Snatching the sound of Manannán's song on the bite of a northwesterly wind
Jan. 8, 2023

When darkness falls (Skating on 'un-time')


Happy New Year! New Years can be exciting times, marking new beginnings, a clean page, awakening dormant dreams and ambitions. However, sometimes it is not always like that. This year, in particular, many face the new year with trepidation, filled with anxieties, a sense of being overwhelmed and unable to cope. 
What do we do when the future looks dark?

*Please note that this episode candidly discusses issues of mental health*  

Journal entry:

4th January, Wednesday.

"Silver light on Cotswold stone.
 The raucous clamour of rook song
 over sedge and bog grass.
 The wind is filled with flung bird
 and winter sounds.

Damp gusts bully down alleyways.
 That particular smell you get on entering an art shop.
 Outside the pavements glisten
 with the darkness of the sky." 

Episode Information:

Black and white photograph showing the spiky trunk of a fallen oak treeFallen oak

In this episode I read the opening to Minnie Louise Haskin’s (1912) poem ‘God Knows’ [often called ‘The Gate of the Year’].

I also refer to Bede’s (ca.627 CE) account of King Edwin’s conversation and the lesson of the sparrow from his Ecclesiastical History of the English People Book 2 Chap 13.

Vanessa’s beautiful Mindful Narrowboat vlog can be viewed here: The Mindful Narrowboat.
The episode featuring the Hatton Flight can be viewed here: #131: Narrowboating towards Birmingham.

For more information about Nighttime on Still Waters

You can find more information and photographs about the podcasts and life aboard the Erica on our website at noswpod.com. It will also allow you to become more a part of the podcast and you can leave comments, offer suggestions, and reviews. You can even, if you want, leave me a voice mail by clicking on the microphone icon. 

General Details

In the intro and the outro, Saint-Saen's The Swan is performed by Karr and Bernstein (1961) and available on CC at archive.org.

Two-stroke narrowboat engine recorded by 'James2nd' on the River Weaver, Cheshire. Uploaded to Freesound.org on 23rd June 2018. Creative Commons Licence. 

Piano and keyboard interludes composed and performed by Helen Ingram.

All other audio recorded on site. 

Contact
For pictures of Erica and images related to the podcasts or to contact me, follow me on:

·       Mastodon: https://mastodon.world/@nosw  

I would love to hear from you. You can email me at nighttimeonstillwaters@gmail.com or drop me a line by going to the nowspod website and using either the contact form or, if you prefer, record your message using the voicemail facility by clicking on the microphone icon. 

Transcript

JOURNAL ENTRY

4th January, Wednesday.

"Silver light on Cotswold stone.
The raucous clamour of rook song
over sedge and bog grass.
The wind is filled with flung bird
and winter sounds.

Damp gusts bully down alleyways.
That particular smell you get on entering an art shop.
Outside the pavements glisten
with the darkness of the sky." 

[MUSIC]

WELCOME

Happy New Year!

It is a night of stormy winds and disturbed waters. The sky has at long last cleared and the wolfish January moon is just on the wane. This is the narrowboat Erica narrowcasting into the night to you on a night of cold moonshine and whispering reeds. 

Come inside for a while, the stove is on and the kettle is warming, there's a seat that is waiting for you. You are always welcome here. It's lovely to see you. Welcome aboard. 

[MUSIC]

NEWS FROM THE MOORINGS  

It’s been a week of wind and rain. Wave after wave of Atlantic fronts have lashed across the country. They’ve been nothing like those battering the east and west coasts of America, but still part of those oceanic turbulent climatic conditions. Rain has been rattling on the cain roof pretty much constantly all day.  

Wind jostles the Erica bow on, raking down the cabin sides so she harries and pulls at her mooring ropes. It grumbles like soft thunder around the windows, it enters through the slithered gaps at the duck hatch, wind phantoms, the wraiths of the gale's ghost breath dissolving in the warmth of the cabin - a cool kiss brushing my bare arms as I passed. Outside, the stern canopy whips and cracks. It's not raining as such, just a haphazard of flung raindrops hurled like a child's fistful of gravel. It rattles against the canopy. It's a strangely dry sound for rain.

