I must admit I’ve always had a bit of a problem staying grounded. My over-active mind and imagination have taken me to all kinds of weird and wonderful places in the past, as well as some that were definitely not quite so wonderful. You know that awful ‘What if?’ feeling? The extrapolating out a situation until it has assumed massive proportions in your mind – and it hasn’t even happened yet? Yep. My speciality. Got the gold award on that one.
When one of my boys was young and off sick from school, we were driving down the road for a doctor’s appointment and I slowed down just a tiny bit to concentrate on what he was saying from his perch on the back seat. That split second gained by slowing down saved us from what would probably have been a fatal accident. Just as we were approaching a T-junction from the left, a driver lost control of his car and shot across the junction right in our path, coming to rest with the front half of the car smashed into a wall running alongside the road. As it was, I only just managed to stop in time. Seconds earlier and we would have been buried in that wall instead.
It was only after the emergency services had taken statements, carted the occupants from the other car off to hospital and let the witnesses go that I fell apart, thinking how close we had both come to death. Thankfully the people from the other car were safe, although I think the driver had some kind of blackout, which is what had caused the accident. But the ‘what if?’ thoughts kept coming and I couldn’t get the crash out of my mind, especially in those dark hours at 3 in the morning when all the bad thoughts and worries come flooding in. Being an astrologer I looked at the chart of the event to try and calm my mind and was amazed to see Venus in a good position for me on that day. What!? Why? The crash had been giving me nightmares, not sweet dreams. It was only when I talked to the lovely Komilla Sutton about it that things made sense – as things usually do when I talk to her, TBH.
“Margaret,” she said. “The fact that Venus is involved indicates it was a good outcome. You didn’t die, you weren’t even hurt. You are fine. The focus is on the good that happened, not the bad that didn’t.”
Ah. Yes. True. And that seemingly simple exchange, which must have happened about twenty years ago, dramatically changed my thinking from that point on.
So when cancer came knocking at the door in 2012/13 I didn’t exactly welcome it inside and offer tea and cake, but after the initial shock wore off I did look to see if it had brought a guest – and yes, it had. It brought the gift of writing the blog, and with that writing came the chance to explore my deepest thoughts and especially the darkest fears. And those deepest thoughts showed that I needed something to focus on – on a moment-by-moment basis – to get me through the whole horrible experience of chemotherapy and a stem cell transplant, as the big picture was too overwhelming to even consider in its entirety.
Regular readers of the blog will know that I absolutely do not espouse the idea of always looking on the bright side. I think it is really damaging to paper over difficult emotions with a ‘sky is blue, the sun is shining’ kind of philosophy, which is why all the way through the cancer episode I told it like it was, and I hope I still do. Even if nobody reads the blogs, just writing about pain or fear helps immensely, because if I leave those feelings inside they will fester, and festering is most definitely damaging. Given that I’m thankfully in remission you must be wondering why I’m writing about all this just now. Trust me, there really is a point to this blog, and it has wings. Lots of them, actually, and not just in the title.
So, enter the lovely Thich Nhat Hanh. I’m currently reading Old Path White Clouds, which is the life story of the Buddha, written by Thay, and it is astonishingly beautiful and very, very simple. Whenever we are faced with something difficult the temptation is for our minds to wiz off all over the place, and the point of mindfulness is to slow it down and take life moment by moment, at which level it is easier to cope. And by slowing down and staying undistracted instead of planning everything out and worrying about ‘what if?’ I’ve noticed that you actually open up and become aware of a whole lot more. It’s an ongoing challenge, make no mistake, but my goodness does it bring some rewards, especially to a (recovering) control freak like me. Here’s a case in point.
A couple of weekends ago we had planned to go across to Eastbourne for a meeting with our buyer at the wholesaler that handles the books for The Wessex Astrologer. We were expecting to visit some friends at the same time, one of whom has horses. Very unusually we booked – and paid for (eek!) – a hotel in advance, as it was a lot cheaper doing it that way. After all, what could possibly go wrong? Hahaha. You can almost hear the gods laughing. The first thing that happened was that on the Monday before our trip I discovered my meeting was cancelled, which also affected what we were planning with the horses the following day. Awww. My heart sank, as I was SO looking forward to messing around in a field with them. And we couldn’t cancel the hotel. Well we could but we wouldn’t get a refund, so a bit of a no-brainer really. Presumably, and trying to stay in the moment as decreed by TNH, we decided that Other Things would come out of this so we just needed to deal with what was, i.e. a booked hotel room a 2 and a half hour drive away. I got another business appointment to make the trip worthwhile, and we decided to alter the journey to take in Brighton on the way up to our friends in Horsham the following day. Job done.
Now I know quite a few people who live in Brighton so I need to be careful about saying this, but, um, it has changed one helluva lot since I was last there in about 1988. Obvs. I’m sure it is still lovely, but what with very dense crowds of visitors and a lack of reasonably priced parking, we decided to visit by train some other time and head very slowly towards Horsham instead. The only problem with this plan was that we still had about three hours to kill by the time we were about 10 minutes away. Aaargh.
