Another gap year

Ha! I seem to be on another gap year. Physical energy is now much better but I’m only inching back towards more writing/publishing/posting. Not there yet.

A very interesting process in terms of what seems to be about clearing the decks for something new: not only without my conscious volition but pretty much against my strong resistance… hence some trouble!

Maybe I’ll write about that one day…

Till then, love to all!

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A gap year

I’ve been struggling with health issues for about a year. Some kind of post-viral tiredness that’s left me unable to do my usual stuff – like write, meditate, or look after my website… And also therefore some kind of transformation that has stripped me of a lot of the aspects of self that I identified with. Useful, I guess, but not particularly enjoyable. Still, how the unknown emerges will always be in its own way.

So it looks from the date on my last post like I’ve had a gap year. Given I’m feeling a lot better (like maybe 75%) I’m hoping to resume some (presumably different) relationship with the world and you. Let’s see what happens…

 

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Radical Lover

Thich Nhat Hanh says that if we wish to manifest love and compassion for others, we must first be able to love ourselves. Our capacity to love others is limited, in effect, by the extent to which we can also love ourselves.
How might we do this? Some of his meditation practices demonstrate ways and means. We can sit in meditation and go through a body scan, smiling at, and appreciating, each part of our bodies.
Have you ever expressed love for your liver? Do you even know where your liver is? But it does vital work for you, keeping you alive! Surely it’s worthy of a little love now and then?

Here’s a poem to complement the teachings:

Radical lover

He searches out all parts of himself
and loves them.
He searches out his flaws and his failings
and loves them.
The parts others do not like,
the parts he does not like,
he loves them.
His spasming back, his decaying knee,
his secret shames, his worrying mind,
he searches them out and loves them.
No part too bad,
no part too small,
for love.

Too late, too old, now, for change, for improvement.
Too long the wait now for someone else to love them.
No saint exists that holy, that perceptive.

Only he, radical lover, can do the work.
Only the Radical Lover can do this work.

 
The poem says that only you can do the work of radical love on your own being. Don’t wait for anyone else to do it, because they cannot know the intimate details of your being. Only you can know them.
And don’t just wait for any parts you don’t like to change. You may wait for ever. Go to the root, and be radical, and love yourself as far down as you can get.
And in doing this work you do change. You become skilled at radical loving – skilled enough to move occasionally beyond your normal self and become a manifestation of a universal Radical Lover.
Go on. Just do it!

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Holy places

Holy places make it easier to feel holy.
Sit in an empty church and the atmosphere of devotion usually makes it easier to be in touch with your own holiness within you.
It’s not guaranteed: you can come out of a church as busy in your mind as when you went in.
But neither is a holy place required. Your connection to that which is beyond your everyday mind is within you. Your holiness is within you.
Holy places, like churches, or temples, or monasteries, can support you. But so, in the right circumstances, can an empty bus station or a park bench by the dustbins or a bridge over the motorway in the twilight.
I hope that you may be a little more in touch with your own holiness wherever you find yourself.
Sometimes all it takes is a few minutes of calm reflection to be more in touch with that which is deeper within us.
Sometimes, in a surprise to us, we are also granted a few moments of revelation, and the world never quite looks the same again.
Here’s an account of one of those moments of insight.

East London was not a monastery

On my way to a monastery in Germany
I stopped off in East London.
As I entered a coffee shop there
I knew that a monastery was a monastery
and that East London was not a monastery.

I sat in a window seat
with my daughter and her friend
working quietly on their laptops alongside
soft music playing
cake and coffee before me.

I watched the busy street outside.
I saw some people hurrying and others dawdling.
I saw them working towards joy.
I saw them living according to their values
and loving each other as best they could.

I could not see that East London was not a monastery.

Instead I saw my own error
for now I knew that the world before me
was a special kind of monastery
and the monastery I was going to
was a special kind of world.

I wept quietly at the ending of my error
for the ending of my error was the joyful start
of my living in a monastery
wherever I was.