The parent swans regularly call, although I have not seen the juvenile for some time now. He’s been getting increasingly independent and I am hoping that he has simply gone his own way. Avian flu is still rife and there is always that nagging thought. However, the parent pen and cob seem to be quite healthy and so I cross my fingers and hope for the best. 

Most of the bird activity has centred around a couple of pairs of moorhens who are spending more and more time adjacent to the boat. They strut and peck and remind me so much of our old hens. Fussy, busy little souls – easily flustered.

We had a lovely Christmas and New Year. One of the high spots was meeting up with Vanessa and Zephyr and Mr. M to help them take their narrowboat, Alice Grace up the 21 locks of Hatton Flight. It was great to meet up at last and, although it was, at times, very wet and a little blustery it was great fun. Vanessa’s vlog ‘The Mindful Narrowboat’ is my favourite narrowboat vlog and I know I have mentioned this before, it is beautifully produced with stunning nature photography and her nature journal is superb. I have attached the link to this week’s episode, which includes the Hatton locks and then goes on through Shrewley Tunnel and on to one of my most favourite stretches of the Grand Union Canal. I know you will enjoy it too. 

The other day: Red kite, wheeling on the wind. Donna spotted her and called me up. They're fairly common here. But you don't often get the opportunity to see them this low - to grasp their size, the way feather and wind work together. Earlier I was thinking about a description of hang gliding - the sheer physicality of riding thermals - supreme example of entanglement, of an embodied engagement with the air. It was purely coincidence. Or was it? The hang glider pilot described this experience as a dance. It's not the type of language I would have expected from someone who was also a fighter pilot in the air force. But then, it's what drew me to continue reading and why it stuck in my imagination - that and his urge to not just fly, but to feel the wind - to subsume himself into it so that he and it were one. The thrill of piloting a cutting-edge fighter jet through the sky was not enough - was somehow leaving him unsatisfied - he enjoyed it, but for him, it wasn't flying, not really. Not experiencing that dance - the ferocious riptides of currents at the edge of every thermal - tossed and thrown, almost helpless by these great breaking vortexes of air - and through which you have to battle using your whole body to keep you from being sucked down and out - spat out - thrown like stranded seaweed across the sky. But then, if successful, entering, the silent swimming up current - buoyant. And often looking across, you see you are not alone, strong wings - stronger than yours, more agile, more understanding - sensitive to the minor shifts in current. Again, those words again 'it's almost as if the two are actually one', bird wing and thermal and then that moment of complete mystical participation when human too becomes part of that greater whole. I rush below to get the binoculars. For a while we watch her. She barely flaps her wings at all. This is total mastery of the air - a person completely at one with their element. The turns are tight, one wing dipping low, body almost sidelong. Then straightening - a slight alteration in the wings' angle of attack - a she lifts high - riding the aerial wave, like a surfer cresting a breaker. 'It's enjoying itself ' Donna says. Zoologists would probably patiently explain how every move is part of the hunting technique - what we are witnessing is the culmination of an evolution's worth of survival strategies. As if that somehow makes it incompatible with fun or enjoyment. Gulls and corvids play on the wind. Why not raptors? The kite, cuts westward across the canal in front of us. It certainly looks like a dance - a partnership.

[MUSIC]

CABIN CHAT

[MUSIC]

WHEN DARKNESS FALLS

The new year has begun - the old one was rung out on peals of church bells carried across the valley on the back of a wild wind. Cataracting carillon rivers tripping and carolling from the bell towers of parishes tucked between hills and hedged-fields on the last night of the year. There was no solemn knell or tocsin for the death of this year. Then the next morning, I awoke in the grey shadow of pre-dawn, in a silent world, lying in the ashes of a difficult and maladroit year. 

 

When I was an adolescent from mid-teens right into my twenties, I used to religiously keep a diary. I filled it out, every night, just before I wound up my alarm clock and turned out the light above my bed. They contained an obsessive charting of every activity and the petty vexations of life that, at the time, felt so monumental and profound - They mostly comprised a stream of consciousness of worries and unresolved fears at the person that I seemed to refuse to become. I remember thinking that when I was older (or even just old), I would need to remind myself that my youth wasn't simply a long sun-filled, honeyed paradise. I saw my growing up as clinging with bloodied fingers to an existential rock-face up which I pulled my body inch by inch. While some of the entries (although, I haven't looked at them for many years) bring a wry smile and a strange feeling of paternal nostalgia, I needn't have worried. Yes, perspective of hindsight smooths over some of the seemingly impossible peaks that lay ahead of me. Some of the things that threw me into a state of anxiety, I encounter without much thought today. Although I still hate confrontation, feel awkward in social interactions and am phobic with telephones, however, they don't dog my life the way they did then. Yes, it was also true that there was a tendency - just sometimes - towards histrionics. To be overly dramatic in playing out the stereo-types of adolescent angst - caught on the rack of youth. But that was as much to do with the torrent of hormonal passions within me at the time. I wanted to throw myself large onto the canvas of a world that was always just out of reach - one street corner away, the party that happened the week before. 

