May Is The Cruellest Month

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

 T.S. Eliot, The Burial of the Dead

It may have been April for Eliot but for me it is May, with its pattern and paradox, its light and shade, which is cruellest. O I know that it is lovely. When I lift my head I catch sight of the blossom. Here is wisteria blooming in my courtyard and bluebells at the foot of a neighbour’s tree. Here are wild service trees along the route to work and cherry petals heaped on pavements. Here, at the edge of the city, are fields of yellow rape and hawthorn hedges.

                                                If you came this way,
Taking the route you would be likely to take
From the place you would be likely to come from,
If you came this way in may time, you would find the hedges
White again, in May, with voluptuary sweetness.

 T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding

But I know that when the May breaks out in creamy flowers, musky as death, I must keep my head down.

last day of May 010

Marking Time

As a child and young woman May enchanted me. Not one to believe in the stars I had to admit there was something about Taureans; my best friends and nicest boyfriends, it seemed, had birthdays in May. There were high days and holidays: May Day, Half Term, Spring Bank. And there were days of sudden warmth better than any in mid-summer. May was charmed and lovely.

May 013Only in adulthood, once I’d entered the education workforce, did it became cruel. I’m lucky to earn my living as I do; I love my teaching. But twice a year, in January and May, it is marking time. The marketisation of higher education in England has led (among other things) to an increased emphasis on accountability and efficiency. The prompt assessment and return of student work is something which is believed to influence student satisfaction and most universities have reviewed their policy and practice in relation to marking. it is not uncommon, as a result, for academics to be working to assessment deadlines of three weeks or less.

It is undoubtedly the case that some of the developments in higher education in the last five or ten years have enhanced the student experience. There was, it’s true, a laissez-faire approach to the return of student work in many institutions previously. I’m not convinced that the three week turnaround is appropriate; I think students care about the quality as well as speed of feedback and the short deadlines do, without doubt, limit the time which can be spent on individual scripts. However, I support the general principle of setting and meeting deadlines for the return of student work. And I actually don’t dislike marking: even with the limitation of feedback deadlines it offers an opportunity for dialogue. Why, then, is Maytime marking so cruel?

Marking and Caring

I’m fortunate to work in a sector where it has been possible (with reasonable adjustments) for me to continue working while caring for Dylan. That wouldn’t be so easy in some occupations I know. Even with adjustments, combining working with caring is challenging when you are a single parent. For me, marking time is when I particularly feel these pressures.

Working parents of very young children may recognise some of the conflict I experience at these times. In order to meet marking deadlines it is quite normal to have to work through weekends and at evenings. Like a much younger child, Dylan finds it difficult to understand why it is that ‘moo-ey’ (as he calls me) is suddenly not as available or responsive to him at these times. Whereas normally we would be out and about in the community and going for long walks in the Peak District, during the marking period my caring is limited to ensuring that Dylan is safe in the home while I work.

During the January marking period this somehow doesn’t feel so bad. The weather is usually poor and the days are short, lessening the hankering after time outdoors. I can often hunker down with my marking while Dylan watches DVDs. But in May Dylan’s frustration with the situation is palpable. He has a built-in body clock (which I’ve written about elsewhere) which means that at 2.30, on the dot, if we are still in the house he wants to get out. Dylan will come to find me, then, wherever I am and strike his ‘I’m waiting’ pose. This involves Dylan standing – back straight, arms crossed – with a fixed stare. He waits patiently in this position, watching me. His gaze is steady. ‘Two minutes’ I sometimes say, ‘just two minutes and I’ll come’. That’s not true and Dylan knows it. Eventually, holding his position, Dylan will tell me what it is I am doing: ‘poota’ or ‘rea’ or ‘wye’. Under normal circumstances, I will stop, then, and respond to his not unreasonable request. In May, though, with a self-imposed daily quota of scripts to read in order to meet my deadlines, I may stall. And then ‘na na na na na’ Dylan rattles at me, like an angry machine gun.

