Finding Sanctuary

A means of stepping away when you can’t

A narrow English road, late September 1995.

The CD of Tudor court music that I bought in a small village several days ago and where the salesperson mused, “This is one of my favorites.  You will feel transported.” is playing in a portable device on the seat beside me.  The horns and strings are simple, precise; the percussion interspersed with the of jingling of bells – the imagery of dancing jesters. The skies are clear, the air warm, the windows open.  There is a breeze. Dried from summer heat, leaves are beginning to fall.  They catch in the draft of the car; wave for a moment in the rear-view mirror, and are gone. The rhythmic drum beat in the music becomes counter-point to the call of a medieval flute.  My mind conjures a lengthy table lined with revelers wearing brocade.  Velvet hats.  Candles flicker. Hounds sniff the air.  Ring embellished fingers savor elk. Deer. Game hens. Cherry tarts.

 “You will feel transported.” The road curves in a wide sleepy arc through Oxfordshire.

Mid-shaking of the notes from a tambourine, a freed horse suddenly gallops from a field on my left and into the road in front of both me and a man who is riding a bike and coming from the opposite direction.  Independently we slam on brakes to keep from interrupting the mare’s one-horse race.  The horse, at a full stride and having crossed in front of car and then bike, jumps an ancient stone wall to the right of the old Vauxhall I am driving.  As it lands in the midst of a gathering of grazing pheasants they fly into leaf-infused air – their colors blending in the sun and the dust created by the hooves of the horse. In the brilliance of the afternoon sun, it is difficult to tell leaf from bird, horse from landscape.

Bumpt…fa fa fa fa fa fa fa fa – the percussion of the hooves of the horse, the sounds of wings, the notes of flight.  The man on the bike passes my car and observes through the window, “Good show – that.”  The music of the drum, horns – flute continues; my conjured image of the revelers returns.  They clap their hands in approval of the horse’s jump and returning to their feast, look over their shoulders towards servants and motion for more food; another pouring of wine.

No cars behind me I linger on the road; listen to the music; watch the horse cross a field.  

The shop-keeper was correct. 

A chair in front of a computer, September 2019

Our lives are composed of thousands of moments every day and in the realms of beauty, love, and security we are often changed by the sensory notes of a single experience.  There are wonderous sounds, images, sensations, and words that we encounter throughout our lives that in our memories and thoughts forever remain clear and accessible.  These memories and thoughts, in future moments of need, can be called upon to lift our moods, boost our confidence, and hold and comfort our spirits when ones we have loved are not present.  The beauty of the encounter with the horse, pheasants, music, grass, dust; – my own imagination and the freedom I felt that particular day – now so long ago – has become a sanctuary of sorts for me; one of the moments of beauty and freedom I have relived in my thoughts when I have needed to escape from the darkness of any present moment. It’s important for our mental health to have a conscious few, – if not many – of these restorative memories and images. I have a notebook in a drawer beside my bed.  I keep a list of the small wonders I have encountered, the acts of kindness and forgiveness I have been shown, the things I have feared but overcome, the moments of unexpected love people have shown me.  I reread and add to the list frequently.  The notebook is a buffer, a reminder, a sanctuary, a friend, a therapist, a parent I didn’t experience, the dog I no longer have, an escape hatch, the transporter beam from the starship Enterprise.  Having reread it like a prayer many times, the individual moments have become reinforced in my memory in such a manner that I can easily access them at any moment of need.

Despite my constant efforts to remain positive and to feel confident, in the midst of a personally challenging morning last week, my thoughts were circling the anxious and shadowy future of “what-ifs” when I looked out of a window and noticed a squirrel leap from our deck and into the branches of a tree. As it landed a huge crow, who was sitting on another limb, moved into flight.

In the movement of the crow’s wings – my thoughts still clutching tightly onto a limb of “what-if” – I was reminded of my mind’s need to reset, of my mind’s need to consciously move from the darkness of the shadows I was creating by my own self-doubt and anxious and negative thoughts. 

I took a conscious breath and the mare leaped into the road and jumped the stone wall; the pheasants blended into dust and leaves and I felt my shoulders let go of the tightening of their worry-prompted preparations, my breath satisfy the needs of my lungs, my worry replaced by resolve. 

Bumpt….fa fa fa fa fa fa fa.

 Bumpt….fa fa fa fa fa fa fa. 

The tambourine sounded: bronzed leaves danced in the rear-view mirror; a man with a broad smile leaned in my direction and said, “Good show – that.’

The “what-ifs” took to the air with the crow and the pheasants.  The revelers applauded; the hounds curled back into sleep.

There are so many hard things in life, so many stairs we have to climb when we are tired.  And I am so much older than I was when I was younger.  But time, loss, challenge, our own endurance and resiliency teach us; show us – if we open our hearts and look out from our inner worlds, up from our phones, away from news, past the toxic people in our lives, and our momentary hardships – that there is beauty, safety, and personal accomplishment to be discovered in every moment; positive and loving experiences and feelings that can be stored away; used when the stairs seem insurmountable, the shadows larger than we feel we can move.

Much is said about being in the moment, of being mindful, but honestly, I sometimes find that the present moment needs an escape door.  When I haven’t been able to physically  leave the negativity of a present moment –  the staff meetings that made me want to pound my head on the table come to mind, the social events where circumstance required I be in a room with someone that cast a storm over my spirit, painful medical procedures, traffic jams, classes I didn’t feel I could endure, and the like – I have, and continue with conscious intent, to pause and breath and call upon memories, feelings, accomplishments, love, and remembered beauty from the past.  When I do this – when I call forth these images, these moments, these prayers – my spirit is carried away from the shadows of the moment and into a realm where the sun is so softening and loving that shadows wane and it becomes difficult to tell leaf from bird, horse from landscape.  

Bumpt…fa fa fa fa fa fa fa fa…

“You will feel transported.”

The best of Septembers to everyone!

Fred Swan

Hooves and Wings 24 x 24, Watercolor by Fredrick Swan