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This morning’s stillness

When we go within ourselves no-one else can see what’s happening there. If we want to know what someone else’s inner experience is like then we have to rely on their reports.

Meditation is a particular kind of ‘going within’, and while there are lots of sets of instructions and guidance on how to meditate, reports of actual experiences are less common.

In case it is useful to you, here’s a report from me – this morning’s meditation report:

I sat outside in the early morning, wrapped up in blankets to keep warm. This morning was a very cloudy, grey English morning.

I was aware of noises and activity around me: the birds fluttering, the cool of the breeze on my cheeks, noises from the farm across the fields.

As I went inward, I was aware of various activities within – memories of childhood, plans for the day, mild political ranting, echoes of things said yesterday, a dream from last night.

After a tricky and confused period of negotiating my way past these by returning to my awareness of my body and my breathing, I gradually came to a sense of stillness. This was both a little familiar, and a little fresh, unusual. The stillness was tentative, and easily disturbed. I noticed that tiny shifts in my awareness could stimulate little surges in feeling which would knock me off balance.

It’s often my practice in meditation to allow words to arise in the process and shape themselves, with some help from me, into a poem. When the poem is formed as a whole in my mind, I write it down.

This morning these words formed themselves into this poem about this morning’s stillness. Here it is for you now, very fresh!

I hope your own meditation enables you to find your own version of this morning’s stillness.

This morning’s stillness

Sitting in the world this morning
the world flutters around me
in bird wings and breezes and nodding flowers

while, within me, I descend past
the flutterings of my mind
to find a level of stillness

that is not the stillness
of a table or a bowl of fruit

but the stillness of a vortex
the stillness of a gyroscope
the stillness of constant flux
finding a pattern and holding it

for a while until it collapses,
until I collapse,
back into flux,

and then, descending past the flux,
I find that pattern of stillness
reforming itself
again and again.

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Bringing Better Benefit

Came across someone the other day who really didn’t ‘get’ meditation. They thought it was essentially indulgent, and an alternative to action.
When I thought about it I realised that there’s a little part of me that thinks the same! And that when I’m with people who don’t meditate I mostly stay silent on the subject because I’m a bit embarrassed about it.
So here, for the benefit of all, is some holybloke chapter and verse on the relationship between meditation and action, showing not only that they are not alternatives, not only that meditation is not separate from action, but also that meditation is essential for effective action. Yes!

When we meditate, particularly if we do it regularly over a long period of time, we get in touch with a deeper, clearer part of ourselves.

• From that place of greater clarity we are more likely to know what we are called to do in the world.
• From that place, we are more likely to see how the world is working and where we can intervene effectively to make a difference.
• From that place, we are more likely to know what we realistically can do, and what we realistically cannot do. We neither batter ourselves to a standstill over the immoveable, nor back off in fear from the overcomeable.

We are more likely to know the difference between action that is like a lot of froth on top of a coffee (a lot of fuss about nothing very much), and action that is like the coffee beneath: strong, flavoursome, particular, sometimes sweet, sometimes bitter.

No meditator I know meditates to avoid action in the world: either personal action, or wider community action. Every meditator I know brings a certain presence, a certain indefineable depth, with them into the world and into whatever they do. Whatever they do.

Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Bhuddist teacher, meditates a lot, for example. Not just sitting meditation, but walking meditation, eating meditation, washing up meditation, going to the toilet meditation… He’s basically in meditation mode most of the time. What an enormous beneficial impact he has had on the world!

One of my favourite pieces of advice from him is this: ‘You should meditate for half an hour every day except when you are really busy. Then you should meditate for an hour!’

And here’s a poem that emerged for me a while back that addresses this issue:

Bringing better benefit

how deeply we apprehend reality
how close we come to God
how aware we become of all
how far we open our hearts to love

will shape the results
of our actions in the world

if we deepen the place from which we act
we bring better benefit to all

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As with dog, so with meditation

It’s a common, standard, ‘problem’ in meditation. There you are, meditating happily away, and a distracting force – for example anger – comes up. What do you do? Classic answer: as little as possible. You become aware of it, and then let it go. You are practising non-attachment: not suppressing, but not getting caught in it either.

