Facing Fear With The Silent Eye, Part 3 – Sorrow

I recently attended a workshop, with The Silent Eye, about Facing Our Fears, an extraordinary weekend spent among the hills and grey stone villages of the Peak District. It’s taken me a little while, as it usually does, to process everything that happened. Once again there was history and mystery, good company and tasty food, old friends greeted and new friends made. And, as always, revelations.This is part three of my account, parts one and two can be found here…

We travelled through Eyam, the road taking us higher and higher, the valley opening away to our right. And as we did so the air began to clear, the strange weight that had burdened me lifting. We continued along a narrow track edged with tangled brambles and tall nettle, a fairy-tale barrier between us and the view. Taking a fork in the road among tall trees, Sue pulled the car onto the narrow verge to park.

And all was still.

The day remained bright, the sky a curving dome of blue, the air fresh and clear. We stood on a curving path bounded by a moss-covered wall, a rolling green hillside to our left. And, upon the green, a small enclosure waited. It was what we had come to see. The Riley graves.

Once again, Sue has written an excellent detailed account of what happened on the ridge, but the short version is this: As plague raged through the village in the valley below, two families, living separately on the ridge, hoped, perhaps, that distance would keep them and their children safe. However, it was not to be, with first one family, then the other, succumbing. But the cruellest blow was to Elisabeth Hancock, who, between August 3rd and 10th, lost her six children and her husband to the terrible virus. Isolated as she was on the high ridge, the neighbouring family having already succumbed to plague, it was left to her to bury her babies and spouse, one by one, carrying their bodies across to the shallow graves she’d dug, wondering, perhaps, when the disease would take her as well. I cannot imagine her pain, and, after what I’d experienced in the village, it was with some trepidation that I initially approached the small group of graves.

Elisabeth chose her spot well, with beautiful views across the valley and opposing hillsides. It broke the heart to imagine her doing so, that those she loved most might rest in a place where the air was fresh, the land they loved holding them like a precious jewel in a perfect setting. And, surprisingly, there was no heaviness here, no miasma of sorrow to weigh me down, no troubling visions. Instead, the overwhelming sense at these poignant graves was one of love.

That said, I did not enter the enclosure, preferring instead to pay my respects outside the curving stone wall. I stood there for a little while, listening to the wind through the trees and grass, watching birds circle above, and tried to imagine how it must have been during those desperate days when Elisabeth lost everyone and everything she loved, including her home.

She must have been quite an extraordinary person for, when plague didn’t take her, rather than falling into darkness and despair, she instead went down to the village to help others who suffered. And when it was all done she was reunited with her remaining son, who was working in a nearby village and so had been separated from her for the duration of the quarantine. It was he who erected the memorial stones for his father and siblings, and perhaps, also, as tribute to his mother and all she had gone through those terrible nights alone.

The only sorrow I felt in this place was as we were leaving, when it hit me like a wave. We walked along the track, back to the cars, and it struck me how it must have been for her when she had to leave this place for the last time, leave the views and clear air and circling birds, the land she had worked and which now held the remains of all she held dear. For, while she was there, she was still with them.

A short drive later and we were at our second-last stop for the day: Mompesson’s well. This was one of several wells marking the boundary of the village, where food and money were left for and by the villagers during their quarantine. It was a gloomy place, despite the brightness of the day, and the heavy fencing around it didn’t do much to lift the atmosphere. I think we were all still somewhat weighed down by the events of the afternoon.

Luckily, our final stop was on the open moors, a patch of green grass the perfect spot to sit and go over the events of the day. I wandered off alone for a little while, opening my arms and heart to the sky and heather, letting the wind wash through me. It was the perfect antidote to a very strange afternoon and, by the time I got back to the hotel, I was feeling almost myself again. We were due to have dinner at a nearby pub, and I was looking forward to it. Tomorrow was going to be a very busy day, and I needed to recharge…


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Facing Fear With The Silent Eye, Part 2 – Pestilence

I recently attended a workshop, with The Silent Eye, about Facing Our Fears, an extraordinary weekend spent among the hills and grey stone villages of the Peak District. It’s taken me a little while, as it usually does, to process everything that happened. Once again there was history and mystery, good company and tasty food, old friends greeted and new friends made. And, as always, revelations.This is part two of my account, part one can be found here

‘Go and have a look around. We’ve got a bit of time yet before the others get here.’

I can’t move.

We were standing in a courtyard, once the stable yard of the nearby manor house. The buildings had been converted into shops and restaurants, jewellery, homewares, tea and scones all set out for visitors. It was a gorgeous place, sun shining on golden-grey stone, pretty tables, green trees.

I can’t move.

Waves were battering her from all sides, sorrow overwhelming. But they were toxic, polluted, like water disturbed in a stagnant pond. It was difficult to breathe.

