My year with Rilke

This blog has inspired me, soothed me and refocused me more times this year than I can count.  Rainer Maria Rilke was an Austrian poet whose writing, even when translated, is more evocative and flowing than anything I have ever read.  

His is the quote that has influenced me so much I decided to use it as the subtitle for this blog.

"Live your questions now, and perhaps even without knowing it, you will live along some distant day into your answers."

His ability to take ideas which are everyday, normal, overstudied and present them in a way which is utterly new, perfectly formed and make you come to a screeching halt to marvel at the new perspective that you feel you should have been able to voice all along is incredible.  He can put into words the things most of us can only vaguely feel.

"And you wait. You wait for the one thing
that will change your life,
make it more than it is—
something wonderful, exceptional,
stones awakening, depths opening to you.

In the dusky bookstalls
old books glimmer gold and brown.
You think of lands you journeyed through,
of paintings and a dress once worn
by a woman you never found again.

And suddenly you know: that was enough.
You rise and there appears before you
in all its longings and hesitations
the shape of what you lived.
Book of Images - from A Year With Rilke

Thank you Lorenzo and Ruth for taking the time and effort to produce this blog.  It provides me with a well needed anchor to reality and an opportunity to get to know one of my most respected poets.

This is my passion

Me and Sally competing in a Novice obedience class
My passion is not cool and sexy.  My passion is not death-defying adrenaline-rushing action.  My passion is not world-changing activism or international superstardom.  To most people, my passion would be hopelessly dull.  But it is MY passion and I adore it.  My passion is training dogs.

I got hooked when I was 15 doing my Duke of Edinburgh's Award.  For the "Skills" section of the award I borrowed a rather unwanted leggy teenager of an unruly mongrel dog from the local pub and took her to a dog training club.  My intention was just to teach her sit and stay - help her owners out and get the silly box ticked for my D of E Award.  Little did I know how things would turn out!

The woman who ran the dog training club was a skinny chain-smoking slightly neurotic fiery ball of passion for dog training.  She did competitive obedience with her beautiful German Shepherds.  I saw the drive and the energy and the love the dogs and her had for their sport, and I wanted to get involved.  I trained Sally for months, then bravely entered my first Obedience show.  Unfortunately, Jen hadnt told me that you couldnt take treats into the show ring...and as she was used to doing things for food...she lolloped off out of the ring to try and find something more interesting to do.  I was devastated.  I cried tears of rage and embarassment.  But I learnt.  I learnt how much I wanted to be good at this.  And I learnt that to really train a dog, the dog needs to be motivated to play along for playing's sake, not for the reward of food or a toy.  Treats are great, but only to create love for the activity, never as a bribe.

So I learnt, and I trained, and I learnt some more.  Sometimes I had to break things back down to basics just to make the smallest of tweaks to her heelwork position.  But it started to click into place, I understood how she learnt, how she thought and how she moved, and bent my training style and my movements to fit.  And it worked, she started to win.  And we went on to compete in Agility and Flyball as well.  I even competed in the Junior ring at Crufts - the largest dog show in the world.  I also trained our rescue collie to work sheep, and provided a temporary foster home for several dogs, in order to rehabilitate them so they could find a forever home.

I am incredibly grateful to my wonderful Mum for all the evenings she drove me to training and all the shows she took me to, never once complaining about the hours surrounded by barking dogs in some rain-soaked field in the middle of nowhere.  

Sally will never be the best dog at anything...she isnt a border collie...the basic qualification for being the best at any canine event.  But she loves to work, she loves to get things right - and she works for workings sake.  To me that is the greatest achievement for me with a greedy labrador cross - she works because she LOVES it.  

Nothing builds the relationship between a dog and its owner like training.  I know her expressions, I can predict her responses and her emotions...and she can do the same with me.  For me to train her effectively, and for her to learn effectively, we automatically tuned into each other on a far deeper level than you normally connect with a pet on.

That sense of connection is what makes it my passion.  I love building that rapport, that unbreakable bond.  Im not one of those overly anthropomorphic people who attributes every human emotion under the sun to animals.  I know she doesnt love me like I love her, I respect her all the more for the tame wolf that she is.  I guess the whole training process entertains my inner psychologist, its like its a challenge to break a task down into components that she can learn.  There is more to it than that though, Sally is 9 years old now so we just go to training classes for fun really.  She doesnt compete any more so there is no need to teach her new things.  We both still love to go along to training and have fun though.  The sense of calm satisfaction I get from strengthening our connection is like a drug.  The more she learns and the more she loves it, the more I want to train her.  And the more I train her...the cycle continues.

I love dogs.  Their behaviour with each other is fascinating, their relationship with humanity even more so. There is so much they can do for us, and so much we can learn from them.