Sometimes this works for me, but sometimes it really doesn’t! The truth is I’m curious about myself and want to know more. And sometimes parts of me really want to be better known! They keep coming up more and more forcefully. How to handle this?

I like watching ‘The Dog Whisperer’ on TV. Cesar Milan is a truly extraordinary teacher – of dogs, for sure, but also of people. This example caught my attention. He was instructing someone about how to handle difficult dog behaviour. He threw in this advice, pretty casually: “Imagine the dog behaviour you’re trying to correct is on a scale of 1-10. Scale 1-5 you ignore it; scale 5 -10 you gotta deal with it.”

Wow! That makes so much sense. If you pay attention to minor stuff the risk is you get caught up in it. If you fail to deal with major stuff  the risk is it takes you over.

As with dog, so with meditation.

So now I’m experimenting with this guidance. Minor irritation – notice and let go. Big anger and fury: move into a different mode of inner work. Stuff in the middle: judgement call one way or the other.

The different mode of handling big anger? Well that will have to wait for another post. In the meantime here is a poem on anger that emerged in a meditation session.

Whose anger do you trust?

I know a guy who’s spent a lifetime
transmuting anger (and other stuff) into love and compassion.
I like him. I trust him. I’m a little bit like him.

I know some other guys
who’ve tried to do the same but failed.
Instead they fake it:
the compassion, the spiritual presence.
Their anger is shunted off within and buried
but it leaks out in a smeary kind of way.
I quite like them. I don’t trust them. I’m a bit like them.

I met a guy once who deliberately drove his car
as close as he could to my bike to express his anger.
I caught him up at the lights and we had an argument.
I don’t like him. I’d like to beat his head in.
I don’t trust him, but he’s not a fake.
I’m a bit like him.

I’m this guy whose anger comes and goes.
who tries to transmute it into love
and sometimes succeeds and sometimes fails.
Whose anger gets in the way.
Whose anger makes the way possible.
I mostly like him. I mostly trust him.
I’m a lot like him.

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The voices of contraction

Sometimes the voices of contraction speak very loudly in us. Those voices assume that being shrunken, fearful, and anxious is the only option. It’s a painful place to be.

Do you recognise these voices? Do they speak in your life?

Here’s an example of what it’s like for me.

I’m a trustee of a charity. Recently the organisation’s finances have meant we have had to face difficult decisions impacting on people’s jobs. There has been a lot of conflict and strong feelings on all sides. The voices on the outside have been echoed in my own internal conflicts over what is the correct course of action.

The situation has triggered a strong contracting response in me. I’ve been more stressed, shrunken and fearful than normal. In that space my usual capacity to meditate, to write, to be open, to connect, has been curtailed.

Another way to describe this is to say that I’ve been in a mess! I did at least know I was in a mess, and I was working to get beyond the mess. The trouble is that in that place the voices of contraction are very strong. It’s so easy to stay bogged down.

I should also say that despite my fear, I have also been able to access my more forceful energy and drive forward the difficult decisions I knew were needed. We’re in the area of fight or flight here.

This recent experience of the voices of contraction was only the latest in a long line for me.

Here’s how I wrote about it one previous time:

How to enjoy the voices of contraction

The voices of contraction may be very loud.
Round the table confusion reigns.
In the democracy of your being
fear and neediness may carry the majority vote.

Invite the Buddha to the table.
He may say nothing but his presence brings calm.
From that space the way forward becomes clear.
Even the voices of contraction may start to sing.

 

The poem says that when we get stuck in contraction we may need ‘outside’ help because it’s so hard, if not impossible, to extract ourselves from a place of contraction from within that contraction. An analogy would be that we are bogged down in a quicksand and the more we struggle with it, the deeper in we go. We become obsessed with the anxiety and that makes us more anxious, which increases the obsession, which then…

The suggested move (the ‘turn’) is that we invite the Buddha in.
It doesn’t have to be the Buddha. It could be whatever has meaning and strength for you: a vision of nature, the image of Jesus, angels, the faces of your children. It could be that you talk to your friends about the situation and they bring that sense of Buddha nature, or God, or equanimity, to you. Another way of saying this is that we step beyond the confines of the immediate (relative) truth and connect a little with the absolute.

