Thresholds

I am not a fan of the penultimate. It is my least favourite time, the moment when you are about to cross a threshold but haven’t done so yet. The feeling of being about to step onto a rickety bridge between two cliffs, trying not to look down. Occupying the space between solid ground, except you are not so sure about the ground you are making your way towards, because nothing over there is part of your familiar yet.

It is so annoying that thresholds matter, because it means we come upon them over and over. It would be much more comfortable if one stage of life simply blended seamlessly into another, like a long meandering transition.

Instead thresholds feel more staccato, stuffed as there are with endings and beginnings, lines drawn in the sand. Frontiers that only emerge as you begin to approach them. The realisation that the miracle is found, not in the hoped for distance, but by the side of the road as you bend over with the exhaustion of being unknown and not yet loved.

The miracle is there with you stooped over taking in gulps of air, and is there with you lifting your head so your eyes fall upon the lit bush. And in that lit bush you notice yourself as if for the first time, catching up with who you have become since the last time you stood at a threshold.  Somehow in that tender moment you remember all the thresholds you have passed through to bring you to this one. You are reminded how, in the end, everything returns, and you read the words by poet David Whyte in his book Pilgrim, and he says exactly what your soul longs to say;

‘to have risked yourself for something that seemed to stand both inside you and far beyond you, that called you back to the only road in the end you could follow…in your rags of love…a prayer for safe arrival…what you wanted had already happened long ago and in the dwelling place you lived before you began and every step had carried the heart and mind and promise that first set you off and drew you on...that you were more marvellous in your simple wish to find a way, than the gilded roofs of any destination you could reach’.

Wow! – ‘you are more marvellous in your simple wish to find a way, than the gilded roofs of any destination you could reach’

May you, marvellous one, find a way, across the threshold that you face, with the assurance of the hand that has always been at your back, where you will find yourself again known, again understood, again loved.

Parting gifts – part five/5 – hello

This image is the first in the book ‘The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse’ by Charlie Mackesy. This image is the final one in my series of five posts of parting gifts. Notes to myself about what I’ve learnt being a mental health chaplain, and indeed a fellow human.

Hello

When I first saw this sketch it made me weep. I’d like to tell you this is not because I am big softy – though with certain things, perhaps I am. I glanced at it and it went straight to my heart, imprinted forever, because of the sheer simplicity of it.

‘Hello’.

We don’t know who arrived first – perhaps the boy was sitting there on the grass and the mole poked its head up. Or perhaps the boy spied something curious in the grass and sat down next to it to get a better look. This image is meaningful to me because it says what chaplaincy is about. We are not likely to have imagined this moment in our lives, finding ourselves so sick, or depressed, or lonely, or injured.  These things tend to arrive unanticipated and unwelcomed. So all of a sudden, more starkly than we may have realised it before, our humanity is absolutely paramount. We notice the tiniest kindness and squeeze all we can from it, live off that kindness for as long as possible. In mental health especially there is much less pretence or masks being worn. And chaplains find all that, see all that, come along side all that, and say ‘hello’. We ask to sit down in the grass and take a look at what is going on. My humanity meets your humanity. That ‘hello’ absolutely validates the importance of who is there and of this particular moment. So I can’t possibly go all armoured up, they would see right through me. This picture speaks of  vulnerability and simplicity in the meeting one with another, not knowing where this ‘hello’ will take us, if anywhere. So again and again we turn up, we risk ambivalence and rejection, we are often surprised by how are made welcome as a guest in anothers’ life, and we always, always, start with ‘hello’.

Parting gifts – part four/5 – weather fronts

Weather fronts

Generally you have to pack for all weathers in chaplaincy. You never know what weather front is coming in to the life in front of you. What was a sunny day last week may be a great storm, or what was weeks of bleak grey drizzle, the skies have parted and light streams in. I have walked into profoundly spiritual spaces and had to instantly try and tune in. I have walked into spaces that appear devoid of all hope and are defined entirely by what is absent.

