Forget the perfect offering

 I have an image in my mind.  It is a salmon pink jug with a white interior, it’s that kind of ceramic glaze, the name of which I’ve forgotten, where you can see the little white lines very faintly when you stand close to the jug.  A clear image for meditation, something to hold in the mind.
Things fall apart…..holding things together.  I am reminded of Yeats’ poem, ‘The Second Coming’, lurking somewhere in the recesses of my mind:
‘Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity,

holding things together.’
In my mind’s eye the jug is shattered but the pieces are frozen in very close proximity to each other, held in that moment by released connecting energy.  Nothing else is holding them together, but they are just barely still connected with the fine cracks visible.
I am reminded yet again, as I was a few months ago and then last week, of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Anthem’:
‘Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.’
I am forgetting the perfect offering.  I can only be myself.  In these moments in organisations right now where things are falling apart, the centre cannot hold, and anarchy is being loosed on the world, and where every day I see a new client in trouble, on the brink….I have this feeling of being the container, holding the instability but not holding things together, certainly not feeling passionate intensity, starting to lack conviction and then discovering new resources inside myself.  The impatience is gone, watching another’s distress, I am a witness.  I feel quite calm in myself. 

Sea urchin shell, photo by Chris Hill

Calm regained perhaps from a recent trip to Shropshire, a good time to clear the brain and hear some more sense from Betty.
Almost a year since my last visit, I feel somehow that time has stood still in many ways since we were last in the hills.  What has changed?  The world of work has got starker as predicted.  Strangely this gives heightened focus to my work, and I actually feel I’m more in my stride and my interventions are tighter and more effective than ever before.  They have to be.
It’s always good to get away and coming up to Shropshire to see Betty is perfectly timed.  I arrive just in time for circle dancing in the beautiful setting of Dorrington Village Hall with amazing views of the hills against a crystal blue dusk sky, as we circle round the room.  By chance many of the dances are from the Knuston weekend last winter and it is pleasing to revisit them.  Ending with the Earth Meditation, danced to reflective, acoustic music by the Albion Band as the day drew to an end, is a near-perfect experience.

Chris Hill's circle dancing centre, July 2011


And then the next day Betty and I walk in Melverley.  The name always reminds Betty of Daphne du Maurier’s Manderley in Rebecca, and the setting does have a kind of emptiness and potential desolation – in another season.  Melverley is transformed in the flood season.  On this calm summer’s evening, we make our way over strange stiles missing their steps, walking on the bank above the river, and then Kinny, Betty’s border terrier, disappears into the horizon and we have a stressful ten minutes retracing our own steps, hoping for her reappearance.  Betty is philosophical and convinced there will be no problem, I immediately start to imagine all the possibilities – Kinny in the river, Kinny gone for ever, us tramping the river path back and forth till dark, and then miserably making our way home.

Finally, at the last stile, Kinny is there waiting for us, tail wagging, rescued by some caravan owners eating their steak dinner, the dog oblivious to the upset she has caused – for me anyway.  I am struck by Betty’s nonchalance.  I wonder, is this one of the gifts of age?  Or is it just about knowing your dog well?  Or is Betty just too tired to be anxious? 

I am reminded of something I read recently which I found quite beautiful – about how having a bird in your hand may invite you to clutch at it but how if you can learn to marvel while it is there and then not mourn when it is gone, this is a lesson of life.  This is true equanimity.  How far am I from that lesson?!  And would Betty really have been able to hold onto her equanimity if Kinny hadn’t been there waiting?  Who of us really does have such unruffled equanimity that can’t be disturbed?

We visit the unusual church at Melderley with its black timbers and white walls, unlike any church I have ever seen.  I creep up into the gallery.  And then we meet a grisly but friendly-featured fisherman making his way down to the river as we choose to do another walk fraught with less risks for Kinny.  He is like a figure out of an ancient folk song or a Wordsworth poem, carrying his rod and smiling his way as he leads us through the wheat-filled fields to the riverbank.  Betty makes easy conversation with him, and I feel how far I am from my ordinary life.

Finally we cross the last stile of the day having reached the railway bridge, and wend our way back up the road.  We pause at a passing place and Betty reflects on how villages like this one used to have ‘hedgers and ditchers’ who would keep the byways clear of overgrown shrubs.  She remembers one such Dick Pluck, the owner of a dog named ‘Dog’ who would work in her family garden.  Once again I am transported to the world of folk music, and I feel in another time. 

In the waning light of the first night of late summer, we talk over many subjects – including Betty’s theory that monkeys, horses, and dogs are the animals whose feelings can be hurt, and you can see this in their eyes and bodies.  And her views that humans should contain our greed and desire to conquer the world, and be more modest in our aspirations, controlling our arrogance and devoting our energies to improving what is closer to home.  We talk about the evil energies that some people can project and why this may be.  And we talk about wise selfishness, what I like to call being ‘self-full’.

I always feel when I have spent time with Betty that there is a wisdom and calmness I encounter which is not often found in life.  I associate it with the Shropshire hills and simple, crystal-clear tales of folk music.

June Tabor – Across the Wide Ocean


Betty reminds me of that great American friend of mine, Mrs George, who died 15 years ago.  I met Mrs George on a bus when my friend Leanne and I were searching for TS Eliot’s Burnt Norton.  Mrs George was a grand lady, with a voice, persona and huge feathered hats all larger than life, whereas Betty is very sure to stay within the bounds of an ordinary human being.  Mrs George lived in a characterful Tudor cottage on the High Street in Broadway, she had come to England during the war, married and soon been widowed.  She had an established network of local connections and through her we were transported to Burnt Norton, by then become a desolate deserted property where we peered through filthy streaked windows and toured the empty sunken pools, full of dried leaves, still feeling the echoes of the children and the rose bushes in the poem.