By this point it was all becoming a bit hilarious, because everything we tried to do just didn’t work out in one way or another. It was all still up for grabs. Having given up on Brighton, where we’d expected to have lunch, we happened upon an award-winning vineyard en route (yes – we have them in England!), and went searching for a bit of grub, but they were more about expensive tours and wine tasting than actual sustenance. So after an exceedingly rapid look around we continued our crawl towards Horsham. Next up was a National Trust property – they are a good bet as their tea rooms are usually a delight. We drove in hoping that we could nip in for a sandwich without having to pay the entrance fee. Nope. We only found this out after getting stuck in the one way system that was their car park, due to a massive wedding that was being held there. You honestly couldn’t make it up. With fixed grins on our faces we eventually got out of the car park and back on the main road, planning to go into Horsham itself to use up a few hours if nothing else popped up.
Back to Thay for a minute. One of the lovely bits I’ve just been reading in Old Path, White Clouds is where Siddhartha (who becomes known as the Buddha) comes out of his latest meditation under the tree (he’s been doing this for a long, long time), and realises that in his journeys ever deeper he has seen how we are all connected at the most miniscule level. I’m not going to paraphrase as Thay has such a beautiful way with words:
The monk Gautama (Siddhartha) went from meditating on his body to meditating on his feelings, and from meditating on his feelings to meditating on his perceptions, including all the thoughts which rose and fell in his own mind. He saw the oneness of body and mind, that each and every cell of the body contained all the wisdom of the universe. He saw that he needed only to look deeply into a speck of dust to see the true face of the entire universe, that the speck of dust was itself the universe and if it did not exist, the universe could not exist either.
So by looking at something so small, you actually get to see the bigger picture and all the dots (specks of dust) join together and it all makes sense. And going back to our increasingly ridiculous, but very mindful and in-the-moment journey, imagine my delight when we rounded a bend and I saw the sign for Hilliers Nursery, my dear mum’s very favourite place when we lived in Reading, which isn’t a million miles from Horsham.
“Hah! This will be good! This is it!”
Stephen, bless him, went with the flow and we pulled into the garden centre hoping for a life-enhancing cup of tea and possibly a piece of gluten-free (him), sugar-free (me) piece of cake. See why we never eat out? Anyway, long story short and all that, we had tea and a GF sandwich (no suitable cake) and went off for a very slow wander round the garden centre, which turned out to be huge, with lots of very long rows of plants. It was at the end of one particular row I realised something else lurked through the archway. All I could make out from my level (due to a mass of lovely plants around the archway) was ‘rds of Pr’, which to me meant only one thing.
“Oh my God, they’ve got birds of prey here!” I squeaked at Stephen who had his nose buried in some exotic plant. “Didn’t get the horses but maybe we can see the birds”. A quick chat with the lady on Reception revealed that for the princely sum of £6.00 we could basically spend the next day with over 80 birds of prey and take part in flying demonstrations too.
Oh my word.
With arrangements for the next day made, we (or at least me – not too sure Stephen was quite as excited) skipped off to meet our friends at the appointed time.
I expect you know what comes next but I’m telling you anyway. We had a lovely time with our friends and pitched up at Huxley’s Birds of Prey at 12.00 sharp the next morning. It was really quiet so we could spend as long as we wanted with the birds, and talk extensively to the people who look after them. Here’s one of the eagles.
The flying display started at 2.30, and as I’d earlier done my shameless “Me! Please, please can I?” act with the owner to snag a place flying the hawks, when that bit came I was chosen and I loved every second. Okay, the hawks were only flying very short distances between volunteers whose gloves were loaded with scraps of meat, but it was amazing being so close to them. The birds very obviously have a close relationship with their handlers – despite what I’ve been told by other falconers – and it was about to get a whole lot better. When the birds are released to fly (on an individual basis) wherever they want, they have a GPS tracker attached to their legs, which I would imagine beats scanning the sky wondering where the hell your bird is. The owner, Julian, gave us a running commentary of where the birds were and how high they were flying. Periodically they would fly back over the centre and literally screech low across the show ring like a fighter jet before swooping off into the clouds again, obviously having the time of their lives. This was fascinating, but then Debbie came out to fly her falcon Kyrie. This is him.
When Kyrie was just 6 months old, and without wearing a GPS tracker, he disappeared for 12 days. He was finally found on the far side of the Isle of Wight, a distance of some 50 miles, proudly standing on a pigeon he’d caught. “Hey mum, look at me!” The GPS tracker is an absolute godsend because as well as tracking the birds it records just the incredible things they get up to. As we watched him wheeling way up high over the show ring, Debbie told us that Kyrie is their highest flying bird, having reached a height of over 2000 feet, and he has been recorded hurtling back down to earth at a speed of 280 miles an hour. I was transfixed at the way he sailed upwards, then circled, with almost no effort. It was so clear that he was playing, having fun. Enjoying just being out in the fresh air, and not planning on coming in any time soon. It made me think of the birds back at home in a whole new light, and Jonathan Livingstone Seagull made manifest.
Then I pulled myself up short, thinking the romance of all of this was getting slightly out of hand. But I just had to ask the burning question that was in my mind to make sure I wasn’t imagining it. I asked Debbie why the birds rise up with the thermals, achieving such amazing height and circle and swoop idly, with all the time in the world.
Her face took on a dreamy, distant look as her eyes combed the skies for her falcon, then she turned back to me.
“Because they can.”
And you know, I can’t stop thinking about that little sentence. Because they can. We all can. We can stop the monkey-mind, and in that space and calmness, we too can soar with the eagles.