One of the truest things I know is that the next fifteen minutes matter, because they are all we have, because they are moments which are lived, they are moments when we are in each others company and affirming the validity of each other being there. All that is required of us is to occupy the next 15 minutes because those 15 minutes may allow a person to be harm free, safe, comforted, recognise that they are on solid ground. There is a marvellous gift in being a chaplain where your being there allows a person to carve out a space to connect themselves with what matters most to them. Of all the 15 minutes they have available to them, and I have available to me, these ones are sacred. So yes I may need a brolly, or wellies, or a thick skin, or sunscreen, or a good sense of humour, or a wind proof jacket. This is ok. I have a big bag. Chaplaincy is for all weathers, all climates, all temperatures, all of it, and it is ever-changing. Best to be prepared.

It also means there may be a need for a short respite in the loo, or in the car park where you metaphorically change out of your now cold, wet shoes. You cannot wear those all day, it will make you miserable. So there have been times when I literally, physically stood outside and had to ‘shake off’ what doesn’t serve me after an encounter. I take off my metaphorical rain coat and hang it out to dry. If I just hurriedly bundle it up in a bag and stick it in the boot it will be mouldy and useless next time I need it. So I find a way to take it off, hang it up, let it dry out. I will need it again.

Parting gifts – part three/5 – unuttered words

Words

The folk I’ve worked with in general all have too many voices, too many words in their heads. Turns out words can be the most unhelpful thing. Turns out that some space and silence and pause are not only beautiful but necessary. Turns out that chaplains, for me, have been the ones who have been able look at pain without averting their eyes. The most meaningful prayers that I have heard have been when patients have spoken them themselves, from their heart, deep to deep. All I have done is carve out a bit of space, reminded them they are always on sacred ground, and there, in that space they encounter what most moves  and connects their heart and soul. For some this is the Divine, for some this is who Anne Lamott calls ‘my carpenter friend’, for some this sense of wonder does not have a name at all.

Whatever this sacred connection is, it is not stuck over there behind ancient or religious words– it is here, on the unuttered side.

The unuttered side

What if words are the most unhelpful thing?

What if there are already too many voices?

What if this highly crafted liturgy is too much, too foreign?

What if these words cannot be understood or uttered?

Is God stuck on the other side of them?

Or is God right here, already on this side of those words,

On the unuttered side

Maybe silently

Maybe tangibly

Maybe earth-embodied

Or us-embodied

But in fact

Right

Here

Parting gifts – part two/5 – dreams

Dreams

I had been brought up to dream big and do something significant. Not by my family so much as my earlier faith communities and society at large with all its inspirational quotes and ideals. Like we have to make our lives count. And there is of course something to be said for that.

But all this significance can be a bit overwhelming and what if you find yourself in a place where your dreams are appear tiny or simple from the outside but seem insurmountable to you?  

Like imagine you have been living on a mental health ward for months and not spoken to anyone. At. All. For over three weeks. Because every sound makes you anxious and jumpy and all you can do is cry. And then finally you voice that all you want is to go home, live in your home with your partner and go back to work in the coffee shop with your friends. What if this was the only dream that mattered? Or for others where their big dream is a life where their son doesn’t hear voices that tell him to take his own life. Slow Moving Millie wrote a song called ‘Please please’.

‘Haven’t had a dream in a long time, see the life I’ve had, could make a good man turn bad. So for once in my life…Please, please let me get what I want – Lord, knows it would be the first time’.

Perhaps this sounds melodramatic to you. For most people it would be a very melodramatic thing to sing with any integrity. But for the person in their mid-thirties, who has only known abuse and has no one in their life who loves them outside of the institution of people who are paid to care for them in their crushed mental state, it is the only thing they could say. It is the only dream they could dream. 

Parting gifts – part one/5 – stories untold

Next week I finish my job as a mental health chaplain. I am about to embark as a chaplain elsewhere and there will be more to say about that. But right now, as I step away, say goodbye, I share with you a few snapshots from where I’ve been. A tale or two I offer of lives I have seen, walked a little along with, of footnotes I have made for myself as I’ve worked in mental health as a chaplain, and what preconceptions have been torn apart for me.