Mrs George had ‘views’ as does Betty.  Mrs George never talked about feelings, being a New Englander with an unbending spine, unlike Betty, who often expresses feelings in a matter-of-fact, non-self-indulgent way.  Both Betty and Mrs George have found me irritating, non-compliant and challenging at times, but overriding that from both of them I have felt and feel a great love, warmth, care and concern.  I feel that knowing these women of strong character provides an essential counterpoint in my life, and I am grateful for their continuing presence which holds the pieces together.


The birds they sang
at the break of day
Start again
I heard them say
Don’t dwell on what
has passed away
or what is yet to be.
Ah the wars they will
be fought again
The holy dove
She will be caught again
bought and sold
and bought again
the dove is never free.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

We asked for signs
the signs were sent:
the birth betrayed
the marriage spent
Yeah the widowhood
of every government —
signs for all to see.

I can’t run no more
with that lawless crowd
while the killers in high places
say their prayers out loud.
But they’ve summoned, they’ve summoned up
a thundercloud
and they’re going to hear from me.

Ring the bells that still can ring …

You can add up the parts
but you won’t have the sum
You can strike up the march,
there is no drum
Every heart, every heart
to love will come
but like a refugee.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
That’s how the light gets in.
That’s how the light gets in.

This entry was posted in American character, British/English character, connections, friendships, music, organisational life, walking. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Forget the perfect offering

  1. Viv says:

    I had an image of old checked curtains, don’t know why, and a sense of a very ancient memory reading this, and the sun streaming in through them, early morning and dew on the grass.
    thank you.

    • karin says:

      Thanks, Viv – I love your image too. It evokes for me two memories – one of a friend who once described a torn tattered curtain protecting him from the world. And the other is a much more distant memory of the opening of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (a seminal US coming-of-age book written in 1943 by Betty Smith) – I don’t know why but your image makes me think of the main character, Francie, sitting on her fire escape or peering through her tenement window at the Tree of Heaven pushing its roots up defiantly through the cracks in the sidewalk. Funny how memories get triggered! xx

  2. Chris says:

    I loved the image of the broken jug – not yet fallen apart but in its separate pieces. I know how that feels in life as I struggle to hold together a changing domestic world.

    And I can equate with your statement about the stresses in your working environment causing you to bring forth new resources and stay calm. I can remember a conversation in the back of a taxi with the wife of a work colleague. The dark space moving through night-time streets in a downpour of rain sparked a more intimate conversation than either of us might have expected. Her mother had died recently and she spoke movingly about the experience. I said that I felt I had never been tested in real life – that I dreaded the time when either of my parents approached death as I could not imagine myself finding the strength to cope. And she replied, in a phrase that I have constantly repeated to myself at black times through many years, “When you need the strength you will find the strength”. And she was right. Like you I summoned up resources and remained calm. At my father’s funeral the younger members of the family were distraught and older people were finding it hard to hold themselves together in the face of so much open grief. But my nephew-in-law, a young man who had only just married into the family, spoke out firmly and said “Let’s all remember that this is not about Granddad dying. It’s about celebrating his life and the great times we had with him”. Mark found the strength when he needed it and summoned up his resources to hold his new family together. It’s something about having your back to the wall and something else about “cometh the hour cometh the man”.

    And I reckon Betty knew Kinny well enough to know that there was no cause for worry. We had a dog like that once. But after the hundredth disappearance and re-union at the end of the walk you both know the routine.

    So many other aspects to this post. I know that I shall re-visit it. Thank you, Karin.

    • karin says:

      I always feel reassured when you like a post! especially when it’s one I put up with some of my own reservations. (Don’t I always?!) It seems to be triggering memories for us all. My friend Leanne who I haven’t heard from for a few months sent me an e-mail this morning with the following comment which I can only second: ‘It made me so pleased to read about Mrs. George. Has it really been 15 years? I could not agree more that knowing wise, very opinionated, older women teaches me to grow old gracefully.’ Thank you Leanne.

      I like to think that the jug will not fall apart – it is as it is. Broken, not perfect, with light coming in. Maybe that’s all there is. Maybe that’s good enough. We hold things together as best we can. Thank you.

  3. souldipper says:

    What an abundant bundle of items to contemplate in this wee basket! Many thanks. Enjoyed every step.

    • karin says:

      I like the link with steps – not sure where the destination is but it is certainly one step at a time. Always good to see you here.

  4. Dody Jane says:

    This is such a beautiful post. So beautiful. I am still thinking about it.

  5. Stephen says:

    So deep on so many levels. I’ve struggled to get my head round so much vivid imagery and soft tones of good friendships and the wisdom of the old. As Chris said, this is a post that I’ve been read and reread to absorb as much as I possibly can. This is a compliment to your wrtiting Karin as there are very few pieces in life that have that much depth particularly in this digital, fast moving, impatient age when Twitter allows us 142 characters to get a message across. Both have their place and it’s good to see you’re maintaining the literary end of the spectrum.

    • karin says:

      Thanks Steve. I’ve been intrigued by some of the responses to this post which I thought was a mixture of obscure thoughts at times, not very well-constructed, and also actually – not quite true! A soft lens on reality. Still struggling myself to work out what and how to speak here, I guess I am experimenting with finding my voice. I will certainly be interested in your comments on my next post!

      I am not at all sure about Twitter so I am staying away from that one for now. I don’t think my life has enough material for instant updates!

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