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Let’s imagine life as a book, chapter by chapter, line by line, sometimes we can’t wait to turn the page, sometimes we dread to. We can’t skip ahead like in a book though and read the last pages to see if and how matters might resolve. How we would love to do that right now.

In life’s sentences and stories and characters there are also two critical elements. There are spaces between the words and these spaces are vital because without them nothing makes sense at all. And there are punctuation marks. These punctuation marks seem common to all humanity, they are the markers, the rites of passage, the repetitions that transcend culture and faith.

The …

For all of us at times find ourselves at the moment of …

Those times of excruciating waiting, when we live in the land of the unknown and aren’t even sure if we want to know what is on the other side of those dots. I for one do not like waiting. There is a kids book by Mo Willems called ‘Waiting is Not Easy’ and one of the characters groans all the way through the book as he tries and fails to patiently wait. I can connect with those exasperated groans. I would like resolution please and as quickly and efficiently as possible. Resolution almost never happens this way. It has a different make up – it is slower and apparently inefficient. W.H Auden describes such times as ‘The Time Being’. He says ‘the time being is, in sense, the most trying time of all’. We are currently living in the time being. Auden pragmatically says ‘the time being to redeem from insignificance’. So right now is not insignificant. We may not be able to identify the significance of what is taking place in full until much later. We will come out of this ‘…’ changed and formed, as individuals and families and society. Who still gets to be here will have changed and those who remain will not be the same again. As a chaplain I liken this ‘…’ to the perpetual half light and no one likes living here for long.

The !

We collectively know that the ! feels like.

The ! can signify anger and we feel such emotions so strongly and express them so fiercely and stand up for what we believe is right for ourselves, for those we love, for causes we care about. And these moments make us who we are. What we care about enough to act. These matters define us. For that which we will rise and fight for tells of our heart and our bottom line. This is one of those times.

The ! of course also appears at times of joy and celebration. We know how to deal with the ! we know how to celebrate anothers’ joys. We love an occasion, a festival, a feast. Making the most of these moments with others by playing, creating and having fun, revitalise us. The collective celebration, mix of tradition and common time to pause and party are momentous and stand out from the more ordinary days and sentences that we live out. In these strange days, birthdays and anniversaries and marriages and babies being born and achievements to mark continue, even though much else is in desolation. We will need to find ways to celebrate one anothers’ joys under the circumstances we find ourselves in. I am encouraged though to look at the great diversity of celebrations across time and place that speak of our ability to be creative and resourceful and to experience joy.

the ?

There are times when the ? raises itself over and over

Stuck with questions, endless ones. The questions teach us more than any answers and I find it very arrogant when others seem to have answers to all the questions which matter. They don’t of course, they have opinions. There is a lovely bit in Pixar movie ‘Inside Out’ when a box of facts and opinions gets mixed up and a character says ‘I’m sure it doesn’t matter’. We often live like this is the case.

I was taught as I studied youth work about the word ‘educare’ – to draw out. It may be our job as communities to sit and be with lots of questions about life and let these questions draw out from within ourselves some meaning in all the confusion. This means choosing to live in the land of ‘I don’t know’, which generally requires leaving our ego’s at the door – they will not fit into the land of I don’t know.

The ,

Now, the most beautiful punctuation mark of all is the ,

We need the , because we need pauses and lots of them. We need familiar things in our lives which allow us to take a breath. Some might call these rituals. For some this will be a sacred religious act and this is like taking a spiritual breath in. For others they need a good long walk in the grassy field or to spend half an hour with a mentor they will never meet by reading their book. Or others meditate, or others knead bread, or others who live by the sea go and stare at its wonder. Whatever they are, the comma’s in your life, they may be scarce right now, or you may be finding new or alternative ones. But it is worth paying attention to the detail in the story of our lives. We cannot live out the sentences of life without taking a breath in, or we will run out of air.

The *

* indicates some kind of additional information, a footnote, a matter that may need further consideration or explanation. And this is, in part, why I write, because my life continues along and sometimes I need to say ‘hang on a minute’ and look again at what has just occurred and try and get my head and heart round it. To try and absorb more fully the meaning of the last few paragraphs. Sometimes it helps to read a paragraph  a few times over to better understand it and then make a few footnotes so you don’t forget what you’ve learned.

the “ ”

Here is the marvellous “  “

Where other people who we live along side and who are such important characters in our story get to say something, and it is so pivotal in the story that it gets speech marks. And so we pay attention to what is said. We may even get out a yellow highlighter. We may be so bowled over that someone believes in us and is on our side and cares enough to say so. Or we may need reminding to be a little kinder to others and gentler on the earth. The voice of the other in my story cuts through the continuous, (and at times monotonous) voice of me. There are many voices out there. You get to decide which ones will be definitive in the story of your life.

the ?.,!…*”

There is of course, like right now, a moment when all that describes how we feel is ?.,!…*”

Often used in place on an expletive because all of it comes at once. My son came home from school just before they closed and said he was told to choose a word from a list that described how he felt about Coronavirus ‘relaxed, scared, confused, sad…’ I listened and thought to myself, well, all of them. We can feel all of those things concurrently and certainly across any given day I can go from feeling relatively peaceful to feeling lost and baffled and I tend to settle on a a tentative ‘I think I can do the next right thing’.

The .

The one that finishes things. The .

The end of something. The end of a job. We mark that. The end of a relationship. The end of a life. We mark that too. What has been, has been and can be no more. The finality of the full stop. This could be completion of something good – but that would more likely be marked with an exclamation mark. So in my experience the full stop tends to be more sombre, more poignant. It is the line in the sand. So that is that. Even if we didn’t want that at all. There are predicted to be a great more full stops in the coming days than we feel we could ever bear. We are likely to all end up knowing someone for whom the full stop of life has come too soon. We will need to collect, gather and hold tenderly these full stops and all the lives and stories that are connected to them.

These punctuation marks of life are part of our story. It turns out they make sense of all the letters and words and thoughts and deeds and characters and storylines. They make life readable, do able and it is worth paying them some attention.

2 thoughts on “Punctuation marks

  1. Hi,

    Thank you for your series of thoughts, they are beautifully expressed and clearly emanate from deep and long practiced reflection and sensitivity. As a fellow healthcare chaplain, currently self isolating and panicking about being thrust into perpetual interaction with my beautiful but wild children (!) I found a new series of “commas”in your work which is a blessing; it’s a bit like having to learn a new song and being given permission to breath.
    One punctuation mark you don’t mention is the endlessly mysterious semi-colon which to my feeble brain is somewhere between a comma and a full stop, somewhat tenuously connecting two thoughts within the half-light of a mysterious whole.
    Thank you for trusting your inner light and sharing it in these strange tones.


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