Untold stories

I need speak about them for their stories are not often told

Lives with great lines going through them

Stripped back humanity

Niceties are gone

But so is pretense

Which is refreshing

But what is unearthed is

achingly devastating

like bare roots

like exposed wounds

like unmanned kites tearing across a sky

like a life where there is no one outside the institution to care, no one invested except professionals

like the life of abuse suffered so young means now this life may never recover

like a life where there are no good memories to remember, or to forget

like a life where fixed beliefs of cause and effect are so ingrained

that the past predetermines the future

like where who the person is, is not enough and so the idea of embodying a higher power seems much more preferable.

Like the young beautiful soul who is so convinced it has nothing good within it and can only ever cause harm,

Like a life where you have such a beautiful voice and only four walls to sing to

because the section keeps and contains this life. The voice sings ‘damn these walls’, these walls of the ward, walls of the mind which hold a world from which there is no escape, walls of the cells which refuse to absorb goodness, who have learnt to resist what offers wellness.

Like lives where nothing changes, lives maintained in a holding pattern. Lives where losses continue of bereavement and identity but all on a backdrop of poor mental health and damaged social structures. Where folk do not recognise themselves or their behaviours anymore. Where every battle is hard won, housing, repaired relationships, acceptance of medication, openness to therapy.

Like lives walked in the perpetual half light. That is what we enter too, trying to stumble along, to find a way, to forge a path although we cannot see and we try to remain alongside for as long as possible, for is it hard to walk alone in the half light.

Ensemble

If you take a good look around, in most people’s lives you will find an ensemble. Some may call it your team, some may call it wherewithal, some may say they are a ‘self made man’ and have no need for such things. I do not think I have met anyone who has attained safety or success or realised a fraction of their dreams without the backing of an ensemble.

Pick a person and look really closely at their lives and you will find those who have got their back, who they can trust. An ensemble made perhaps of financial security, or of a safe family home to return to, a close knit geographical or religious community, or some solid life long friends who will never leave them hanging.

Those who I have met who really struggle to get by, for years on end, those with little hope, they are the ones who seem not to have much of an ensemble. Perhaps because they never have, or because they are now estranged, or because they cannot hear it, even if its playing right by their ear – singing ‘we are here’.

There have been times in my life when I assumed the ensemble was there but then turned around to find it gone, diminished, the sound faded, muted. I was devasted to find myself sing alone. I couldn’t do it really. I did not fare very well. I sounded crap. Everything was crap. And those who knew me well could tell, like ‘where has her music gone?’ Little by little my ensemble has re-grouped, it looks different to what it did before, I’ve learnt some new tunes too, but I never doubt that I need them there. Every one of them. They help me sing my song. I cannot explain why the hard things happen. But how well we cope or not?  Our ensemble will determine that. So I hope in turn I make up part of the ensemble in others lives. I can do this with a fierceness I cannot always muster for myself.

I read some words recently that brought instant tears of recognition to my eyes. They are taken from the book by Raynor Winn ‘The Salt Path’

The shock of good news is almost as powerful as the shock of bad news’.

I love her for writing this. I felt understood and heard and reassured by these words. I’ve been trying to explain this but not able to express it. When things have been crap for so long and you feel boring even saying it because you just sound like a moaner, but then you say to yourself

who would do well under these circumstances?

and you can’t think of anyone. And you know it is possible for things to be better but this seems unobtainable and then suddenly out of nowhere comes good news, it feels foreign, unreal, like

is this really for me?’.

It bothers me when folk say ‘my friend deserves it, they have worked so hard’. I know these words are true, but also what is often true is they are standing next to another friend who has fought just as hard and for whom things have not fallen into place. And so I am curious about the phrase ‘They earnt this’.

Because both friends deserved goodness.

We all do.