I have considered becoming a professional dog trainer several times before, either for the Forces, or for disability support charities, or to help people with problem pets.  People say that you should devote your life to your passion.  Maybe there is a lesson I need to learn here.

In my dream house...

In my dream cottage by the palm-fringed seashore with the hammock on the sandy white beach and the balmy sun setting over the warm blue waters...there Aga.

I love them.  I love how you can cook all the things that require hours of oven time and so you never bother to make in a conventional oven.  I love how they heat your house and make the warmest loveliest seat ever.  I love to make yummy rice pudding stuffed with raisins and cranberries and infused with nutmeg and brown sugar.  Heaven!

I long to live in a house with an Aga...and I dont care that I wouldnt need one in my little wooden beach house...or that I probably couldnt even get one there...its still in the dream...

In search of dolphins

Last night I watched an awesome documentary called Dolphin Boy.  Its about an Israeli teenager called Morad with severe post-traumatic stress disorder, who was brought back into society and himself using dolphin therapy  (for the record, unfortunately Im not one of those super-educated extra-cool people who watches intelligent documentaries...most of the time Im satisfied with America's Next Top Model).  It was a simply-shot, non-pretentious tale of human tragedy and self-sacrificing love...and yes it made me cry.  But it also got me to thinking about how I handle things in my own life.

While I am fortunate enough never to have lived through anything remotely as traumatic as what  Morad had faced, I could see echoes of my own coping mechanisms in his behaviour.  I too shut down on the world and those around me, not to that extreme but I still choose to retreat.  Feeling nothing is less hurtful than feeling the pain.  And yes post-traumatic stress disorder is an overexaggeration of normal, healthy coping strategies, but perhaps I too over-react to things.

I did a long hot exhaustingingly exhilarating summer working as a camp counselor at Camp Sonshine, one of their favourite phrases was "Growth Days".  Growth Days were their overly-enthusiastic typically American ways of turning a stressful, exhausting bad day at camp into something positive.  For a while I dismissed it as nothing more than that, but now I see the value in that way of thinking.  Having a "bad day" is unproductive and pointless for myself and everyone who I snap and moan at, but having a "growth day"...well now that has the potential to add value.  Life is an endless lesson.

The concept of growth days works extra well if you combine it with the "5-5-5 rule" which the lovely (and soon-to-be-wed) Goddess Leonie shared with the world the other day.  To sum it up, if you cannot honestly answer the questions "Will this matter in 5 days...or 5 months...or 5 years?" with "yes yes YES!"  - then you know doesnt matter today either.  Its just a growth day.  Grow, and tomorrow will be better.

But what haunts me, what sends me to my retreated safe place inside myself, is WHAT IF the answer really honestly truthfully is "Yes".  Yes it will matter in 5 days, yes it will matter in 5 months and yes it will still matter in 5 years.  How am I supposed to count this as a growth day, how am I supposed to act like this is not important?  How am I supposed to find the strength not to hide away inside myself and face the pain as the tiny insignificant prinprick that it so obviously is not?

I dont have the answer and I certainly dont have the proof of how to overcome this problem, but I do have two suggestions.  Maybe Leonie's 5-5-5 rule isnt quite complete...maybe you have to extend it till the answer is "No".  Will it matter in 50 years?  Er...yeh maybe.  OK - will it matter in 500 years? Hmm..well the chance of anything at all about my life mattering in 500 years is pretty much zero, so Im gonna go with No.  And oh yeh, if an event within this millenia-rich universe has no impact in 500 years time, then I can logically see that it doesnt matter today either.

But there is still a fatal agonising flaw in the argument, because there is a big difference between things that cross the millenia in their power and meaning, and the "little things" that do still matter to me.  Maybe I should be striving for that deeper level of connection with the universe where the "little things" cease to matter, but Im certainly not there yet.  So the potential for pain still remains, and I am still left in hiding. 

So whats the second suggestion?  Well...maybe I just need to find my dolphins.

Wilderness in my soul

I realised this weekend that despite the fact that I live in the most beautiful corner of England, the Lake District (in my opinion at least), Ive never written about it.  I suspect this is partly to do with my love-hate relationship with England, while it always has been and always will be my home, so much about it makes me want to never think of it again.  Yet the wildness of the Lakes has escaped my scorn and rejection, its raw beauty is undeniable and as separated from humanity as the land in this overpopulated island ever can be.

Most foreigners (and a lot of Brits) have never heard of the Lakes, and almost all of them couldnt point to it on a map.  Nestled up on the border with Scotland, it is as far removed from the stereotypical rolling hills of southern England as it is from the jungles of Borneo.  Perhaps that's why Cumbrians feel more of a kinship with the Scots than we do with our London countrymen.  It has long been the inspiration and spiritual home of poets, writers and artists, those sensitive enough to appreciate its ancient grandeur and dispassionate wildness.  And yet they are not the guardians of this precious isolated savage landscape, that role is left to the farming families who scrape and scratch a living from its harsh unforgiving slopes.  This is a place that does not accept incomers easily, I was born and raised here but wouldnt class myself as properly Cumbrian because my parents are not from the area.