Then who knows what will happen? You’ve brought a step change to the situation. It doesn’t guarantee a ‘solution’ but something different starts to happen. To continue the analogy with quicksand – when people get bogged down in the quicksands of Morecambe Bay near where I live, the rescuers have a special bit of kit. They poke a nozzle down next to your trapped legs and pump air or water in and that releases the tight grip of the quicksand, and out you come.

Maybe as the hovercraft scoots back across the sands you can all start singing with relief.

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Pondering the urge to be egotistical

‘What about me!’

Ever wanted to shout that? Or at least whisper it so no one will quite hear?

For most of us, that urge pops up from time to time. Perhaps when we’re feeling low in the middle of the night. Or feeling low in the middle of someone else getting praised…

So, perfectly normal –

But what to do?

Ignore it?
Usually the urge just comes back sometime soon and you have the same problem.

Repress it thoroughly?
It comes back but in sneaky and unforeseen ways.

Avoid doing anything that might make people think you’re egotistical, even if you’re not?
Hmmm. It’ll still come, but you will have wasted your talents in the meantime. Still, kudos for an attempt at noble (but ineffective) self-sacrifice.

I recommend
not those ways but this way: welcome the urge and study it. Give yourself a private space to play with it. Amplify it and let it manifest in the world in a way that gives you and that urge a chance to get to know each other. Be friendly. Be creative. Have fun.

In the end that egotistical urge will transform. Because if you practise enough, everything transforms into something more useful, into something less likely to trigger your suffering, or others’ suffering. Exactly what it transforms into for you is part of the great unknown.

We might think about the reasons for doing this kind of transformation work. We might say it’s because, underneath, we are all great people with wonderful stuff to offer the world and we don’t help anyone if we hold back through a (false) fear of being seen as egotistical. And that’s true.

But there’s another reason beyond that.

I invite you to pause a moment, take a breath or two, and then read this poem to check out a suggestion. Maybe you’ll agree.

‘Look at me!’

Fear of being seen as egoic
can make us run away
from our talents, our life, our obligations.

We can lock our ego safely in a box.
But in that sacrificial prison we also lock up
our songs and our poems
and the wings
that we need to spread in order to soar.

From a dead space comes death, mostly.

Only if we know how our self inflates
can we know how to let ourselves
expand with love for all.

Only if we know how we sing our own praises
can we know how to compose hymns
to the glory of all that is.

Only if we know how we say ‘Look at me’
can we know how to say
‘Look at all this, and rejoice.’

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Two Christmas poems for you – and you – and You

My sixty-first Nowell

At midwinter, bearing my gifts,
I set off in search of you and peace.

The first church I tried was locked
with an apologetic note pinned to the door.
I sat on a bench in the pale sunshine
and tried to open to you.
The heat of your star entered me
and warmed my frozen heart a little
so that I knew I was not as alone as I believed.

The second church I tried was open
but full of mourners for a funeral.
I felt there was no room inside for me
so I stood at a distance and watched
as the coffin was lifted from the hearse.
Your breeze fluttered the vicar’s surplice
then, as it passed by me, breathed on me
so that I knew I was not as deathless as I believed.

Under the broad tent of the midwinter sky
I took my gifts and journeyed home
where I tried to open myself to your presence.
A joyful old woman appeared to me
and helped me give birth to a future self
the one with two thousand years of devoted practice
who stood before me and looked upon me
with infinite love and the understanding of the ages
so that I knew I cannot help but live more in that likeness.

These were my gifts at Christmas.
These I now pass on to you, dear readers, with love.

 

Gifts of Christmastide

What happens if we sit and open to the presence of God?
If we really sit, really open?
What happens?

What happens if we sit and open to you, God,
beloved, friend? What happens?