My heroes wrestled greatness through anguish and trauma. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednegos all. Walking through the refiner’s fire. I distrusted joy and pleasures and at least the anguish of life made me feel that I was alive, that I was participating. I held onto my petty anguishes jealously – as a camper nurtures and shields the flickering kindle flame of a campfire in the rain. While things were never really as dark as I described or perceived them and my gothic gloom could always be dispelled with a packet of salt and vinegar Ringos, I have never really kidded myself that those times were easy.

 

One consistent feature of that little stack of diaries was the tone of the entries for January the first. Looking back, I can't help but wonder what was going on. There I was on the threshold of my life, my whole being aching to live and live large. I should have been indomitable, lifting my arms fearlessly upward to hold back the sun. The world was there for my picking. But I wasn't. But then, when talking to our students today, encouraging them to lift up their eyes - to dream of worlds beyond their own horizons, to lift their axes to the fences that have the temerity to pen them in - I see there in their eyes those same flickers of doubt; the nervous smiles. Reading those diary entries from all those years back, I recognise that uneasy tango of excitement and dread at the turn of the year. The nervous shuffle at the doorstep before plucking up the courage to knock.

 

I can vividly remember lying in bed, wrapped in darkness, wondering what the year would bring to me. Would I still be here? What will happen with my work? Would I be knocked off my bicycle andbe tragically killed? Will this be the year that I fall in love? Or will the anti-Christ appear and plunge the world into apocalyptic nightmare? It was around this time I came across a reference to King George VI's Christmas broadcast in 1939 in which he quoted the words of Minnie Louise Haskins. 

"And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year:

"Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown".

And he replied:

"Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God.

That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way".

So I went forth, and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night."

 

At the time of the broadcast, the world, or at least Europe, was slipping into war. The future must have felt so uncertain. Some 40 years later in the universe that I inhabited, everything felt just as uncertain and those words spoke deeply to me. It was not so much about faith or the comforting image of the outstretched hand of God. It was the realisation that our futures are unknown and that we do in fact walk out of the light of the present into the darkness. I found solace in knowing I wasn't alone in feeling this, and like Teilhard de Chardin I learnt to lift up my lantern in the darkness to see what I could see.

 

This year, those words of Minnie Louise Haskins swim back to me, across the all the new years of my past. And I know I am not alone in feeling the weight of its uncertainty; that old feeling of trying to dig deep to find the nub of courage to tap at the door of the new year. The metaphor of darkness is almost a cliche - although nonetheless true for all that – these literally are the dark days and, as a previous episode noted, that is right and to be expected... and to be welcomed. But what if the darkness is so great that it is overwhelming? What if having dug deep, there is no nub of courage to sustain? What then?

What if there is no sense of future to give you the courage to lift up that lantern once more? What if hope had gone and the sallow wan light of dreams has at last flickered out? 'Keep moving forward' is the advice I keep reading - 'It's ok, as long as you keep walking.' It is what I keep telling myself. I have been here before. Just keep walking, the dawn will break. But what if you no longer know which way forward is? When beneath every tentative footstep lies the nightmarish spectre of a sucking chasm?

I have always, always, had a sense of the future – even if it was rather vague and graffitied with the airbrushed scrawls of my dreams and ambitions (however implausible). This year I don’t. I can’t see anything. Again, I know I am not the only one. Future was once the metaphor for hope – change, progress, advance; the horizon behind which a new sun will bring in a new day. However, like so many, at the moment, I feel bereft of that. I cannot find any sense of hope in the future. I am captured here in the now - Locked, feet slipping wildly on the icy greyness of the present. There is a recognition that beyond the clamouring voices of ghosts that whatever it is that is coming is coming; rolling in with the inexorable certainty of the spinning orrery. But I cannot picture it and it brings no sense of comfort. 