May 011When Dylan was still at school the challenge of marking during May was compounded by the regular school holidays. The May Day, Half Term and Spring Bank which had so beguiled me as a child became a headache as a parent. It always felt to me like a lose-lose situation. If I succumbed to Dylan and the outdoors I couldn’t relax for worrying about getting the marking done. If I tried to manage Dylan at home while I worked we would both end the day frustrated and unhappy. While we were a two parent family my ex-husband and I would alternate shifts of child care and working which was slightly easier – though still, I recall, with the potential for angst and frustration.

There is no easy solution to the challenge of managing caring responsibilities with pressure points in working life. Having friends and family who are able and willing to help out at such times has to be the best possible solution. For those of us who don’t have such networks, play schemes and holiday activities would be a great alternative. In England, though, we don’t have the same culture of ‘camps’ as in, for example, the United States. Very few such opportunities exist and where they are available they are usually only for a few weeks in August and for limited hours. Furthermore, they are rarely (if ever) inclusive. Throughout his childhood Dylan was only ever able to access one play scheme, organised by a local parents group. He briefly attended a Saturday club but when that closed there were no other social opportunities appropriate to Dylan’s level of need in the city. For young people like my son, who present with complex needs in addition to autism, it is virtually impossible to secure satisfactory out-of-school care.

Healing May

last day of May 007In last week’s post I described how, earlier this month, I took Dylan for a short break in Scotland. Part of my aim in timing the holiday as I did was to give Dylan a bit of attention before the bulk of my marking was due. I knew that, for the rest of May, I would be juggling caring with marking. It seems to have helped a bit; I’m almost half way through my marking now and the process does feel a little easier than in previous years.

That wasn’t the only reason for the timing though. If you work in a sector where there are specific pressure points in the year it is possible to have your head so far down you can no longer see. This year I didn’t want to miss the blossom; I wanted to make room in my life for May. I like to think that, as well as signalling a fresh approach to marking and caring, this indicates a sense of healing. For here is another reason why May can seem the cruellest month: it is when my mother died. I suspect that since her death, in 2006, part of me has been prepared to miss May, while I marked, in order to avoid painful associations with the time of year.

My most recent collection, A Dart of Green and Blue, opens with a sequence of poems which track my grief in the aftermath of mum’s death through a period of nine months. In the following poem, which is located early in the sequence, I repeat selected words (including May/may) to represent the way in which the bereaved can get stuck at the moment of death but also want to hold on to it in order not to forget.


Everything slow this year. Heavy and green with rain
hawthorn hung stubborn, withholding the May.
At the edge of my distracted sight I may
have caught the vaguest sign of change the day
she died. But it was the next day
(the 4th) I woke to an absence of rain.
Cruel – indifferent – the sun rose again
and, as if spring were remembering itself again,
buds opened. Even the wisteria she’d said may
not flower threw clusters of blue jewels. All day
I thought: She’s missed it. It’s too late. Last May
we walked the hedgerows on the Edge. The rain
had drawn the hawthorn’s musky scent that day:
brings death, I’d thought, as I broke a branch of May.


last day of May 009Grief, somebody once told me, involves the reconciliation of the fear of forgetting with the pain of remembrance; eventually we realise that we will never forget but that it no longer hurts so much to remember. This year I am trying to celebrate May by remembering my mum and the way she helped me to love this time of year as a child. I hope that, as well as getting my marking done, I am finding time to teach Dylan how to love May too.


Elizabeth Barrett (2010) ‘May’ in A Dart of Green and Blue. Arc Publications
T.S.Eliot (1922) ‘The Burial of the Dead’ from The Waste Land. Faber and Faber
T.S. Eliot (1944) ‘Little Gidding’ from Four Quartets.  Faber and Faber

Autism And Landscape

…it appears to be a law that you cannot have a deep sympathy with both man and nature. Those qualities that bring you near to the one estrange you from the other… The mind that perceives clearly any natural beauty is in that instant withdrawn from human society.   Henry Thoreau

The word ‘landscape’ involves a human being unlike ‘land’ which is unpopulated. Landscape is something we create by looking; it is our perspective on the land and the meaning we make of it. Thus landscape poets and artists interact with a place when they write about or paint it and, through this interaction, they change land into landscape. Interaction with the land is something which is important to Dylan who I think is acutely aware of landscape.