An infinite number of paths appear,
a million moments streaming forward
twisting, braiding, forming the future.

Amongst the infinite, here’s a path
that appears one Christmastide
as I sit with you all.

A rush of feeling shoots up my body and springs from my eyes.

Then you are here with me, within me.
There is no love so loving
no innocence so innocent.
There is no purity so pure
no sweetness so sweet.

You are the spirit of my children when they were little,
infinitely creative, playful, trusting,
writ large within me and around me.

I let you come and now I let you go.
I cannot hold on to you
for that is not how it is.

I am birth in every moment.
I am the gifts of Christmastide
here shared and spread and multiplied.

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Irritate, how you irritate me!

Irritate, how you irritate me!
At four in the morning, my legs ache with you
my guts writhe with you.
And you’re not even here.
You’re just an image in my mind
and a voice endlessly whining and complaining
while I endlessly replay scenes real and imagined.
You are my Teacher
and I bow to you in gratitude.

Wrestle, how I wrestle with you!
Our prolonged struggle
forces smugness and complacency from my being.
I’m desperate to pin the whining and the ignorance
on you, over there, out there,
somewhere else, on a bad person.
But you force me to look within
and find you there
find me there.
I submit, I admit you.
You win, you win.
You are my Teacher
and I bow to you in gratitude.

Up my nose, how you get up my nose!
You probe away at my equanimity
and it cracks under the strain.
You test my compassion and find it wanting.
Your obsessive presence shatters
my self-satisfied self-image
and reveals my pettiness
in all its small-minded glory.
You are my Teacher
and I bow to you in gratitude.

Resist, how I resist your lessons!
You, and all the other irritating Teachers I dislike
waiting out there to bring the next lesson
exposing what I need to see
challenging me to face up to the truth.
All available, any time, all free,
all perfectly attuned to my weaknesses.
I bow to you in gratitude.

This poem and the next three are a selection of poems I read out at a Buddhist family retreat I taught at in Dorset recently. This one is especially for Liz, who liked it so much!

 

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All that I utter

I apologise in advance for what I am about to say
because all that I utter is less than God.

The bread that I bake
and the cakes I provide:
the ingredients include chaff, and a little grit.

As a jeweller, the gold rings that I make
carry a tiny stamp:
also contains fool’s gold.

Welcome to my living room.
It’s warm and comfortable.
Did I mention the hawk?
He’s not really tame.

This sheet of paper has a watermark.
Hold it up to the light and see:
‘Shot through with limitations, frailties, and stuff.’

I apologise for what I have just said.
All that I utter is less than God.

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A recipe for happiness

when beauty arises from your being
be happy with that
when ugliness arises from your being
be happy with that
when nothing arises from your being
be happy with that

when the world says yes
be happy with that
when the world says no
be happy with that
when the world says nothing
be happy with that

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A regular heart check-up

I was running up the hill and my heart was pounding.
I became concerned and so I checked out my heart.

‘Is this too much?’ I asked. ‘Are you OK.’

‘I love it’, my heart answered with laughter.
‘I like hard work. I love a good burn-up.
I was made to run, and sing, and dance.
I come from a long line of ancestors
who like their people to run around.’

‘When I came into this life with you
we raced into it together as fully as we could.
We had such fun.’

‘Please don’t leave me to slump in a chair
or vegetate by a screen.
I get sad and lonely, and fed-up.
Then I give up, and then I die.’

‘And by the way, when I die, so do you.’

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Green Man’s hard task

Green Man prowling in the woods at midwinter.
Green Man dodging through the dripping trees.
Green Man alert, pausing to scent the air.

‘If I were a Christian, I would be sitting by a crib.
If I were a Quaker, I would be sitting quietly
opening to that of God within.
If I were a Sufi mystic, I would be dancing
crying out to God ‘Where can I find you now?’

‘But I am the Green Man
and I will not shirk today’s hard task.’

Green Man dressed in midwinter clothes.
Green Man shaggy with ivy, prickled all over with holly.
Green Man berries are white, Green Man berries are red.

