At this time of year, in the run up to equinox, the natural world is pregnant with anticipation. Imbolc, which falls at the beginning of February, is said to mark the point when the ewes begin to lactate. As the ice of winter melts, the snowdrops bravely peak up from the forest floor, expectant. Waiting for spring. The Crone aspect of the Triple Goddess, that fell asleep at winter, is waking up anew, dusting the snow off her skin, as a Maiden again. And, in the Christian tradition, it is a time of Lent, waiting for the death and resurrection of Easter.
I too, experienced that nearly-not quite feeling, as I waited to start, and then to end, my long journey home after almost a month on the other side of the world. As my work trip drew to its close, I longed to see friends and family, to sit on my sofa at home and be reacquainted with the shifting Northern hemisphere seasons. Somehow, the fact that it was so close to happening, made that sense of expectancy and impatience worse. Traveling is full of these nearly-not quite moments: waiting in yet another airport departure lounge, anticipating the next destination on one’s itinerary and that always painfully slow journey between the airport and home after a flight. Julie Gibbons, in her wonderful year long online self inquiry program, Mandala Magic, names this inner and outer season “bliss.” I imagine it as that semi-comatose state before the dawn; half awake-half dreaming beneath pink skies. So often, though, I don’t experience it as “bliss”, but frustration. Waiting for a plane to land and wanting it to hurry up; landing, and cursing the fact that my luggage hasn’t yet entered the belt. Is it really possible to experience these nearly-not quite moments as “bliss”?
Before my work travels, I spent a weekend in Wales, climbing Tryfan with my sweetheart. As I began the climb, I felt joyful to be in North Wales (my spiritual home) again, out in nature and beneath bright skies. The first part of the walk was easy, and I noticed with delight the patches of melting snow on green grass and melting ice flowing down rocks. Even better, watching the ice closest to the rock face melt, whilst a hard external layer continued to cling on. Then, we started to scramble and my attention returned fully to my body. As a part time boulderer, my heart raced joyfully as I pulled myself up the rocks. We had a rest and snack and then continued. And continued. And continued again. The bottom of the mountain had felt like Imbolc: winter melting. But as we climbed, these rocks had on their overcoat of snow and worse, slippery ice. Winter daylight hours are sparse, meaning we had to quicken our pace and get off before dark. And the delight of the earlier climb was replaced by creeping anxiety. Seeing the summit, I had a nearly-not quite notion that we were close. But I was wrong. The climb continued and conditions worsened. There were some precarious moments climbing over huge snow-covered rocks, without slipping. Again, a nearly-not quite moment of joy as I saw the summit. And again I was mistaken. This happened over and over.
By the time, we did indeed reach the summit, I could barely look at it, concentrating instead on the long walk down ice covered boulders. The low level anxiety had transformed into fear. I felt so scared of slipping. I didn’t want to move. But as the darkness crept into the skies, we had to get down and off Tryfan. For the first few hours, I needed the comfort of my sweetheart walking a head, advising where to step. And then, it was possible to slide down the snow on my bottom. She definitely served me well, as I rushed down as fast as possible. At that point, as we headed towards the lake in the valley, I still thought we could fully get off and camp down at the bottom. A joyful nearly-not quite feeling as we began to see lights: we were almost there. By then, it was black. Water crept over our shoes, and we couldn’t work out how to walk through what seemed like bog. So we camped. The next morning, looking out in the light, I was shocked to see we had been by a river, not bog, and it was still a long walk down a staircase of ice-covered rocks. I was so glad we’d stopped the night before, and not rushed on towards those comforting nearly-not quite lights.
My travel home was not dissimilar. I was unwell the whole journey to the airport, but eager to get on and back home. As soon as I’m back home, I thought, I’ll be fine again. Ignoring the sickness, I marched on, through the check in, through security, through to the gate. Then I was on the plane. I felt so happy. I was nearly-not quite home, where everything would be fine again. It was not to be. The airline, noting my sickness, didn’t want me to fly, and, with my head hung in shame and disappointment, I made my way back off the plane. They explained that I would need a “fit to fly certificate” from the hospital. I went to the airport clinic, and they provided me with the necessary medicine. Being past midnight, I slept. The next day, I spent three hours waiting at the city hospital and finally saw a doctor. During this time, I listened to to Krista Tippett’s interview with the leader of Corrymeela, Padraig O Tuama, where they pondered this line of David Wagoner’s poem, “Lost:”
“Wherever you are in called Here
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger.”
What I like about those lines are that they don’t pretend that “here” is always a pleasant place to be. In that moment, I didn’t want to be “here,”but “there”: home. Still, I tried to stay with the present. The people all sitting and patiently waiting for the doctor that hasn’t yet even arrived, the step of doctors and nurses on the corridor. I don’t want to be “here”, I thought. I need comfort. Does staying in the present mean I shouldn’t put my earphones or earplug in, and cancel out the clamour of public spaces? No, I thought. Staying present to what is, is not mutually exclusive from seeking the comfort of beauty – silence, music or nature – during stressful times. We don’t have to endure the stress and strain of a present situation, overstimulated, in order to stay present to it. But, we do have to maintain an awareness of what is, whilst wrapped within whatever comforting blanket we’ve surrounded ourselves with. Checking in with the body and the breath, is, in my experience, also a short cut to grounding oneself in the present. Daydreaming about the future desired state, in times of nearly-not quite, has the potential to increase our suffering, particularly if (and when) things don’t go to plan.
I am home now, and well. But have continued to ponder how best to deal with these nearly-not quite moments, staying present to what is without losing the joy of anticipation. I don’t want to write some clichéd post about staying in the present moment, given my lived experiences about nearly-not quite. Sometimes, the desired future state – in my case home – can be a comfort and a motivator. Yet, if that’s all we are focused upon, not only do we miss the present moment with its mixture of wonder and drudgery, we also increase our own suffering when things take longer than desired or expected. The Alexander Technique, a mind-bodywork, designed to improved the way we use our bodies, holds within it, the philosophic kernel required in our nearly-not quite moments. Much of a lesson is spent standing up and then sitting upon a chair. Most people are inclined to focus their intention on the chair when going from standing to sitting down. But, through this “end gaining”, we can fail to use our bodies efficiently and store up future health problems. Instead, we are taught to think about the “means whereby”: “neck free, head to go forward and up, back to lengthen and widen”. Similarly, when going into a squat (or “Monkey”) in order to pick up a fallen pen, it is easy to strain towards the item, rather than maintaining our core. And again, we are taught to consider the “means whereby”, instead of just going for the pen. That said, without the chair or the pen, there would be no stimulus for action. This philosophy can be applied to life. In our nearly-not quite moments, the future – be it home or the summit of a mountain – provides us with a stimulus to action. Yet, whilst moving towards our destination, giving due consideration to the means whereby, each moment to the next, rather than getting fixated on the future, prevents unnecessary suffering and facilitates a state of greater “bliss.” In the same way, as we await the official start of spring, with the equinox, let’s fully enjoy these last few days of nearly-not quite and winter melting into spring.