I should have known when my body started to tingle as we crossed the boundary into the village. But this was… intense. I took a couple of photos but, even though Sue suggested once more that I have a look around, I still couldn’t move, feeling assailed on all sides. The air seemed filled with floating flecks of gold. It was a very, very strange place.

The rest of the group arrived, greetings and introductions breaking me out of my strange immobility. It was lovely to see familiar faces, and to meet a new face, too. Thus assembled, our group of six left the old stable yard and headed out into the village. We took a moment on the nearby green to talk about the history of the village, Sue and Stu filling the rest of the party in on the dark history of the place. Sue has written an excellent post about it – however, the short version is this:

In 1665, plague came to Eyam. It was already raging down south, and, when a local tailor ordered a bolt of cloth from London, it arrived teeming with harbingers of death. Infected fleas on the cloth were released when it was unfolded, with the tailor and his assistant the first victims. But, as plague moved through the village, the inhabitants made an extraordinary decision. Encouraged by their reverend, the charismatic Mompesson, they decided to quarantine themselves from the surrounding area – nothing, and no one, were to leave the village until the plague had burned itself out. Eventually it did so, but took as much as two thirds of the population with it, a horrifying toll in a place with a population of only a few hundred souls. Many people lost their entire extended family, and had to bury their own dead. Parents, children, siblings, spouses. Small wonder, then, that this was a place bound in sorrow and the fear of loss.

After the introduction we headed along a road that was chocolate-box perfect in its prettiness, past ancient stone cottages garlanded in roses, gleaming golden in the afternoon sun. Yet dark history hid behind the stone walls, as plaques in the gardens attested, telling us the names of those who lived there during the plague, and those who died. Eyam is a place that makes its living from death, the sad history of the place drawing tourism from far and wide. But is it healthy to constantly relive such an episode? Places hold the energy of events that happen there – such as the warmth experienced in a happy home, or the sombre cold at sites of torture and death. Despite all the doubtless peaceful years that Eyam experienced, both before and after the plague, it has allowed itself to be defined by the events of that awful time and, while of course it’s important to remember and honour the deeds of the villagers who sacrificed everything for the sake of the larger community, the relentless focus on that time makes it difficult for the energy surrounding it to dissipate. I took few photos, and none of the plaques in the gardens with their grisly records of death.

As we neared the old church I was finding it difficult to breathe, a weight on my chest. Another member of the group felt the same way – there seemed to be no explanation for it. I was struggling against surging emotion, like being at the centre of a storm, despite the bright sunshine.

‘Did you say you’ve never been here before?’

‘Yes.’

‘You sure about that?’

We entered the churchyard, sun gilding the deep green yew trees, the ancient stones. There is a Saxon cross in the churchyard, relic of an even older time, one side carved with angels, the other with serpents, coiled around themselves.

… she remembered a wedding, being a bride in a bright gown, garlanded in flowers, laughing with her lover on another sunny day, as though the village wanted to remind her of happier times…

Churchyards are home to memory, to loved ones lost, a community of spirit. We wandered among the gravestones for a little while before heading inside the church. It was still difficult to breathe, but I felt less inundated than before.

…give me space…

Inside, the church was charming. Very old, and similar to several I’d visited before with the group. Usually such places are filled with years of calm, that concentrated energy of a place given over to love and prayer. In this church, however, death danced overhead, the spectre of that terrible time seeming to permeate the place. It did not feel peaceful at all.

Embedded in one of the walls was a stone cross, a cross of St Helen, and there was a beautiful window dedicated to her as well, but even the presence of my namesake saint didn’t do much to ease my discomfort. There was also an illustrated history of the church and the village, and another stained-glass window telling the story of the plague.

When we left the church even the sky felt spiked and heavy, vapour trails intersecting it like the slashes of a knife. And then, a rainbow, faintly coloured, a reminder that, even after the darkest storms, there is light and colour to be found again. It was fitting that it showed up as we prepared to leave the village, heading back past the cottages with their dark histories, past the manor and green.

As we reached the car park, I knew where we were going next. And I was concerned as to whether I’d be able to deal with it, after what I’d already experienced in Eyam. This weekend, however, was about facing our fears. And there was no turning back now…


Enjoyed this post? Want to read more? Find me on Twitter @AuthorHelenJFacebook, Instagram and Pinterest. Plus my latest book release, Under Stone (Ambeth Chronicles #4), is now available on Amazon. Visit my Amazon Author Page to see more.

Around The World and Back Again

Getting back into this blogging thing is easier said than done, I’m finding. And it probably hasn’t helped that I’ve been away for the past three weeks on the other side of the world. Apologies for being late getting back to comments, too!

So, where have I been?

Back to my husband’s native Australia, to see family and friends we’ve not visited for seven years. It’s a trip that was a long time coming, house renovations and life getting in the way of previous plans to visit.