Green Man explores his beloved’s body.
There is no part of her that he does not love
no part of her that does not inflate him with desire.

Her trees are infinitely branched
her bark is infinitely grained.
She drips with moisture, her streams run wet.

Her cover is gone, she is naked at midwinter;
she is quiescent and sleepy at midwinter.

When he is huge enough to match her
he knows her.
They have come together again.

The taste of her leaf mould is on his lips.
The scent of earth is in his nostrils.

Green Man is empty, and she is full.
All that is new for this year is springing in her.

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Dark truth

I love this dark grey dusk of midwinter.
Trees, bushes, path, people
all disappearing around me into the gloaming.

I have survived the darkest that the year can get
and I live, still.

Tomorrow will be lighter
and the day after more so.
It is easy to celebrate this
and I do so celebrate.

In six months will I celebrate with equal joy
my survival of the lightest day
and welcome the increasing dark in my life?

On the far side of that difficult celebration
lies equanimity.
On this side of it lies separation
from the truth of the light
and the truth of the dark.

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The Soul

From childhood I knew that the soul
was a diaphanous version of the body
(pretty well two-dimensional like the sole of a shoe)
that left the body on the ground when it died
and went up to heaven while angels hovered, praying.

Now someone I trust has told me
that my soul is my inner life.

You could have knocked me down with a feather.

So I went into my inner life and checked it out:
‘Are you really my soul?’
My inner being smiled and said,
‘My names are legion.
What actually counts is how well you know me.
You can call me soul, if you like,
but don’t confuse me with chicken soup, or music.’

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In your absence, my Beloved, all is dull

In your absence, my Beloved, all is dull, and I am bereft.
Each day, I hunch over more, shrink more, am more puzzled.
Where have you gone, why am I alone like this again?

Have I slipped into preference again?
Am I trying to shape you in my own likeness?
Your brightness dims to me
as I pick one part of you over another.
I feel you slipping away.

You are the all
yet I have been saying I know better than you
which parts of you to welcome, and which to ignore.
I am sorry. Forgive me.

Each moment is your perfect offering
yet I think I know better than you
which moment to welcome, and which to turn away.
I am sorry. Forgive me.

Whenever I move towards shrunkenness again
may I recognise your face in that guise
and welcome you and kiss you in greeting.

May I find as much excitement in my shrinking fear
as I find in my excitement.

May I be open to you
and open to my closure to you.

To be with you, my Beloved,
may I know there is no particular way I have to be.
There is only to be, whichever way I am.

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Some clues on how to follow the path of emptiness

How can I follow the path of emptiness?
If I ride my bike down the cycle path from Bull Beck
my aim is to steer into emptiness
and avoid any entanglements with the world of form.

The cycle path keeps clear of trees and hedges
but I have to stay alert to avoid walkers and their dogs
and the occasional car crossing the path.
The world of form is not fixed but shifts, always.

Riding a bike is an exercise in mindfulness.
If I allow myself to be distracted by the beauty of the Lune
running alongside the path, I may crash.
The world of form encountered at speed is painful.

I need to be aware enough of the world of form
so that I can see the gaps in it
and steer my course of emptiness through them.
If I’m too hung up on the world of form, I’ll get stuck there.
At Denny Beck I focus on the narrow gap between the posts.
If I concentrate on the posts I’m more likely to hit them.

A few miles further on at Glasson I reach the sea
where the world of form shifts again to become fluid, uniform.
In the distance sky and sea seem to merge: they are not two.

The cycle path is over, and my bicycle does not float, but it’s OK:
the path of emptiness is always empty of a destination.

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A fresh start: moving house

Moving house feels like chaos, loosely organised.
Everything shifts.
We are moving from the familiar into the unknown.

Sitting in the new kitchen
with our friends who have helped
we are surrounded by boxes and bags
casually dumped.

In order to enjoy a hot drink and mince pies together
we must first locate the kettle and the tea
then an oven cloth and the coasters.

All that was once there is still there
but coming into a new arrangement.

In this fresh home, life may manifest anew
and great happiness is possible.

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