand—another country that I had always loved.

Unfortunately because of my lack of relevant experience, I couldn’t secure a long-term work and residence permit. I returned to the UK and ended up for many years in the same situation as perhaps most: in a good-enough place that would have me, doing good-enough work when I could get it.

As a Buddhist, I kept trying to be whole-heartedly present and to do my best: to choose wherever I already found myself, if I had no other choice. But my heart still wasn’t in it, and I was back fighting both bills and depression.

Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. Copyright Mia Livingston

Until one day, after eleven years had passed, I felt like a grown butterfly looking with surprise back at my discarded cocoon. Sometimes change is simultaneously seismic and gentle. Without warning or apparent cause, it seemed that nothing and yet everything had changed. I might as well have been flung into a parallel galaxy or taken over by an alien life form, for all the familiarity that my usual, ordinary, daily life still held for me.

It was unchanged on the surface: I had the same name, address, and appearance; the same flat that I struggled to pay the rent for; the same cheap-but-nice throw pillows, old desk and kitchen utensils.

But somehow, all these things and identifiers had become void of intrinsic significance. In other words, they no longer felt familiar; I could no longer take them for granted. At the same time I could see that at their core, along with all other things—somehow, beyond material form—my life and all the people and things in it were incredibly precious; treasures.

I hadn’t taken any drugs. So by which circuitous route, I wondered, had I arrived in this brand new “place”?

Maybe it was pure chance. Or maybe everything we do adds up, even as we despair that our efforts do not appear worthwhile. Since I hadn’t been successful at choosing the big life-changing things like work, home and family, I had resigned myself to chipping away at doing my best in all the tiny day-to-day choices that I did have: my thoughts, words, and actions, as they related to the Buddhist precepts. I don’t know; other than that one day, without my doing anything differently, my life had completely and irrevocably changed in every way.

A typical Zimbabwean city boulevard. Copyright Mia Livingston

 

This month’s blog theme is “The Map To Where I Live”. Like a nurse seeking a vein from which to tap blood, I had spent my life seeking a map that would lead me to the river of life itself. A few times I had been lucky to fall into that river, and to find myself fully and happily submerged. Equally unpredictably though, I’d been flung back out into what felt like an unforgiving desert. Then I’d spent years feeling lost and trying to trace my way back.

But there is no “way back”. If there’s anything, it’s not a linear path but a spiral: a gradual climb, as if towards the sun. Familiar challenges return to us again and again, sometimes harder or softer. And as long as the challenges don’t kill us, the best we can do is keep trying.

Within this work, imperceptibly is something akin to progress. While this on the surface is the opposite of ‘the way back’, because the shape of life is a spiral, perhaps even the smallest step leads home: to the place that we’ve been trying so hard to return to.

‘Home’ for me was not a place after all, but a state of heart over time.

 

 

 

 

This is a map to where I live ~ by Chris Yeomans

 

Many years ago, I walked into an empty house. We were moving in, the furniture van was on its way. It was a different sort of house for us – modern, detached, four bedrooms, on an estate of sorts. Not like the Victorian terraces, we’d always had. Perhaps it was the very strangeness of it. It didn’t feel like home.

 

The thought that came into my mind was ‘I don’t own this. It’s a myth. You can’t actually own anything, let alone a house. What I have bought is the right to live in this house for a while, and then we will move on and someone else will buy that right.’

It was strangely liberating, because I didn’t much like the house in truth, and for the first time I didn’t see the place where I lived as reflecting anything about me.

Now, I also live in a house that I don’t ‘own’ in any common use of the term. The house belongs to the man I married and he has lived here for 30 years. I simply dwell in it, alongside him. And it feels very different. Ultimately the house is not my responsibility. That too feels liberating. It is an old house, but I don’t need to worry about the state of the roof or the boiler or the paintwork.

And so I live where I am. You can find me in the woods and the fields. You can find me swimming in the rivers. You can post letters to me at a particular address but I only live here for as long as I am in the house. At other times I live in other places: on trains, in a priory, in cities or on the beach at the edge of the waves.

I don’t even live inside this body. I am this body and there is no separation. There is no ‘me’ inside. This body moves freely in time and space and lives wherever it finds itself.