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Interview: Judith Line, poet

04 January 2019

‘It’s a dear, dear world, and I love it dearly, but it’s full of pain’

I was and still am a teacher, although no longer paid, and not in a school. Teaching’s mostly morphed into a listening ministry.

I’d always written poetry, but, after a course in creative writing with the Open University, I was encouraged to come out as a poet.

I write my way to clarity; edit; and edit again. Often, I don’t really know what the poem is about until I’ve written the last line, which may then become the first, or sometimes the title. The poem will tell me when it’s done.

I lived in Northamptonshire for more than 25 years, and, if you’re interested in poetry, landscape, and the natural world, you cannot avoid John Clare. As one of the creative writers at Northampton Museum and Art Gallery, I was involved in celebrations for the 150th anniversary of his death. He was a superbly observant man, wedded to his landscape and with an original turn of phrase. His lack of respect for punctuation led me to experiment similarly.

I was caring for my father who had dementia, while I was reading Clare’s biography by Jonathan Bate; so Clare’s predicament — being designated mad, and taken out of his environment — had a strong resonance. You had to know my dad to know what he was saying. And my mother, who died of motor neurone disease, was completely silent for two years; so she was in a similar predicament: watching herself die with a completely clear mind, unable to communicate.

It’s a dear, dear world, and I love it dearly, but it’s full of pain. That’s why I love the hard landscape of College Valley, in the Cheviots, where there are no roads through, and you can see its bones. It’s windy. It’s cold. You’re caught between the hills and the sea, and bounded by the wall, the border, the hills, and the sea. Because it’s enclosed and in the north, we’ve not had influxes of people from elsewhere. But the experience of the people here, I see as a semi-outsider, may seem a little smug and unaware of the problems of the south.

Other influences include Thomas Hardy, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Ted Hughes, Gillian Allnutt, R. S. Thomas, and growing up in the Northumberland coalfield, where neither the sea nor the hills were far away. My love affair with this place began at 18, and it’s here where I’ve finally, unexpectedly, arrived to live.

My identification with edge places, and people who find themselves there, is perhaps born of my left-wing upbringing, my work in school, my membership of the Community of Aidan and Hilda, and, latterly, my membership of the Quakers. Here on Holy Island we meet a great number of damaged people, come to seek solace, and I’ve come to understand the hard places which many inhabit.

I saw in school the difficult lives of many children. Towards the end of my time as a teacher, I worked with individuals and small groups, trying to meet some of their needs through writing, listening, paired working, creating a sense of achievement. Now, I see wars, displaced people, foodbanks, and a world which must make God weep. This is where the pain comes from; in order to deal with it in a way that enables me to go on, I write. I have been known to write protest psalms, when the going has been really tough. The desert can be a hard place to survive.

Perhaps my poetry is about spirituality rather than faith. I’ve no wish to write overtly religious poetry, but I hope my beliefs shine through some of what I write. What motivates me is people and their relationship with the landscape in which they find themselves. True hospitality is founded in knowledge of self, of a willingness to be open to others, and to God. This is what informs my own life.

The Community of Aidan and Hilda is founded on ideas drawn from early Celtic Christian spirituality, and we’ll celebrate its 25th anniversary next year. We’re not seeking to copy these two strong people who won others by modelling their beliefs, but to draw on their approach to faith to inform our living and help us reunite the various strands of Christianity.

We’re a new monastic community; so every member who takes vows draws up a personal way — not a rule of life — based on ten waymarks established by the founding members; and each of us has an anam cara, a soul friend. There are now three guardians, a Caim — circle — Council, and trustees. We’re a worldwide community, with members in four continents, held together in a four-fold rhythm of prayer.

I became involved in the community accidentally and yet deliberately. I was taken to Holy Island, by a friend who was searching for peace, and recognised that here were Christians sincerely trying to live what they believed. I felt immediately at home, volunteered to do some work there, and I’ve never stopped.

I run their library, and for ten years I’ve run a course in making a way of life, and I volunteer in the retreat house. This is a new monastic order — those who’ve taken vows have the opportunity to meet in retreat once a year. All adherents may meet annually at a gathering, and all are free to come to the island to stay, to work, to pray with us, or simply to be.

I’ve no idea when I first experienced God, because he’s always been there. But, after I began to visit Holy Island regularly, he became much more real, much closer. It was as if I was hearing very familiar things for the first time. This is a thin place, and that, combined with what I experienced in the retreat house — the talking, listening, worship, reading, friendship — has enabled me in my turn to walk gently alongside others.

Locally, I worship with Friends, because their silent worship, their ministry, deepens my understanding, enables me to explore further, and sharpens my social conscience. I’ve fused elements of Church of England liturgy, my way of life, and my soul friend, with mindfulness and silent worship, to sustain me.

My childhood wasn’t entirely easy — it couldn’t be, with a father in danger every day — but it was rich in music, in freedom, in companionship, and the love and encouragement of my parents, and a brother with whom I share many interests. He now lives in West Cornwall, an area not unlike Northumberland.

I live alone now, because my husband died 11 years ago. I read widely, grow fruit, vegetables, and flowers, botanise, roam the landscape, travel — mostly in Britain. I’m currently reading and consulting widely to discover what it would mean in practical terms to live in a more sacramental relationship with creation.

Now that I’m where I belong, and can spend more time thinking, I want to know how best to live the rest of my life. My listening ministry might develop. I might help more with retreats. I want to make my garden a mini-reserve for wildlife, putting into practice what I learned looking after natural churchyards in Northamptonshire, and — being back on the coal-field — understanding the stories of former miners.

My favourite sound now is silence.

Injustice makes me angry.

Perhaps happiness happens most when I realise that I’m in the right place at the right time in the right way.

I’m an optimist. My faith never really falters, and I’m surrounded by good friends and family. At present, I am praying harder than I ever have, for discretion, courage, time, the ability to listen well. I rarely make requests: usually, I just converse with God wherever I am, whatever I’m doing. Only when I was in a desert place — taking a moral stand without the support of other friends — did God feel very far away. Out in nature, he’s always near.

If I were locked in a place of worship, I would choose as my companion one of the two people who have walked the greater part of this journey into wholeness with me. It’s impossible to choose between them.

Judith Line was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

Copies of Accidental Men are available from the author: jeline@btinternet.com

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