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From Portugal, Then and Now


After the transporting experience of a month in New Zealand, last January (was it only five months ago?) we were plunged into a winter and spring of pandemic and as I burrowed into home and our “pod,” isolating to stay safe, I have been reading widely and deeply, but not able to do much writing… until recently.

Perhaps the summer solstice has set me free to write again. Certainly time by magnificent Lake Michigan

has done its magic. As I’ve immersed myself in 17th century Portugal, I want to credit two contemporary bloggers from Portugal. The first is “auglhas da meri” a blog about Portugese embroidery by fiber artist Meri Almeida, in Porto, Portugal. Her lovely work and deep knowledge of embroidery have been an inspiration and a fountain of knowledge. She writes in both Portugese and English and hosts a world-wide community of embroiderers. You can find Meri here .

And then there is Madeleine Forbes, a young English woman who now lives in central Portugal on an off-the-grid small holding where she farms, writes and inspires with her newsletter The Seasoned Year. You can learn more here..

With her permission, I have shared her most recent letter, which spoke deeply to me of the unrest and concern with its visceral correlates that I have also been feeling. It grieves me that this is the world that faces our young people, but Madeleine’s willingness to “Move into the future, hearts open, eyes wide,” gives me hope.

It’s a week since the solstice; somehow I blinked and we’re already in the waning of the year. I hope you’ll forgive the tardiness of this letter; perhaps if you also let the moment fly by, you’ll accept that all timing is right timing.

Kairos, I’m running on these days, outside the strict tick tock of chronos hours. It’s playful here in time-out-of-time. Hours expand while weeks fly by. And while boring grown up me grumbles obediently about the passing of the year — where did May go, can you believe it’s almost July already? – another part of me delights in the stretchy strangeness of these times. Past, future, present all merge, and tricksters appear at every angle.

Outside of time I may be, but solstice chimes like a bell. Slices through dimensions to call me back to the here and now. The heat is here, and the emotion too, that energy of peak, of overspill, a sense that the year has burst its banks before the light begins to drain away.

Life and death intensify. Last weekend we celebrated Elias’s third birthday. A dear friend marked the anniversary of her mother’s death. I see the plants bursting into flower, knowing that they do so because the lengthening days tell them it’s time to reproduce before the end. The virus has driven me to live more intensely, to question more closely, knowing that life is precious. That one day it will end.

And I’m grieving other things, too. The new temperature records at the Arctic circle, telling us we’re marching inexorably towards tipping points of the systems that sustain us. Remembering that we’ll need more resilience, not less, as the climate crisis intensifies and the systems we told ourselves so long we could control begin to unleash their wildness, their wrath.

It’s only in the past few days I’ve been able to put my finger on what’s unsettled me most. The rapidity and gravity of our response to the pandemic showed me how much it’s possible to change, when lives are at stake. For a few brief weeks there, it wasn’t “business as usual.” Despite the inconvenience and the economic turmoil, we agreed collectively that the sacrifice was worth it. And yet, really, we are already in a state of emergency. Facing incalculable loss of life. Our planet is heading rapidly towards a shift from the benign conditions humans have evolved to live in, to one which calls into question the future of our species. Of my children and theirs.

Why has this not happened sooner, I want to rage. Why have profits been more important than people, why has power been more important than kindness, why have we extracted and exploited every living thing we could, when all along we had this choice? When they lied, and told us nothing could be different?

Our reaction to an immediate threat exposed the barefaced lie that change isn’t possible. It exposed the hypocrisy of the politicians and businesses who tell us how much they “value” our earth, and yet who continue to maintain and defend the systems that are destroying it, ruthlessly and efficiently.

And it highlighted the vast inequality that fuels so many of our lives, the measure by which some lives are viewed as expendable and others precious.

I’m thrilled at the uprisings against white supremacy, at the call for those of us who’ve profited from slavery and colonialism to take responsibility, to reckon with our actions, to engage seriously with the question of how to make amends.

I’m conscious of the modern day slavery that continues, that will drive so much of the “economic recovery” we are told is needed. Of the Bangladeshi garment workers who will starve unless we return to paying them a pittance to make our “fast fashion”, garments spun from petroleum plastic, destined for landfill.

How can we possibly consider such a system the best our brilliant brains can devise? How can we crave a return to such a “normal”?

And the sorrow has struck me all over again. The sadness at what we could have done to change things, and what is now too late to do.

On the longest day we gathered at a friend’s place. The kids ran riot on the dusty dance floor, spiralling in overexcited circles, tumbling on top of one another.

In the heat of the afternoon I swam in the green river, remembering the years gone by when I lived so close to it a daily dip was mandatory by June. Now we live higher up the valley my swims are rarer; more precious as a result. The ripples mesmerised me, dappled shade of leaves mirroring the water’s waves as I sank in. I lowered myself slowly, thighs, belly, shoulders, feeling the cold water close over me.

Dipping my head took the breath from me, but it felt like a benediction. I let go my rage and fear and grief, all the mass of trouble that’s accumulated since the shortest day back in December. I’ve given birth since then, I’ve laughed and cried, I’ve worked and played and soothed and lost control. I think I can say I wouldn’t change a thing.

I’m learning to slow down and move towards discomfort; I’m trying to see failures as portals of opportunity; I’m asking if the chaos and turmoil might be something I can learn to trust instead of fear. I danced barefoot and watched the sun sink behind the trees.

These are turbulent times. The river is flowing fast now. I think it might serve us to loosen our grip a bit, and let the current take us. To recognise that so much of the stability was really an illusion. Our comfort came at the expense of so many. Perhaps it’s time we were disrupted a little bit, discovered what might lie on the other side of “normal”. Move into the future, hearts open, eyes wide.

Wishing you a glorious solstice,

Love

Madeleine