Category Archives: Travel

My heart is not here

stile-and-signpost

Jet lag is a funny thing. I got back to Tokyo last night after an almost 24-hour journey back from the UK. After a pot of tea and some toast I thought I’d be ready for bed, but nope, at 4am I was still wide awake. I finally managed a couple of hours sleep and then my eyes popped open again and by  7:30 I was out in the windy sunshine, off for a walk round the lake at my local park.

This year I have been walking every day, and as well as making me fitter it has also opened my eyes to the beauty and wonders around me. Tokyo is a great city to walk in, but in the summer, walking around the village I grew up in I realised what a country girl I am. I recognised the crops, I was thankful for the good harvest, I fretted whether the harvest would be in before the rain came. Walking in my own childhood footsteps I had a new appreciation for the village and the surrounding countryside.

Just as I did in the summer I spent the last fortnight taking the same walks. My favourite takes me all the way up the village, past the primary school I attended, along the top road and then a long walk down a farm track, through a hamlet and back out onto the main (actually only) road. I walked through the wood where bluebells bloom in the spring, past the field of Jacob sheep (and the alpaca that lives with them), past the church where I was confirmed. On Sunday I walked 4 miles to the parish church, something that feels like a mini pilgrimage every time I do it.

And then, on Wednesday, I left again and flew back to Tokyo, and I have the same feeling I did when I came back at the end of August: my heart is not here. My body is here (even though it refuses to sleep), my mind knows I’m here, but my heart hasn’t caught up yet. My feet are walking on the pavements in Tokyo, but they are missing the farm tracks, the mud and the soft fallen leaves I was walking on a few days ago. I see herons at the park and miss pheasants, I smell car exhausts and miss woodsmoke, I see smart pedigree dogs dressed up in little outfits out for a walk and I miss the farm dogs who come out to bark and see me off as I walk past their home.

My heart aches for the landscape that shaped me, for the memories, for my roots. I feel like I’ve been wrenched away from the soil that I belong in. Having spent most of my adult life in large Asian cities I thought I was a confirmed city dweller and it has come as a surprise to understand that I am very much a country girl; a north of England, tiny village, muddy-booted, crop-watching, blackberry-picking country girl.

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Good soil

St. Michael's kitchen garden

Last year I came to St. Michael’s on retreat for what I thought would be the last time. The Sisters were planning to move and the convent would be closed at the end of the summer. With a heavy heart I said goodbye to the house, the chapel and the garden. But in the spring an e-mail arrived; the move was taking longer than expected, and the convent would be open until the end of July. I had one more chance to visit.

It’s a funny feeling, coming back to a place you thought you had said goodbye to. I hadn’t realised it would feel as liberating as it did. I made my farewells last summer, I picked up pebbles and took a zillion photos, sat on my favorite bench and told myself over and over, this is the last time I’ll ever . . .

But I am back, and I have felt liberated from my usual rhythm. Instead of staying within the convent grounds for my whole stay, I have walked down to the Thames and along its banks. Instead of staying in silence I have had conversations. Instead of Spending most of the time alone I have spent time with others. What a gift it has all been.

I arrived yesterday in time for the midday Eucharist. The Gospel reading was the Parable of the Sower. During the intercessions, the Sister prayed that we would all have good soil. The idea, the image settled in my mind and has kept surfacing.

St. Michael's Passion flower

One of the most wonderful things about this place is its garden. There are two orchards, a vast lawn, a kitchen garden and other woody areas. Over the decades they have been here, the Sisters have cared for the fruit trees, planted borders and established a kitchen garden. Clearly, this is good soil. It produces fruit and vegetables for the convent table. There are borders of lavender, huge bushes of rosemary, towering fig trees; it is all nurtured with love, patience and green fingers and consumed with gratitude.

St. Michael cornflowers

Of course, this is not just a place to stay for a quiet break; it is a convent, and to stay here is to enter into the life and rhythm of the community. Joining the  Sisters in the Daily Office, sitting with them in silence, is to experience something simple and yet precious and profound. When you step away from the ordinary busy-ness of everyday life it is amazing what grows in the good soil of silence.

