Blog 7: Portobello. 21 October 2021
Beach of Dreams
The public highlight of our Portobello stay was the Saturday morning Beach of Dreams installation by Kinetika, led by artist, Ali Pretty.
This art installation is made up of 500 silk flags flying from poles which were planted on the beach, each representing a mile of the Essex coastline. A new pennant was created for each of these miles by Kinetika artists in response to photos or other images which were produced by people living in this edge-country, people who are witnessing the disintegration of the ground on which their houses are situated.
Beach of Dreams was an epic journey to walk 500 miles over 35 days (June to August 2021) along the east coast of England. The purpose – to explore how we can take care of the environment, take care of the coast, take care of the community and ourselves.from the website
The flags were initially positioned in lines parallel to the Portobello breakwater, but as the sea came in, volunteers hurriedly moved them, re-sinking them in the sand higher up the beach and creating a tide of people and artworks rushing away from the approaching waters.
These flags represent the dreams of the people of Eastern England for the future. Like urgent messages to us here on the east coast of Scotland, they tell of the vulnerability of our coastlines as sea levels rise. Moving, literally and emotionally, they are fragile, though steady, ephemeral but made of real stuff. They flutter and flap in the wind, prompting questions, ‘What’s blowing away? What are we losing?’
The poignant sound, as we lay under them and watched the subtle lemon and rose against the cerulean sky, was a constant reminder that things are changing. The irregular flick-flack of the fabric responding to the capricious breeze wouldn’t let us drift away contentedly. Their beauty contrasted awe-fully with the origin of their message
We stayed for two nights at St Mark’s Church where we were cared for with much-appreciated heat and facilities. Even a short walk like this focused our minds on the luxury of having a roof over our heads and a floor to sleep on.
Walking the labyrinth
The full programme of events continued with a labyrinth. Set up by Ali Newell with red candles and autumn leaves, we were first given a short introduction to to their origin and useage over the centuries and then invited to take something from her basket and enter, one by one.
The minute I started, I felt such sorrow. Was it the music by Arvo Pärt, or the accumulated feelings of the group? Was it my grief at the state of our world, or a more personal sadness rising up into my throat? One stained glass window showed a man with his arm around a child, another depicted men embracing, with the words: ‘The soul of Jonathan was knit with the soul of David’ as a caption. That tenderness was one trigger for my weeping.
I lived in Estonia for a short time, where Pärt was born, and memories of those times bubbled up. I was writing a book about death and loss, and each day I walked the forest paths. I remembered the shock of turning a corner and coming across a large area of deforestation with trunk stumps all jagged and broken.
Around the labyrinth I slowly walked, doubling back on myself, at once facing centre, then away from it, moving nearer, then seeming to be distanced. The narrow channel between the lines gave a sense of safety and the golden leaves encapsulated the passing of the year. Eventually the tears dried up and there was something like peace, or at least calm. The sun was shining and it threw shadows across us and the room. Conscious that I was passing shoulder-to-shoulder with others who were on a similar journey to mine, I saw others with wet cheeks. She walked with her arms crossed over her chest, he with his hands cupped in front of him, my friend had her arms raised up, palms to the ceiling as she walked. In this way, we almost-met, we didn’t stare or speak, however we were all in it together.
And then I saw, ahead of me, the entrance, not the centre. I stopped dead. I must have made a mistake because I was almost back where I started. I traced the way in with my eyes; how had that happened? I hadn’t crossed a line, hadn’t cheated.
I decided to step out of my passageway into one which would take me on, along the way I had been going, and then, no! That wasn’t possible somehow. So I followed the direction my path was taking and found myself right where I began, ready to start over again. There, at my feet, was a battered magpie feather.
I hadn’t seen it earlier, even though I am collecting one per day (see my first blog of this series) and so my eyes are attuned, and so it was somehow special to find it at the moment that had I been ‘sent’ back. I picked it up, took a deep breath, turned around and carried it with me as I re-negotiated the labyrinth. Though I took it faster the second time, there was a second onslaught of grief. It reminded me that we walk round our lives, spiralling outwards from our birth, but coming back through key elements of it, being given the chance to go through them again with our accumulated wisdom. I hoped I was wiser.
Many of the fallen leaves had wafted onto the paths. They seemed to represent people I have known. Sometimes, unwittingly, I stepped on them, sometimes over, left them behind. Someone came along behind me and picked each one up and put it back in a safe place. I began to feel so weary, I wobbled, even once overbalanced into an adjoining track and had to step back. There was a small, wooden African sculpture in a corner, on the piano, of someone reaching down to touch a baby, similar to one I had at home. Again, it touched me deeply. Would it go on for ever? I needed ‘stamina, endurance, resilience’ (Liz)
As I got closer to the centre, I feared I might not make it and I noticed that I wanted to get to the end as soon as possible. It was like my relationship to death; in the past I have willed it, later I decided against it and pleaded that it wouldn’t happen soon.
I did eventually get there, knelt and placed my stone, and, as Liz said afterwards, it was hot from my hand. Of course, it wasn’t an end at all, it was a mid point. It also wasn’t the way I experienced it when sitting beside the dying – a dwindling, a merging into another place and state – rather, it was part of the whole process of life and it was on-going.
As I walked out, I was coming in the opposite direction to others who stood aside to let me pass. Or sometimes I did that for them. It was a smooth, mindful journey, and I was changed at the end of it.
We set off one by one, but as we walked we kept coming into contact with each other. It was like a metaphor for life; people you see once and never again all moving in the same direction, all inspired by love and hope. We acknowledged each other as we passed. We were not alone.Gareth
Even more kindness, and a change of perception
I went for a swim in the sea after that. Margaret who knows the seas, watched over me, signalling to keep away from the pipe which was invisible to me. Ruth offered me a shower at her flat, the first since leaving Dunbar on Monday, four days before, and I was really grateful for the hot water and her hospitality.
Coming back, I was struck by the frivolity of the home decoration items outside the shops on the High Street, items I usually enjoy, even covet. I was walking through such a familiar place, but my Camino shell dangled from my rucksack reminding me I was in the stream of the pilgrimage, and I felt like a different person.
Thanks go to members of the congregation of St Mark’s for a most delicious meal, particularly as the oven failed and food had to be ferried next door and back for warming – a much appreciated effort.
And as if all that wasn’t enough, Jane Lewis led a singing circle on the beach under the almost-full moon. She exhorted us, ‘ If we listen to the earth breathing, then we will know what to do’, and we learned her new rendering of Arundhati Roy’s words (from Capitalism, a ghost story).
Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing. Can you hear her breathing?Arundhati Roy / Jane Lewis
Protest in Harmony choir Another World link
Though a hiatus from the long-distance walking, this day was full of opportunities to reflect on our journey, to learn from the communities we were passing through, and to receive.
We were nearly half way through a Pilgrimage for COP26 from Dunbar on the east coast of Scotland to Glasgow, where the COP26 Climate Change Conference is now taking place. It was organised by A+E and many volunteers.