The Horses

horses running

One of the few poems I remember learning at school is “The Horses” by Edwin Muir. It tells of the aftermath of a nuclear war, but nonetheless has a kind of uncanny resonance for today when a rogue virus has changed our world out of all recognition. When everything we have taken for granted – unlimited travel, the global marketplace,  unconstrained growth – has turned against us and thrown us back on our own resources of resilience and ingenuity in order to overcome a silent, invisible and deadly enemy.

“We listened to our breathing and were afraid”

Of course some of the fruits of globalization and growth are now being employed in our struggle. We use social media when we cannot touch one another. If we can, our work comes to our home instead of us travelling there. We are dipping into our reserves of wealth to support those who can no longer support themselves. Scientists and politicians learn and share their knowledge of what we need to do in order to survive.

It is all halting and imperfect, but I do believe that mostly we are doing our best as far as that goes. They say that Covid-19 affects us indiscriminately. That is blatantly untrue. The virus hits hardest those without a home, a reliable income, a garden, an ethnicity which hasn’t suffered decades of oppression. The disadvantaged remain disadvantaged. And some of them number among those heroic humans who brave the danger in order to render service to others – nurses, doctors, care workers, delivery drivers, binmen, shop assistants… I wish I could list them all.

“That bad old world that swallowed its children quick”

And on the other side, perhaps a re-balancing. Perhaps a world where we do not travel profligately from one end of the planet to the other just to have a meeting. Perhaps a world where our first consideration is towards those with no resources of their own. Perhaps a world where we have learned to appreciate and value what true heroism is.

I know. It all seems too much to hope for, crazy optimism. But I woke this morning with the spring sunshine shining in my window. Those rays seemed full of hope and forgiveness. They seemed to remind me that nature is always there, always has been, ready to embrace us, to remind us that we are part of the natural world.

sunshine rays

We have tried to master nature, and have brought calamity upon ourselves – global warming, climate change, the destruction of the ozone layer, of habitats, of the very air that we breathe. Why has it taken a 17 year old activist from Sweden to show us what we have known for decades – that we were destroying our own ecosystem? I’ll tell you why – it’s because the vested interests of the rich, powerful and greedy have always won out and left consideration for the environment floundering in the shadows. No wonder Greta Thunberg is angry; I’m angry, we should all be angry.

If it would take a global catastrophe to make us stop and take stock, well here it is! Here’s our chance to take a wider view and DEMAND that things must be different when we are finally released from our enforced isolation. Let’s not pretend it would be okay to go back to the way things were. In my crazy optimism I’m hoping for something better than that. I’m hoping for a world where we don’t ignore the consequences of unbridled wealth creation and tragic imbalances between rich and poor. A world of true respect for each other and for our planet, for Gaia.

The Horses by Edwin Muir (1889-1959)

Barely a twelvemonth after
The seven days war that put the world to sleep,
Late in the evening the strange horses came.
By then we had made our covenant with silence,
But in the first few days it was so still
We listened to our breathing and were afraid.
On the second day
The radios failed; we turned the knobs; no answer.
On the third day a warship passed us, heading north,
Dead bodies piled on the deck. On the sixth day
A plane plunged over us into the sea. Thereafter
Nothing. The radios dumb;
And still they stand in corners of our kitchens,
And stand, perhaps, turned on, in a million rooms
All over the world. But now if they should speak,
If on a sudden they should speak again,
If on the stroke of noon a voice should speak,
We would not listen, we would not let it bring
That old bad world that swallowed its children quick
At one great gulp. We would not have it again.
Sometimes we think of the nations lying asleep,
Curled blindly in impenetrable sorrow,
And then the thought confounds us with its strangeness.
The tractors lie about our fields; at evening
They look like dank sea-monsters couched and waiting.
We leave them where they are and let them rust:
‘They’ll molder away and be like other loam.’
We make our oxen drag our rusty plows,
Long laid aside. We have gone back
Far past our fathers’ land.
And then, that evening
Late in the summer the strange horses came.
We heard a distant tapping on the road,
A deepening drumming; it stopped, went on again
And at the corner changed to hollow thunder.
We saw the heads
Like a wild wave charging and were afraid.
We had sold our horses in our fathers’ time
To buy new tractors. Now they were strange to us
As fabulous steeds set on an ancient shield.
Or illustrations in a book of knights.
We did not dare go near them. Yet they waited,
Stubborn and shy, as if they had been sent
By an old command to find our whereabouts
And that long-lost archaic companionship.
In the first moment we had never a thought
That they were creatures to be owned and used.
Among them were some half a dozen colts
Dropped in some wilderness of the broken world,
Yet new as if they had come from their own Eden.
Since then they have pulled our plows and borne our loads
But that free servitude still can pierce our hearts.
Our life is changed; their coming our beginning.

My non-resolutions for 2020

I don’t like making New Year resolutions, they just seem like a list of ways to fail in the coming 12 months. Or, more accurately, by the 3rd of January! Apparently just 8% of people keep their resolutions, did you know that?

Anyway, I already don’t smoke or drink (never have, never wanted to); I walk or use public transport to get about (don’t own a car); I recycle everything I can, always have. As you can see, I’m perfect already! Ha ha ha, excuse me while I roll about the floor laughing at this ludicrous notion.

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Anyhoo. I can’t get away from the fact that the turn of the year is nevertheless a time to take stock and re-evaluate your life, to clear the decks for the new year to come. And if you’re like me, to berate yourself for projects left undone or never started, time wasted, clutter collected, all my best intentions lying in ruins at my feet.

Really? Well that’s what it feels like. Never mind that I did a big clear out before Christmas, took a whole pile of stuff down to the charity shop, caught up with my to-do lists, wrapped up and sent home made gifts to my family… That’s all very well I tell myself, but what about all the stuff I didn’t do? The blog left untouched since last October, the workshop I should have written by the beginning of December, the friends I meant to have lunch with and didn’t… Now that list literally is endless!

endless

It’s not all doom and gloom, well it is, but not because of the undone stuff. As I went to bed on Hogmanay (way before the bells by the way), I did allow myself to resolve (as I have for several years now) that in 2020 I would carry on striving to be more true to myself, not to be diverted by irrelevant stuff, whether of a physical, mental or spiritual nature. And therein lies the potential for the doom and gloom. Because of course the question then arises “Who AM I anyway???” Aargh!!!

But, dear reader, there is a small candle of hope in the midst of all this endless introspection. It comes in the shape of a Prayer for the Day which caught me unawares as I was texting/messaging New Year greetings to all and sundry while Radio 4’s Today program played in the background.

This bishop chap started telling us how during a new year retreat years back, he’d been given the task as a spiritual exercise of writing his own obituary. Once he’d got over the thought that it was a rather macabre thing to do, he discovered it was a really helpful way of forcing him to reflect on what it’s worth spending time on and what it’s not. What he really cared about and what he didn’t. What’s worth fighting for and what’s not. What, in short, he’d want to be remembered for.

And just like that, I had suddenly found the right questions to ask, a helpful perspective. So, I can do no worse than finish by repeating Bishop John Inge’s New Year prayer, in the hope that it will inspire me (and perhaps you?) all the way through 2020 and beyond:

Loving God, give me the grace to make good use of the time given to me here on earth. In the coming year, give me the wisdom to know how best to use my time, my talents, my energy and my resources. Help me to discern what it’s worth spending time on and what is not; what I really care about and what I don’t; what it’s worth fighting for and what is not.

Amen.

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