In a previous post I described how Dylan takes his visual bearings from the landscape.Taking bearings from the landscape is not only a visual process however; Dylan also interacts with the land through touch. We have two sticks which we always carry on walks and Dylan uses these  to prod and probe anything unusual and as depth testers in rivers and waterfalls.  Dylan engages with the landscape through his other senses as well, listening and sniffing along the route. In another post I have described how as a toddler Dylan used to lie on the ground in the woods and speculated that this was for the physical sensation of leaves and soil on his back as well as for the sensation of light through the leaf canopy. Because Dylan experiences sensory disturbance, particularly aurally, I imagine the countryside to be a more comfortable environment for him than the city. Here there is less language and sounds are easier to discern; I  only rarely see Dylan put his fingers in his ears or clamp an arm over his head in order to block his ears as I see him do frequently in our city community.

I imagine the soundscape of the countryside is part of the landscape from which Dylan takes his bearings. I don’t think this process is something which is exclusive to Dylan or autism; I can also take bearings from landscape.  The poem below recounts an experience I had while driving through Missouri in 1981. I had been living in the US for a year and had not been missing England but that morning was overwhelmed by thoughts of home. Later I discovered that the rolling hills of Missouri were limestone, the same geology as the Peak District  where I grew up.  This, then, was the landscape of home and that morning its pull on me was enough to make me nauseous. The poem opens years later with me explaining limestone to my daughter while we are away from home.


In Dorset I am explaining it is limestone,
like at home, makes the hills roll.
From a motorboat near Lulworth Cove
I show her how the soft cliffs fall
in pale curves to a lather of waves –
name her homestone in its litany
of Pennine, Portland, Purbeck, Chalk.

Though I am all the link with home
her four years needs or wants,
I know that one day, motherless,
she will need to recognise
the lift and fall of limestone land,
to understand the strength of stone
to make hearts sicken for loss of home.

Like when,  a continent ago,
I crossed America in a quest

to cast off the past, begin again.
How it happened then: the early morning
passing of the state line, radio playing,
land mist rising, the road rolling gently
through hills emerging, either side.

And how the lift and fall of lightness –
an unbearable nothing – weighed me
down. I stopped the car and stumbled
out – paced the edges of a roadside resting ground
(nauseous, breathless) – then paused
before an information board – tried,
distractedly, to make it sense.

And then the slake of a word.
So this was limestone – Missouri Limestone.
I scanned the names of other places it occurred
for news of home – some explanation
for the fissure in my heart’s stone.
Social interaction is largely linguistic and unpredictable, both things which Dylan finds challenging. When I try to imagine how it might feel to be Dylan I sometimes draw a parallel with language learning. There comes a point when I can understand some of what is said – enough to get the gist of things – and I have a bank of phrases which I have practiced and can use fairly reliably. But if a native speaker says something I am not expecting, or demands a response I haven’t prepared, I can be dumb-struck. This, I imagine, is how social discourse feels for Dylan much of the time. Even when he does manage to communicate successfully, or negotiate a social situation, the effort involved can leave Dylan exhausted. Perhaps, amidst this confusing and stressful social world, interaction with the landscape is a way of balancing yourself?

In previous posts I have suggested that the natural world can be more than just a touchstone for Dylan – it is therapeutic and a source of healing.  This very powerful interaction with the natural environment seems to involve specific landscape features for Dylan; rock formations and water are very important to him, but perhaps more than any other geological feature Dylan seems to take his bearings from trees. Some of my other posts have had trees in them: My Trees Have Grown Hair: the Poetry of Autism described the way in which Dylan’s engagement with trees supported his language development and in Walking Without a Map I included a poem (‘Petty Theft’) in which Dylan is shown seeking comfort from trees after a week of disruption at home.

As we walk through our local landscape, Dylan notices and remembers the trees we pass, taking his bearings from them and learning routes through the countryside by them. Trees are dependable; they are always in the same place and they change only slowly and in predictable ways. This is a process which Dylan and I have documented in relation to one tree by photographing it at different points of the year. I first photographed the tree in order to create a visual record of one of Dylan’s favourite walks but subsequently realised the tree looked different at different times of year so took more pictures.