St. Michael's cat

This afternoon I spent a couple of hours with a friend, H. Over the years we have happened to be at the convent at the same time, and gradually shared snippets of information over the meals that were not in silence. Last year we became Facebook friends. When I found my place in the chapel yesterday I noticed the name on the chair next to mine, and wondered, could she be here as well? She was, and we decided to go for a walk this afternoon.

So we met at the mulberry tree in the garden at 4pm, went for a walk through Richmond Park and shared a pot of tea at a nursery. We walked back along the Thames and joined the Sisters for the evening Eucharist. After supper we ended up in the garden with one of the Sisters; first, we went to the kitchen garden so H could pick up some cuttings she had left there. Then it was down into the old orchard in search of a small stone cat I had seen every year. Neither the Sister nor H had ever seen it before, which produced in me an irrational fear that it would no longer be there and I would seem a bit loopy. But it was, much to the Sister’s amazement. It was duly rescued from the undergrowth and transported to the top of the garden, from where it will be moved eventually to their new home. Finally we arrived at the old mulberry tree and finding some berries ripe we helped ourselves to a few. It was only later that I realised we had gone ’round and round the mulberry bush’ in search of ripe berries. The faithful old tree has been propped up for years, still producing fruit from the good soil.

While we were walking this afternoon, H asked me how I was feeling about the convent moving, and how I coped with loss. The time I have spent here this year has felt like a bonus. I already said my goodbyes last year, and made my peace with not being able to come here again. That reprieve gave me a chance to come here and spend the time a little differently. I shall miss this place; the chapel and the garden especially. But this visit has shown me also that so much that has made this place special is portable.

The Sisters will make a new home in another place, and in a year or two they will be ready to welcome visitors again. There will be another garden, another chapel, but the same Sisters, the same community, the same rhythms of worship. Just as the atmosphere here has opened our hearts to worship and to one another, just as the community has found good soil here for decades, so they will find more good soil in their new home.

I arrived and will leave here with great gratitude. The good soil I have found here has grown silence and prayer inside me. It has fed me with mulberries and beetroot, damsons, tomatoes and apples. I have had conversations that have grown my faith. I have been blessed with friendships and a feeling of connectedness that I will carry with me when I leave. Good soil, indeed.

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The meaning of pears

pearOne of the things people often mention about shopping in Japan is the ridiculous price of fruit and vegetables. Fruit, especially, has been elevated to an art form, with perfect, unblemished specimens being packaged and given as gifts. Sometimes fruit is supersized, sometimes grown into unexpected shapes; giant strawberries, square watermelons. If that sounds like fun and you have the budget for it, then Japan is your fruit paradise.

My favourite flavours are the sharp bite of citrus and berries. Anything yuzu-flavoured will get my attention, lemon is always good, and raspberries and blackcurrants are wonderful. Growing up, we had raspberry canes in the garden, and since my father and brother didn’t like them the picking became mine and my mother’s job. Every summer we harvested over thirty kilos, filled the freezer with them, made jam and pies and summer puddings. My after-school routine towards the end of the summer term was to come home from school and go straight into the garden, fight my way under the green plastic netting (they were our raspberries, not the birds’) and pick the ripened fruit.

But there has always been one fruit that I just can’t bear. I don’t see the point of them, I don’t like anything about them: Pears.

I’m on retreat at the moment, and have spent the day joining the Daily Offices at the convent and sitting in the garden and orchard reading Brother Lawrence, The Practice of the Presence of God. I’ve also been wandering round the garden, taking photos and soaking up the beauty of God’s creation.

Damsons

On my wanders round the garden I found a damson tree, which reminded me of the schoolhouse in Ellastone where we lived when I was just starting school. The school cook used to come into the garden in the morning and pick enough damsons to make damson crumble for school lunch. Even now, when my mother and I see damsons on sale we buy some and make compote and freeze it to brighten up yogurt on winter mornings.