It helps to remember this because when things fall apart it doesn’t mean it is because you didn’t try hard enough, or because you were somehow inadequate. I have had to put aside the  nagging inner voice that said, ‘well things are not working about because you are undeserving, you have missed something, you made the wrong choice.’ And so good news can be hard to believe and accept because it is hard not to panic about when the next storm will hit. Hard not to feel like we’re just living on borrowed ‘good time’ until the familiar disappointment sets in. But I’ve found if I live like this I become one of my most feared things a ‘joy hoover’. Hoovering up all the joy in my own life before I’ve let it bed in for a bit. Afraid to let it settle, afraid to let go, afraid to trust this good, precious moment. The good precious moment which will feed my soul, which will replenish me, like all good gifts do, if we let them. I am learning to live not panicked, breathlessly in the top half of my lungs, awaiting the next disaster. But more slowly, more deeply, trusting in the goodness that comes, trusting that the next breath will come. This next full, fresh, life giving breath will power my song and be met in the air with resounding voices of my ensemble.

For together, we sing.

Image by Thomas Steiner from Pixabay

This bit of earth and sky

Ever feel like your world has gotten smaller? I have trod the same paths over and over. I have been forced to explore and pay attention close to home. If you ever visit the bit of earth and sky that I’ve inhabited I could tell you so much more about it now than I could 6 months ago. A strange thought this, that as we travel elsewhere, each bit of earth and sky has been someones ‘patch’. A ground made sacred by forced repetition. Each bit of earth and sky that has been home and witness to so many people, and days, and narratives.

In the light of this I must remember to tread more gently.

I took a walk, back along, in those hazy summer days we had in May in the late afternoon. I found myself slowing until I stood stock still, in the holy light that is cast by the falling sun, drawn to the lengthening shadows sighing out their day. The shadows gave permission to expand, rest in the cooling breeze, soften inside and out, accept the day that is almost done, rejoice that it is not yet dark. The shadows spread and stretch as far as they possibly can, allow themselves to take up more room. This is the gift of the closing day, the sun that accepts us as we are, that says ‘I’m glad you are here’.

This sky above 
This earth below 
The close shadow of the morning 
who dares not venture too far from its source, 
learns by early evening 
to spread and stretch as far as it possibly can. 
To allow itself to take up more room.   

The flowers sitting just an inch above land, 
peering between the multitude of blades of grass, 
know exactly when the dark is due. 
They fold themselves in,
tuck in safe. 
They say 
'Now is the time to hunker down, ,
to live quietly, gently, the whole night through.   
Trust that light and warmth 
will come 
with the dawn and dew
When our faces, 
and yours, 
will open gently again, 
toward the sun'.

Image by Hans Braxmeier from Pixabay

holidays

In spite of everything we managed a holiday. Family in a van. Changeable weather. Changeable moods. Same sky. I took paper and pencil and wrote a poem a day, by way of capturing them as they passed by. If you wish sit back, read, listen and take a trip with me, see where it takes your mind and memories, day by day, until we return safely home. 

Day One 
The lake whipped up
An artificial blue
making home for human,
boat and swan.
Thick mud under foot,
best to stay afloat.
Shrieks of joy,
banter with strangers,
roaming dogs,
feral children.
The threat of rain
which never comes
 
Time fades,
it is not significant here.


Day Two

The wind blew through today
bringing a perpetual freshness,
a transience to the day.
Wind bringing up miniature showers
of spray from under the pedlo
Wind cooling the warmth
Of the locked van.
Wind tousling my unbrushed hair,
caressing my unmade up face.
Wind blowing freely,
as it ever does.
Changing all the spaces
it is in,
if only for a few moments.
Blowing away what was there,
drawing along something new.


Day Three

A day of changing light
grey light,
green light, as cast
through the trees.
Fire light,
bright flame,
glowing ember.
Fairy light,
on soft bed,
as eyelids close,
gathering memories
known only by our dreams
and the watchful trees.


Day Four 



The ease with which a day passes
when in the company of friends.
The time slipping
seamlessly into
one long glorious day.
There is only lightness here,
and softness,
and joy.
Everything, just for a moment,
in this place,
is exactly
as it should be.