Tree memories run deep. Last summer I took Dylan to a wood which we used to visit occasionally with my mum.  It had been ten or more years since we were there but  Dylan recognised every twist and turn and led me confidently to the trees he particularly wanted to revisit. Dylan’s closest relationships with trees involve a circular passage around them, a ritual dance or a hug (indicating increasing degrees of intimacy).

One wood we visit seems to cast a spell on Dylan. When we go there Dylan stands in the south west corner by a particular group of trees, staring out over a bordering field. He always goes to the same place, a part of the wood which feels magical when I am with Dylan. I call this Dylan’s ‘spirit wood’ and if I think Dylan is in need of calm I take him there. The photographs at the end of the post are of Dylan in this wood.

I often think that there are things I could learn from Dylan’s special relationship with nature and with trees in particular. I look to him, sometimes, to guide me to a more coherent way of living, or to find some stillness in a busy life. And, again, I regard Dylan’s special feeling for landscape as one of the blessings of silence; without language, he has been able to develop depths of experience which words can get in the way of. Some innovative autism providers are increasingly drawing on the natural world when developing relevant curricula and approaches to education and care. I am sure that for some autistic children and adults, and certainly for Dylan, landscape offers an enormous potential for learning.

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Barrett, Elizabeth (2005) ‘Homestone’ in The Bat Detector, Wrecking Ball Press

All the photographs were taken by Liz. The photograph of Dylan with his sticks was taken in a meadow between Satron and Muker in the Yorkshire Dales. The featured image and photo of the signpost were taken on the Pennine Way between Hadraw and Hawes. The seasoned tree is in the Mayfield Valley. Dylan is tree-hugging in Lea Gardens in Matlock. Dylan’s spirit wood is near Limb Valley on the edge of the Peak District.

Walking Without A Map: route and routine in autism

map 011Dylan and I are in the habit of going for a ‘big walk’ on Christmas Day. We usually take a picnic lunch and head somewhere familiar; here we are by Agden reservoir in 2010 and on Back Tor in 2011. On Christmas morning this year I was setting out things for our backpacks, wondering where we might walk, when I noticed Dylan had removed the map from the pile. I retrieved it, only for him to remove it again. Dylan and I don’t usually walk with a map as we know the Peak District National Park, which we live close to, pretty well. The Peak District is divided into two Peaks, the white and the dark, and we have OS maps for both. While I sometimes check one of the maps when we return from a walk, I’m not in the habit of taking them with us as we usually know exactly where we are going. So why did I want to take a map this Christmas?

Routine and Landscape

Recently I’ve been looking to extend our repertoire of walks. Although Dylan and I have in our heads walks of all lengths and levels (and for all moods, weathers and occasions) Dylan also has expectations about these walks in terms of routines which must be followed.  This might mean pausing at a particular bridge, walking around a specific tree, or always taking a left fork. Although Dylan’s commitment to ritual is comforting in its familiarity and mostly I enjoy it, there are times when the rigidity is limiting.

There is a walk up a local valley, for example, where Dylan insists we return by the  road instead of through the woods because the first time we ever walked that way that is what we did. In a certain valley in the Peak Park we must always take the ‘high track’, so aren’t able to explore some stones which I know would be of interest to Dylan but which lie below the track we have to follow. On other walks we aren’t able to join up the countryside in a creative way, moving from one route to another, because that isn’t allowed. This fixation on route is something which Dylan has demonstrated for years; even as a toddler he would cry if we drove home from the childminder’s the ‘wrong’ way.

I have been trying a few strategies to help Dylan accept some variety in his walks. One is to park the car at the ‘end’ of a route, or in the middle of it, in the hope that joining a walk at a different point will loosen Dylan’s commitment to a specific route. Another thing I’ve been trying is walking contrariwise around a familiar route so that the landscape looks slightly different. I have also been building in some brand new walks (which is where the maps come in). This has gone down reasonably well although Dylan is often cross, initially, and resistant. I am careful about what happens when we try out a new walk because of the possibility that it will become another fixed route. I’ve noticed that it is the second visit to a place which seems to be crucial; it is at this point that Dylan will establish a walk as a routine. Conscious that I don’t want to lay down more fixed routes, I try to subtly alter the walk on the second visit so that Dylan acquires multiple new routes.