I confess, I was a little bit nervous about going back. Australia is a wonderful place, and there are a lot of people I love living there. But it’s a VERY LONG flight, and I’m not the biggest fan of flying. Plus, I found that, despite all the work I’ve done sorting myself out over the past few years, it turned out there was a bit of emotion to unpack about the idea of heading back to the place where I lived for seventeen years. As I said to friends when we were there, I have three passports and a lot of issues.

People often comment to me that I’ve lived such an interesting life, moving around the world, travelling and seeing different places. And I agree – I’ve been so fortunate to have lived in some wonderful parts of the world. But that has come at the price of roots, of continuity, of having a place that feels so familiar that, no matter where you are in the world, it feels like home. All the moving around I’ve done (24 different addresses, six different cities, three continents) has left me with a deep desire for a place that is mine, that won’t change and doesn’t move, where I know everyone and they know me. Returning to live in the UK seven years ago was full circle for me, both physically and metaphorically, as it’s where I was born, and where I feel most at home. Living in Australia was wonderful, definitely, but it was also tough, as I was (literally) half a world away from many of the people I loved most. Going back there brought with it a whole host of emotions and I had to keep reminding myself that I wasn’t going to stay there, that I was coming back.

That sounds awful, doesn’t it? As though I hated the place so much I couldn’t bear to stay there. This is not the case at all. If you’ve been to Australia you’ll know how beautiful it is, how blue the water, how bright the sky. Some of my best friends in the world live there, as well as family. It’s a country I truly love.

So, once I’d worked through all of that, I was able to face the flight with less stress and, when we finally touched down in Melbourne, I could enjoy the city for how wonderful it is. Our first day was a perfect Melbourne day – seeing family, walking through the Botanic Gardens to the National Gallery of Victoria to have lunch and see the Escher exhibition (quite a mind-blowing experience with jetlag), then dinner that evening with dear friends. And so the days unfolded, one beautiful experience after another, but each of them then tempered with goodbyes. And that, perhaps, is the key to my struggle. The endless round of goodbyes.

Well! This started out as a post to say hey, I’m back from my trip, but it’s turned into something quite different. As you can see from the photos, I had a fantastic trip in a wonderful part of the world. However, I’m glad to be back home again now (and I will be getting to comments, too!).

If you’re in the UK, here’s wishing you all a lovely holiday weekend. Also, May the Fourth be with you 😉 (Yeah, I said it.)

xx

Wednesday Wander – Ground Zero

We had to go there. It didn’t seem right to be in New York and not visit the site of an event which has shaped the modern city, and much of the world, since it happened. And so this week my Wednesday Wander is to Ground Zero, the site of the World Trade Centre attacks in New York.

I don’t think there are many of us who were alive at the time who don’t remember where they were on September 11, 2001, when those first terrible images of planes crashing into the World Trade Centre appeared on the television. It was an unprecedented moment, and one where the world changed forever. It was also an event where over 3000 people lost their lives, so it seemed appropriate that we go and pay our respects.

The gorgeous girl knew what had happened that day, though her exposure to images of the event has been very limited. So, after our trip to the Statue of Liberty, and a stop to see the Mighty Girl facing down the Charging Bull on Wall Street, we made our way to the memorial, on the site of the twin towers.

It is an extraordinary place to visit, and you can’t help but imagine how it must have been that day, the horrors that took place there. Yet, for all that, it is a place of overwhelming sorrow and peace, rather than anger and pain.

The footprint of both towers has been retained, marked by spectacular water features, the endlessly falling water marking the outlines of where the towers stood. Around the edges are the names of every single person who died there. We took a moment to read a few, to remember them as people who were just at work, or taking a routine flight cross-country, when disaster struck.

The gorgeous girl and I sat together for a little while, watching people walk around in the pale sunshine. ‘This is a sad place,’ she said, and I hugged her and agreed. It felt as though it was time to go. But, on our way out, we stopped to take a closer look at an extraordinary structure in one corner of the square.

This is the Oculus, the most expensive train station in the world, built to replace the World Trade Centre station which was destroyed in the attack. It is a building that has apparently divided New Yorkers, with some loving it and others hating it. To me, it felt triumphant, like some sort of fantastic bird rising from the ashes of sorrow. Inside it was spectacular, like a bright vision of the future. Quite appropriate, in such a place.

Thank you for coming on another Wednesday Wander with me – see you next time!


Enjoyed this post? Want to read more? Find me on Twitter @AuthorHelenJFacebook, Instagram and Pinterest. Plus my latest book release, Under Stone (Ambeth Chronicles #4), is now available on Amazon. Visit my Amazon Author Page to see more.

Highgate Cemetery, London – A Few More Photos

My Wednesday Wander this week was a very popular one, something about the wonderful funerary architecture and creeping ivy at Highgate Cemetery striking a chord with many of you.