Mulberry

But then I found pear trees, and sighed at the waste of orchard space. Why grow pears when you could have damsons? I considered the bounty of the orchard here; not only my beloved damsons but also plums, figs, apples, even an ancient mulberry tree. Pears. Why would anyone want pears?

Some people in Japan love pears. Of course, they enjoy the Japanese nashi pears, but what is given as gifts is known as La France, the rosy, pleasingly-shaped European pear. Apparently it’s also known as a butter pear. After living in Japan for a long time and hearing friends extol the deliciousness of this fruit I thought, maybe I’m wrong, maybe they really are as good as everyone tells me. I went to a supermarket, bought one, took it home and tried it. I discovered that I wasn’t wrong at all, they were as unpleasant as I remembered them. The texture is grainy, but slightly, unpleasantly soft. Or unyieldingly, unpleasantly dry and hard. The flavour is, to me, off. Slightly chemical. It works as old-fashioned pear drops, when I can think that this is a synthetic flavouring, the work of someone beavering about in a lab. But Mother Nature? No.

Several years ago, a senior student told me that her mother was going to send me some fruit as a thank-you gift. I was looking forward to my fruit gift, until it arrived and I discovered two magnificent La France pears in a specially padded gift box. I took them into school and gave them to a colleague, who was amazed I didn’t want them.

Going all the way back to my childhood, my brother and I used to spend every Sunday with our maternal grandparents, who lived near us. The routine was always the same. In the morning we went out somewhere; a park, a wood or the botanical gardens. If we went to a park we could take our bicycles. A wood meant it was probably autumn and we could kick our way through piles of fallen leaves. The botanical garden had two tropical houses, and in one a parrot, which sometimes spoke. To my primary-school-aged self it seemed worth it to stand in the steamy, smelly glasshouse, hoping to hear the parrot say a word or two. My grandfather was a very superstitious man, and absolutely hated birds. It’s only as I write this now that I realise he must have much preferred the wood or the park.

After our outing we went back to their house for lunch. We almost always had tinned baked beans with sausages. We always ate the tiny tinned sausages last. For dessert, there were two possibilities. One was jelly, with Carnation evaporated milk whisked into it to create air bubbles, a kind of mousse. My mother thinks she remembers her father working for the evaporated milk company at some point and there being a great amount of it at home. I always thought he had invented this concoction himself, whisking the jelly and milk together with a hand whisk and puffing his cheeks out with the effort. This was a great dessert, not your everyday pudding, nothing healthy, nothing luxurious. Sugar. An easy treat, a guilty pleasure.

But what my grandparents really loved to give us was pears. They both loved them, and there were always pears in their house. There was no escape. They had both grown up in very poor families, and had raised their only daughter during the Second World War. Poverty and wartime shaped their tastes. Even in their old age, when they could have had anything they wanted, their treats were flavoured with the things they had been deprived of earlier in life; butter, cream, sugar. And fresh fruit.

I remember hating the taste. I remember hating the texture, whichever end of the pear spectrum it was at, and with pears, it’s always the end of the spectrum. I also hated the way that at some point the top of the pear would break off and you had to eat the rest of it cupping it in your hand. Then I hated the stickiness. Every week, we ate pears, and our grandparents were happy, because they loved pears, and thought we did too.

Years later, when I was at secondary school and university, I discovered I loved baking. When we had been on holiday in France, my grandparents had enjoyed the fresh fruit tarts (butter, cream, sugar) and I found it was not difficult to make them. You made the different bits and then assembled it. I made them pear tarts sometimes and was happy, because they loved pears.

Today I was wandering round the orchard at the convent, and the raspberries, damsons and the pears led me down through decades of memories. I sat in the sunshine and read about Brother Lawrence, and how he did everything for the love of God.

Then I thought some more, and realised far more deeply than I ever had before, just what a gift a pear can be. They are the shape of gratitude and taste of love.