Higger Tor, Christmas 2013

Higger Tor, Christmas 2013

On Christmas morning this year, when Dylan removed the map from my pile of things for the backpacks, he showed me that he understands perfectly well the function and purpose of a map.  He also showed me that he knows what the implications are for him: that we will be heading somewhere unfamiliar, where he will not be able to take his bearings from the landscape.

For Dylan this means that he can’t predict what is coming next. He can’t look forward to familiar landmarks and rituals. He has no idea whether it will include the opportunity to be by water or through trees (his favourite landscapes) or any ‘ups’ (his least favourite terrain). He doesn’t know whether there will be a pub mid-way or at the end of the walk (this is important to a young man who likes his pint of Blackcurrant and packet of crisps). Nor does he know how long the walk will take; whether or not we’re likely to pass other walkers; or if I’ll be relaxed enough to sing. My guess is that he realises there’ll be no singing:  I’ll be too busy checking the map and worrying about whether or not I’m going the right way (because I  don’t know what is ahead of us either so will feel vulnerable too).

Dylan’s instinct was right once again:  not a good formula for Christmas Day. I put the map away and we drove, instead, to the Longshaw Estate then hiked up to Burbage through the forest path by Burbage Brook then over Higger Tor, where we had our Christmas picnic, and Carl Wark before descending to walk in Padley Gorge. I don’t think this is one of Dylan’s all-time favourite routes (he’s not keen on the ‘up’ and the area attracts too many people), but it’s familiar to him and has the benefit of variety in the landscape.

The Visual World

But walking without a map can go wrong even in familiar landscape.  On Christmas Day in 2010, after our picnic by Agden reservoir, Dylan and I set off to hike up to a village with a pub which we like. At the top of a wood we rounded a bend to be met by a strangely unfamiliar landscape. Since we had last walked there, an entire plantation had been logged, transforming the countryside. With the covering of snow, I was completely disoriented, unable to get my bearings and at a loss as to where the footpath we usually took might be. I made several false starts across the bare hill, but aborted each time, lacking confidence in my judgement. I realised my only option was to ask Dylan to lead.

The logged plantation, a year later.

The logged plantation, a year later.

I occasionally do this if I lose track of where I am. Dylan almost always takes us confidently and without error to where we need to be; the only time this goes wrong is if he leads us, instead, to where he wants to be (a cake shop for example). But out on a Derbyshire hillside, on Christmas afternoon with the day on the turn, I knew that Dylan knew as well as I did that the only place to get to from where we were was the Old Horns.  Today, though, Dylan paused. When he did head off, on a left fork northward,  it was hesitantly. The land didn’t feel right beneath my boots. I alternated between hurrying (in the hope I would find something I recognised round the next bend) and dragging  (as if to turn back).

We were, indeed, walking the wrong way that day. Fortunately we met a family out walking who were able to re-direct us and, happily, we ended the afternoon with a pint in the pub. I told myself that some of the best days are lived without a map, but the experience made me realise that local knowledge is not infallible. More importantly I realised that Dylan’s usually excellent sense of direction isn’t wizardry or divined in the heavens like a mariner; it’s visual and based on the geological features and landmarks which he notices as we walk. Such features are generally dependable and predictable. They stay where they are and change only slowly. They don’t run away from you or give you the slip (like words can). Mostly anyway – barring Acts of God and lumberjacks.

The Healing Landscape

Dylan has responded to landscape since he was very young, not just in the sense of being aware of it, but by taking comfort in it. This is true of nature in general but familiar landscape, in particular, seems to be capable of healing him when he is anxious. The following poem (from my second collection, The Bat Detector) records an incident when Dylan was still quite young, perhaps two or three years old. At that point we hadn’t established fixed routes for walking or realised their potential significance. However, the poem illustrates me starting to learn these things.  In the poem I describe the healing which Dylan receives from a walk after a week of disruption at home.  At the end of the walk, however, my own sense of order is disturbed when we find our car has been broken into.  Through this petty theft, I am given a window into the way Dylan might have been feeling during that week.