 

The Anglo Saxons had a word for it. This ill-suited time, un-tima – untime’. The times of misfortune and ill-ease. A form of it still survives as ‘untimely.’ I am taken by this idea of time and untime. Bad time, evil time. But, is it so strange to face the advent of a new year on the shores of untime? That time when we look in to the uncertainties of what lies ahead of us?   

And so, this is where I stand. Dislocated in untime. 

Plunged into a chasm of dark silence. But this is silence not of absence, but of incomprehensible noise - the mute paralysis of sensory overload. The world roars around your head. You can hear people and even understand what is being said, but it is all happening outside a plate glass box in which you feel caged and suffocating. The words make sense, but the sense has lost its meaning - somehow you have been exiled to the wastelands beyond language. Reach out. Talk. I hear my voice, detached, distant, mouthing words that fail to describe this vortex. They glance and skart off the lived realities of what I feel. It's frustrating, but it's also worse than that. It constructs something fake, a clichéd parody. I'm living out a scene from some badly written trash paperback. I listen to the picture I desperately try to paint, but don’t recognise any of it. It all sounds so lame, so weak. So petty, so self-indulgent. ‘Oh, for God's sake grow up.’ I want to scream. Scream at myself. There are no words and without words there is no sense. No way through this plate glass cage within which I find myself. 

But even now, I find myself pulling back. ‘Just, shut up. Get on with your life. You have it easy compared to most. Stop this whining and complaining and live.’ 

People have it far worse than you. This is just the diva-like indulgence of first-world privilege. And the anger boils up again – so too do the feelings of failure. The worst sin in the modern world is not to be able to cope. It's treated as some moral deficit, a weakness. Even within suburbia the voice of the pioneer, the coloniser, the one who controls their environment and destiny calls out loudly. People in the past, I frequently hear, never had problems like these. But of course, they did - they just don't fit into our romantic narratives of Merrie England. It's like those who try to claim psychological trauma experienced by soldiers is a new phenomenon; a symptom of the introduction of a soft, touchy-feely mentality within the armed forces. Their argument conveniently ignores accounts of whole armies of broken and vagrant veterans, disconnected, spreading alarm and fear as the roamed across the countryside or filled the asylums and hospitals, following the civil and Napoleonic wars. 

 

And this is not just self-absorbed melodrama - the histrionic symptoms of an indulged generation. The tight stomach, dry mouth, racing pulse tell us it's not. And we would be fools to listen to those who would counsel us to ignore these feelings. I know often they mean well and often their comments are from ignorance and a failure to listen. But it is so easy to trivialise and sometimes unwittingly even to ridicule another person’s struggle. In the midst of the terror of Babylonian expansionism, in the 6th century BC, a young Hebrew prophet showed insight beyond his years: "They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace." (Jer 6:14). We do well to listen to our bodies and our minds. To understand why there might be feelings of disquiet and unease. Pretending or telling ourselves that everything is ok, ‘peace, peace’ is not the answer. 

 

‘Be like the bison. The bison unlike other cattle, runs towards the storm.’ I read this, a few weeks ago. Yes. Let whatever in my future comes come and I will run towards it, head on, on my terms. It felt so right, so beguiling in its simplicity. But then when I looked up bison and how and why they might have developed this behaviour, I found that, of course, they don’t. Not in real life. Bison don’t run towards the storm. They face it, hunkering down, accepting the bitter blizzards. Riding it out. But they don’t run towards it. It’s like most of the advice given, particularly to men, lifting supposed models from the natural world (particularly creatures attractive to concepts of masculinity – bison, shark, lion, wolf) and using it as a model for life; the dominant alpha male in a wolfpack, sharks drowning if they stop swimming – muscular advice to develop muscular mental resilience. Ideas, models, arguments, based on our own distorted projections onto those with whom we share the world. Re-gain control. Fight. Overcome. Be like a bison tells us more about what our attitudes to masculinity than ever it does about the bison. Reifying our own exacting standards that we demand of ourselves. Whatever you do – cope and cope better. 