Cumbria is one of the last homes of the rare (and super cute) red squirrel
Although it is an area with a facade of tourism, farming is still the throbbing pulsating life force of the county.  The foot-and-mouth disease epidemic of 2001 wounded and scarred communities, families, livelihoods and lives.  I was 12 then, and every time I smell certain types of disinfectant it still takes me back to the disinfectant mats that were laid on the road to try and stop the spread of infection.  I can still see the smoke billowing from the pyres of burning animals, still feel the oppression of death and sorrow thick in the summer air.  I sincerely hope that this time was the closest I will ever come to living in a war zone.  It might sound odd and overdramatic, but the impact that disease and the half a million slaughtered animals had was unimaginable.

Sally in the snow!
 And yet some of my favourite childhood memories are wrapped up in this land as well.  Summer days lying in the short spiky fellside grass above Lake Ullswater, with nothing but the blue sky and the skylarks for company.  The incredible brightness of the spring green leaves gradually fading to the hues of autumn as I walked in cool leafy woods.  The sound of my kayak cutting through the still waters of the lake, the mysterious shroud of mist slowly rising to reveal the bracken cloaked valleys and bare mountaintops.  Adventuring up the river in the height of summer, cool dark water up to my thighs with the dogs happily splashing along with me.  The exhilaration of snow days in winter, sledging and snowmen and the pure joy of living.

I could talk forever about this place.  I love it, not just for its unquenchable wildness and its uncompromising permanence, I love it because it soothes me.  It calms me and grounds me and revitalises me.  All my worries and cares cannot even murmur a complaint when Im on a mountaintop or othewise immersed in this landscape.  It makes me sad that I have so few pictures of this stunning place.  Despite its timelessness, not even the shadows ever look the same twice.

"Keep close to Nature's heart...and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean." John Muir

I cannot wait to leave England far far behind me, but I am so thankful and glad to know that this place will forever be ingrained upon my soul.

The bed has arrived!

My bed has arrived!  Tried it in the van today...and it fits! MASSIVE sigh of relief... Im really pleased with it.

This is it folded up.  It has these neat little things I cant describe that stick out of one bit into another bit to stop it coming open when you dont want it to.

And so you lift those things out of their holes...slide it out magically...and TA DA! Bed time.

Please note that these carpets represent my grandmother's taste in home decor... and not my own!

Old-fashioned bleeding-hearts

I have been avoiding writing this week because I didnt want to write about Bin Laden's death, but all week I havent been able to think of anything which is more worthy of comment.

I love Lindsay Mead's take on recent events at A Design So Vast .  Some things are best expressed through the eyes of a child.

England is consumed by Spring.  Plants and flowers are bursting into the freshest, brightest shades of colour imaginable.  I adore the old-fashioned bleeding-hearts that grow in my grandma's garden in the springtime.  Lambs skip and grow fat on the lush grass.  Swallows dart through the cool hazy spring sunshine.

Our world is a world of contrasts.  It is easy to lose the beauty of a spring day amongst the gravity of world events.  And it is even easier to lose our sense of responsibility and connection on a global scale amongst the minutae of everyday life.

This world confuses, amazes, hurts and inspires me. And always the world keeps turning, whether we are on board or not.

Accountability...mumble grumble grr

Today is the last day of my 11 day break from work, and as I am feeling all moral and accountable I think I should share my holiday target progress.  The targets I previously stated were...

  1. Get the bed I have ordered - FAIL.  Hadnt really considered the mass of bank holidays we have just had and the lack of courier service opening days.  BUT...I am going to arrange for it to be picked up on Friday so this is not a genuine setback.
  2. Get the plywood panels to make the furniture - FAIL.  BUT...I have done something better - I have almost finished taking the very complicated measurements and making templates for all the various curved shapes I will need to make my furniture.  Really there is no point in buying the panels until I have the templates anyway, and I have done some research into the various panel options available.
  3. Fit the electrics for the leisure battery, lighting and plugs - ACHIEVED.  This has been achieved mainly because I changed plan, I am using the existing lighting and just switching to LED bulbs.  I am using a hookup with plug sockets which I have ordered and which has arrived (and is very heavy).
So yeh Im happy with that.  1 fail which really doesnt matter, 1 success and 1 poorly defined target which I have actually surpassed without actually meeting the goal.  Note to self...must set more appropriate targets!

Not so happy about going back to work tomorrow though, it has actually been nice weather in England these past 11 days so I have spent most of the holiday sunbathing.  I dont want to go back into the dark prison of office life.  Sigh.  One day...

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