Petty Theft

One of his inheritances:  the need for order,
his life bound by structure and routine.
So the week we dis- and re-assemble rooms
breaks his orientation to our world –
cries wrong way round in his bed all night,
screams the topsy-turvy days away until,
exhausted, we drag our hollow shells
into the familiar, constant hills.
We walk in no particular direction,
feeling the heal of our breathing
with the lift and fall of our boots
as he runs ahead to greet the known
trees (down to the ground, inside out)
with ritual circular dance until he is
rooted and soothed by the certain wood.

Breaking through bracken we make
for home but find ourselves adrift
at the wood’s edge – separated from
the small blue glint of car by acres
of Whortleberry. We strike out across
the heath, Dylan trilling and squealing
at the moths which fly up from deep
blue berries to flap around his head.
I bend among them, my face brushed
by the dusty wings of Lappet and Brindle,
to pinch the tips of leaves for fruits,
secrete them in my pocket.
As we approach the road, you crouch:
dig a clump of heather from the healing ground.


Later that week, sorting clothes for washing,
I will pluck my linen shorts from the basket
and find a Rorschach squash of Whortleberry:
the stain chromatographic, amethyst circles
closing to a livid heart. And I will remember
the day’s petty theft: how we sang along
the burning road to find a glittery mosaic
laced across our children’s seats, the baby’s milk –
glass crumbling like crushed ice around a jagging hole.

Christmas is also, of course, disruptive of our routines. You don’t need to be autistic to find this time of year difficult:  small children; unhappy couples; the recently-bereaved and the alone and lonely can all, in their different ways, find the lack of structure and routine challenging.  As another Christmas passes I am thankful, again, for nature’s gift to Dylan and for the routes through it he has learned without a map,  truly by heart.


Barrett, Elizabeth (2005) ‘Petty Theft’ in The Bat Detector, Wrecking Ball Press

For information about The Bat Detector see The Poems

A Cathedral Of Light: autism and the sublime

caldeyNow the clocks have gone back an hour for the end of British Summer Time it’s dark when Dylan gets home from his day care centre. Last week I pointed to the early evening moon and commented to him on the changing light. I don’t need to tell Dylan that winter is on its way though; he’s acutely aware of the passing seasons and is probably already anticipating the rhythm and ritual of the solstice season.

Although Dylan isn’t very verbal and has a learning disability he has a system for measuring the passage of time. Dylan’s DVDs are matched to days of the week: Thursday is Lion King, Friday is Polar Express, Saturday morning is Earthsea. Thus Dylan counts the days and predicts what is coming next. The system isn’t without its challenges: how to build new films into an already-packed schedule, for example, and the management of this elaborate arrangement during holidays when routines collapse. Nonetheless, Dylan’s approach is pretty effective. As well as counting days of the week Dylan has an uncanny feel for the hour of day. I could virtually set the clocks by him. If we are at home during the day Dylan always comes to find me at 2.30, when he likes to walk, and in the evenings he asks me to help him get ready for bed at precisely the same time. Some of Dylan’s perfect timing no doubt arises from the routine and structure of his days, but there is more to it than this I think.

Dylan is intensely aware of changes in the light. In a previous post I described how as a toddler he used to sprawl on his back in woods in order to squint at light leaking through the leaf canopy. Dylan still enjoys the play of light through trees and also loves walking by rivers, reservoirs and the sea. The attraction of the latter, I believe, is due to the effect which weather and light have on water. In a poem Praisestones I describe how Dylan likes to throw stones into water.  His ‘sole aim’, I suggest in the poem:  ‘is to glory in shattering/the surface of water’:  Dylan, I write: ‘casts stones/to break the world into splinters of light’. In the poem, I invest a spiritual quality to Dylan’s casting of stones into water. The first stanza ends:

There is a reverence to this; how he hauls
the stones to water, holds them high
above his head, lifts his face to the light.
His ritual is hurl them hard and fast –
then the spread cross of his empty hands.
His face is rapture.  The water shouts Hossannah.