So, as I wasn’t able to share all my photos in the post, I thought I’d post a few more for those who might be interested.

This lovely Art Deco style stone belongs to a movie producer with the fabulous name of Hercules Bellville.

While this lion stands guard over the grave of a man who made his living exhibiting ‘exotic’ animals during the 19th century.

This is the grave of Malcolm MacLaren, which features his death mask for that extra little je-ne-sais-quoi.

And here is a rather interesting literary gravestone.

There are so many more interesting gravestones – I could have taken hundreds of photos, I think! If you’d like to go there and see for yourself, here is the link: https://highgatecemetery.org/


If you enjoyed this post and would like to read more, you can find me on Twitter @AuthorHelenJFacebook, Instagram and Pinterest. Plus my latest book release, A Thousand Rooms, is now available on Amazon. Visit my Amazon Author Page to see more.

 

Look For The Helpers

I’ve tried to write this post several times today.

Oh, not because I had no words. I had lots of them. Words of sorrow and fury and fear. Words of love and hope and pride. But none of them seemed big enough or strong enough or wise enough to encompass the despair I felt on hearing of yet another cowardly, senseless event.

So in the end, I turned to someone else’s words. Mr Rogers once said:

When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’

And, from the accounts trickling into the news feed, there were many, many helpers last night. And so it goes, when such things happen; love outweighs hate, the selfless acts of many shining as bright threads in the gathering dark.

May it always be so. For I think I speak for many of us when I say, whether a concert or a marketplace or a nightclub, a holiday resort or football match, we are sick and tired of this bullsh*t.

My heart goes out to all those affected by last night’s attack in Manchester. I cannot imagine your pain xx

 

 

#Monday Motivations – The Bench

Esther Newton does a great writing prompt series called Monday Motivations, and her latest prompt is this lovely photograph. When I saw it a little story came to me, and so here it is:

She remembered when he’d put the bench there. He’d been young then, and strong, muscles firm against his skin, his flesh sweet against hers in the night.

Together they would sit, gazing through the trees, dreaming into the darkness, her head on his shoulder. Sometimes they would bring the radio and dance, holding each other close and swaying like the treetops above. Other times they would talk, making plans of family and home and love so strong it still left her breathless at his loss.

She still went to sit there every day, leaving the house they had built together, her old knees creaking as she negotiated the steps from the back porch. Sometimes she would take a handful of nuts for the squirrels or seed for the birds, especially when winter held the land in an iron grip, her breath misting the air.

Through the seasons she sat, as leaves turned and the evergreens dropped green needles that turned slippery brown under foot. And she would talk to him. ‘Come back to me,’ she would say, tears cool on warm cheeks, or hot against frozen skin. She would tell him her plans, tell him of the family, of all that had passed since the dark day he had left. Eventually, she would stop talking, and lose herself in a dream of summer darkness, of his arm strong around her. She would return to the house and sleep well that night, as though all the hard years since his passing had never been.

There was joy still, in her life. She brought their first grandchild down to meet him, small hand waving from the warm bundle in her arms. Then the second, and the third, speaking their names so he would know them, and they him.

Her family had tried to get her to sell up, to move on. To a place further south where the sun shone all the time, where old joints could feel young again. But she couldn’t leave their special place and, in the end, they came to understand.

And so it was, on a night toward summer’s end, while fireflies danced and the air still held the warmth of the day, that she made her way down to the bench once more, her breath catching as she negotiated the slope. It was silent under the branches, twilight sweeping the sky like soft wings.

She sat down. ‘Come back to me,’ she said, half smiling at her fantasy, dreaming of his touch.

‘I have never left you,’ she heard him say. She looked up, tears in her eyes, to see him standing just a little way down the slope. All at once lights were strewn through the branches, as though the fireflies had been bottled and shaken out along the leaves, glimmers of gold lighting his face, his dark hair, as he smiled at her, holding out his hand.

She stood, and it was as though she shed her skin, all the things that had weighed her down leaving her, so she was light as a soap bubble, rising through the air. She half ran to him, not slipping on the dry needles, her footing sure. She took his hand. ‘Oh!’ Her exclamation was soft, a whisper in the night, as she felt his warm fingers around hers once more.

‘I have missed you,’ she said.

‘And I you,’ he replied. ‘Even though I could see you, and hear you, it wasn’t the same. But now…’

‘Now?’

He said nothing, just looked past her, back to the bench. She turned and, when she saw the slumped body there, like a pile of old clothes, discarded, she understood.

And there was lightness all through her and around her, a thousand fireflies in the night, as she danced with her love once more.


If you enjoyed this post and want to read more, you can find me on Twitter @AuthorHelenJ,  Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest. Plus my latest book release, A Thousand Rooms, is now available on Amazon.