Moments of Reprieve

Sometimes we are gifted a special day. Certainly I was not expecting it, losing sleep as I have been over the latest IPCC report on climate and by the heartrending news from Afghanistan. And certainly I did not deserve it. But that’s sometimes how things work. Moments of surprise and joy turn up at unexpected times in unexpected places. For no particular reason or merit. Moments of reprieve. *

Last week a friend and I climbed a green hill in Dorset. After days of grey, the sun shone hot, chased by fast moving clouds in a blue sky. A pair of buzzards mewed and wheeled over the woods. The hill was so steep it was like climbing a step ladder.

Half way up by a stile we met an ancient oak, blasted by wind and time but holding fast with a single rooted foothold. Still standing, still green. Crowning the top, contained by earthworks, an almost perfect ring of tall pines shimmied in the wind. A hill fort? A sacred site? We took in the 360 views across ancient lands farmed since Saxon times to the sea to the south, then lay in the grass absorbing the energy from earth and sky.

Suddenly a glider emerged from the cloud, white, lean, with a huge wing span and eerily silent. Followed by another, and then another and another: we counted sixteen as they disappeared one by one into the next cloud mass. Had we imagined them?

On our descent one of the wheeling buzzards swooped in and settled on the outstretched branch of the ancient oak, letting us get unusually close before lifting off with a whoop of wing beats, insouciant of its strength and beauty. It was impossible not to gasp with the pleasure of that power and grace. While high above a dozen of the glider-birds circled silently, riding the thermals like the spookiest of space-age Pterodactyls. I was half way across the stile when a deep booming engine noise hit us, and the massive hulk of a Hercules cargo plane crested the hill above, almost scraping the tree tops. It descended towards us so low that I involuntarily ducked before it thundered away, climbing eastwards (surely, I thought later, it was heading for Turkey and thence to Kabul).

Unsettled, curious, what was I to make of this succession of flying ‘birds’, these messages of flight? Plenty of neat answers could present themselves, but I find myself happy to accept the joy of that day as a gift sufficient in itself. So instead of stretching for meaning I let these images of flight live within me. A moment of reprieve. These words of Rumi seem fitting:

There are many guises for intelligence. One part of you is gliding in a high windstream, while your more ordinary notions take little steps and peck at the ground.

Conventional knowledge is death to our souls, and it is not really ours. It is laid on….

We must become ignorant of what we have been taught and be instead bewildered.

*Moments of Reprieve is the title of a collection of short stories by Primo Levi, documenting the tales of kindness, beauty and spontaneous creativity in the midst of the hell of Auschwitz.