This awareness of the effect of light on landscape is, I believe, a spiritual experience for Dylan.  I sometimes think of his engagement with the natural world as a manifestation of The Sublime,  a phenomenon which Ruskin defined as ‘the effect of greatness upon the feelings’.  The elements which Dylan loves – water, earth, air – combine in the natural world to a sort of  ‘Cathedral of Light’ in which Dylan can feel a greatness. This is not something I see as exclusive to autism particularly; in a poem The Best That I Can Be I describe the way in which landscape can have a similar impact on me. The poem (a sestina) ends:

And this is my vespers, as the sun
sets upon me standing here. Over moor and down
the steepled sky echoes in song; the best
sparkles of stained glass – larkspur, pink
and tangerine – glitter above me
as I kneel under the corona’s display.

On this Sunday hill – bathed, refracted in pink
light – I am stripped down to heart. The sun wants me
and I am best that I can be, here, beneath the sun’s display.

The poem carries the following quote from Emerson as an epigraph:

Nature is loved by what is best in us. It is loved as the city of God, although, or rather because there is no citizen. The sunset is unlike anything that is underneath it. It wants man.

Brittany 13 221Dylan, I think, loves nature as the ‘city of God’. His relationship with the sun, though, is conducted through glass as well as the outdoors. For Dylan, one of the best places to observe light through glass is a cathedral or church, so while we are not church-goers,  we are regular church-visitors. If we pass a church while we are out Dylan always wants to go inside, and when we go on trips and holidays it invariably involves a cathedral visit.

On a number of occasions Dylan has been so affected by the manifestation of light through stained glass that he has appeared to enter a trance-like state. On a visit to Walsingham, Dylan became so absorbed by his experience that we struggled to get him out of the church.  I often think that at the heart of these experiences is light. Perhaps if the world you inhabit is silent the impact of weather and light on the senses is profound. The ‘effect of greatness upon the feelings’ which Ruskin found in nature, and referred to as ‘The Sublime’, may be great indeed if, like Dylan, you do not speak.

In the 13th and 14th centuries, orthodox Christians developed an approach to devotional worship based on the practice of silence which was known as ‘hesychasm’. While mystics had always been attracted by light as a metaphor, Hesychasm emphasised its role in the transfiguration. Gregory Palamas, one of the monks on Athos and an exponent of Hesychasm, believed that through Hesychastic prayer it was possible to reach a vision of ‘divine light’. In this, MacCulloch explains, Gregory was referring to the moment on Mount Tabor when Jesus’ disciples saw that his face ‘shone like the sun’ (MacCulloch, p.111). Who knows what visions Dylan may have had.


Sunday afternoon: A west-facing room.
The sun streams through a pane of glass
above the door, casting a column of held light,
a slide of particles suspended in the air.
My silent son moves trancelike into the room –
walks deliberately as if drawn on thread –
cups his palms together then reaches up
above his head  – tries to hold the shaft of sun
in his hands – tries over and over, lacing
his fingers tight then unclasping them.
Surely he has seen this play of light
a hundred times? Today he is absorbed by it –
tilts back this throat so that his face lifts softly
like a moth to the source – opens his mouth
and walks forward, arms outstretched, the length of it.


Elizabeth Barrett (2005) ‘The Best That I Can Be’ in The Bat Detector, Wrecking Ball Press
Elizabeth Barrett (2007) ‘Praisestones’ in Walking on Tiptoe and Other Poems, Bluechrome Press
Elizabeth Barrett (2009) ‘Lighteater’ in Scintilla, Issue 13
Diarmaid MacCulloch (2013) Silence: A Christian History. Allen Lane


The photographs of light through cathedral windows are from some of our recent visits to churches and cathedrals in Kent, the Isle of Wight, Caldey Island, Wensleydale, St Malo and Carlisle. The photographs of Dylan were taken on the Norfolk Coast and at Walsingham (Easter 2010).