I watch YouTube videos of bison in snow storms. Head lowered, snout nuzzling the rising surface of the snow. Sometimes she closes her eyes. Snowflakes hang on her eyelashes. The rough hair on her face is caked white with ice. Every so often she lifts her head and sniffs the air. Her pink and black tongue licks her soft snout. How do you do it? The narrator seems to have so much confidence in your abilities, how well adapted you are, how fitted you are to these ferocious conditions. But you can't hear him. Just as I can't hear at the moment how well fitted as a human I am to change, to adapt - although I have heard those things so many times before, and even said them. How walking into the darkness is what we are born to do. Bede’s little sparrow in through one of the windows of King Edwin’s Mead Hall, flying through the warm fire-lit banqueting room and heading out into the wintery night. “In such a way,” Bede instructs the king through the words of one of his counsellors, “the life of man appears for a brief moment; what comes before, and what will follow after, we do not know.” We share that in common, you and I, bison and human. We both face into the nights of our unknowns. Spindrift flares and spirals across the prairie. You remind me of Penny. Those times in the fields when icy rain lashed into us, beating us back and there was no shelter. How should would suddenly stop, flatten her ears, narrow her eyes. Her whole body seemed to flatten. Is that how you feel? How do you stand there, so patiently, for the storm to envelop you and pass?      

I guess the bison survives the storm because she is a bison. In the same way that the red kite can soar upon the turmoil of storm winds while the moorhen seeks shelter. And we are strong not because we feel it or have access to privileged knowledge or resource, but just because we are human. I can take no more credit for my strength and resilience than can the oak beside the cattle pond. By the same token, the oak need feel no shame when the storm overwhelms it and splits it in half. The fallen hawthorn by the canal side still blossoms in spring because that is the nature of hawthorns. We sing and dance our way into the unknowns of our eternities because that is our nature. Sparrows flying into the night. And there are times when we are voices crack and are hoarse. When we feel battered by the storm winds. There are times when we are overwhelmed and cannot cope. But there is no shame in that, neither does it reflect some moral defect.

The two pole star trees still stand together. One broken and disfigured by last year's storms. We now know so much about the interrelationships between trees. Sure, one of the oaks survived intact. Sure, we've had stronger storms in the past. That's to deny the real reality. It is not that one tree is strong and the other weak. They live as one, sharing nutrients, water, sharing information, sharing strength. We have so much to learn... or relearn.

The kite, the bison, the sparrow, the stricken oak all remind us that we live in an unpredictable world, that it can be scary, it is often uncomfortable and tiring, but it's our home. This is where we belong. It's easy to worry that we're not strong enough, smart to live here or feel a failure when those times come when you feel you cannot cope. And those times will come - if you're serious about living fully - and there's so much pressure at those times to be silent, to mask the cracks, to attempt to hide our lack of moral fibre (one of the most crassest and deluded notions we have ever dreamt up!). 

So, if you're feeling overwhelmed by the future and you're not coping - me too, right now, I am not coping either. I don't know the way out. It's horrid and wretched. And so, I stand here, perhaps with you, in this untime of new year’s twilight, swamped, anxious – for the first time without any hope or dreams to sustain me. Bare-headed, vulnerable. Just a human walking out into the dark – and do you know what, that is enough. That is all that is needed. It is not a question of strength, or courage, or mastery awarded to some rarefied elite. All it needs is to be a human stepping into their proper environment. 

But the thing is, even though right now it doesn't feel like it, we are so strong and we are brave and so very full of life. We are born to be sparrows heading out into the winter's night storms. It can be frightening, exhausting, and at times uncomfortable, but don't worry, it is what we do. This is our element. This is where we fly – taking the darkness of the unknown and weaving such rich beautiful stories from them, mining such profound meanings from the chaotic and overwhelming, incomprehensible disorder of our experiences, taking the pain of life and from it moulding something glorious, no - something JOYFUL. That's what makes us so spectacular, so magnificent. Not our capacity to dominate, destroy, but to take the base, the hurt, the ugly and do something incredible with it. To create joy and beauty; as Amy Spittler Shuffler describes it, ‘dancing on the quantum froth’ of our existence.  

The kite, the bison, the sparrow, the stricken oak… and US! We are all so full of life, each in our element, each rooted in our home.  

SIGNING OFF

This is the narrowboat Erica wishing you the very best of years to come and may your night be full of peace and rest. Goodnight. 

WEATHER LOG