Day Five


A confusing day
A ‘why me?’ day
Calculating the injustices
in my head.
Hearing and seeing
the honestness of life
It’s wounds and scars
cannot be hidden
or ignored for long
We, the walking wounded
carry ourselves
where ever we go,
stumbling forward
into our next step.
Day Six


The rain fell through
the light onto the
body of brown canal water
in such a way
that it appeared
as fireflies skitting,
Or as bright dots
behind the eyes in a head rush,
or as disco lasers dancing
across a sticky pub floor.
A moment of absurd beauty,
Appearing where it does not belong,
but it turns up anyway.
A glimpse of the miraculous
on an otherwise
less than ordinary day.
Day Seven 


Take me to the river
Where the water flows
Cool and deep
Each glimpse of a
Passing body of water
Washes over my soul
Rinsing away
The dirt stuck there
Mile by mile
River by river
I am healed.
Day Eight 


The feral hunter gatherer’s
brown paper bag
is brimming
with rocks, like dinosaur eggs
Lichen from the fairy woods,
sticks whose value is known
only to their owner
endowed with attributes
of the imagination.
 
These collected treasures
were joined today
by gifts from the sea.
Sandy enormous shells,
a crab claw
Memories of a jelly fish graveyard
washed up on shore
Their bouncy bodies
acting as a trampoline
for broken starfish
The tales of a small girl,
discoveries of five year old eyes
wonders of a growing heart.
Clutched by sticky fingers
in a brown paper bag.
Day Nine


The sand
here
tells of
ships
stones
sailors
shells
 
Some now
so fine
they are barely
there.
Unless it is
in your eye
where it becomes
a football.
 
Sand, the only terrain
which is always
a canvas.
An artists dream
to rewrite tales
from the fragments
of untold stories
Ground down
into particles
layer upon layer
forming a golden canvas
for creations anew.
Day Ten 



Nothing but air above
Nothing but water below
The membrane between
The two is paper thin.
For floating on,
for cutting through
arm over arm
 
Face down is another world
which belongs to the creatures
of the deep.
Face up, to breath and view
the canopy above,
another world unobtainable.
 
You will find me here
on this glassy surface
where one element
meets another.
 
Impenetrable to both,
neither home to me.
 
Yet my presence 
forges a connection
between them,
And, even so,
between the elements
of air and water
that reside within my soul.
 

Toast and Tea

There was a time in recent years past, and for you it may have been in recent weeks or months. It may even be right now, where we sink below the level of comfort. Find ourselves in financial dire straights. This horrified me, like I was always skating atop the abyss of shame. Panic like a rising tide. I remember one day very clearly. The day my friend came over for lunch and all I had to offer was bread and a banana. She sat very calmly at my kitchen table and matter of factly said 'I'd really like banana on toast'. So that's what I made, tears burning, kettle boiling, heart warming. She gave my lack no ceremony, she did not draw attention to it, or decline what little I could offer. She did not patronise me, she did not pretend it was fine. But it was as it was. There would not be feast today, or abundance or cake.  Indeed who the heck knew when there would be such times again? But my friend sat with me at my kitchen table, we made bread and water into toast and tea. I'm not sure I have words to describe what I learnt from her that day. But if I do, it resides somewhere in the essence of this poem, which I dedicate to her. 
The scattered breadcrumbs 
speckle the chipped blue plate 
like art 
Cold dredges of tea lurk 
forming a ring around the 
bottom of my favourite cup  
(purchased in better times, 
in a bustling market square 
on some sunny Saturday). 
Folded banana skin 
sits too by the sink 
waiting till the door closes 
on her visit.
Reminders that even when 
there is not much,
there is still something. 
She showed me how, 
with a little acceptance, 
bread and water 
can become toast and tea. 
As my hands sink into soapy suds 
I know this to be true 
Because she came 
and sat with me. 

Image from Simple Things Magazine

Header Image by Frank Oschatz from Pixabay