Valentines day 2021
a 6 year old sits at his small wooden table
plucks out a felt tip pen
What does his hand choose to draw this day?
He scribbles what his heart tells him to,
what love would be.
Love would be a 2 metre climbing frame,
a 2 metre climbing frame
so he can play at a safe distance
at the park
with his friends.
What matters is not the distance
but the park
and his friends
and thier playful hearts.
Its been a long year for us all,
its been a longer year for our small ones,
one sixth of his whole life in fact.
That's too much time,
not enough climbing frames.
Too much, 'stay still, quiet now, calm down, keep away'
and not enough, 'go, run, shout, be free, play'
The year that did its best to steal the play away,
except it is kids we are dealing with,
and they will find a way.
It is time to re-wild the hearts of our small ones,
the tiny hearts which have broken,
and it has gone unspoken.
They have not the words to frame their loss
rather a deep sense that all has not been right with the world.
It has become clear to them that
their parents are great at being parents,
but they are really not great
substitutes for their half-pint-sized friends.
Turns out adults are not as funny as they like to think
Kids know this now.
Kids seek one another.
they have been hiding for too long.
They are coming...ready or not.
It is time to bring back the sticky, sweaty hands
poking out from miniature high viz jackets.
The walking bus of endless meaningless chatter,
that means so much in the end.
Time to bring back tag playing, secret keeping, joke telling nonsense,
which is all that is needed to make sense of the world.
It is time to dangle upside down on the swing,
fall off the slide,
and get grazed knees,
reclaim the playground,
re-wild our young ones,
to be free.
Back along I lived among the fields. In that first lockdown when we all of a sudden felt obliged to take a walk a day whether we wanted to or not. Those days were spring days. But also troubled days and so I found myself taking something to the fields. I came to internally name these as a ‘one field problem’, ‘two field problem’, ‘three field problem’. How many fields it took to absorb some of my pain. The gritty earth, the trampled grass, the ignorant flowers that bore the weight of my soul for me.
Somehow the left and right repetition of it, the deep breath cleansing of it, the physical sun on my face, wind in my hair, mud on my shoes, heart pumping rigour of it, shifted things around. The problems not solved exactly, my mind often raced around and around. But it raced slower than normal because it also had to navigate the stile and my ears could not help but hear what the birds had to say about things, singing as they do doggedly at the start and close of every day.
Just now I live a bit farther from a field and it is winter. The dull winter time too when we have endured January but there are weeks to go before spring will start to sing. And I awake with my problems, a new set has been added in, rendering my soul void but my head spinning. I am tired to the bone and am inclined to remain in the warmth of my bed which has held my exhaustion, is familiar with my tears. But my pillow has absorbed so many anxious thoughts at 3am it is saturated and will not comfort me.
And my kids are up, one twirling round singing with lightness and daftness, the other delivering me their poem, a gift to me in my sadness. He has called it ‘Snow’.
Out the window snow covers the ground completely. I notice also that the sun has found her way in the sky today.
I remember the three fields.
I pull on boots, leave my phone at home and head out. I walk and walk and keep on walking to that ever moving horizon until things in me start to shift, until the racing slows, until I stop a moment and see. See the winter that slows all the seasons, see the snow that covers all that grows, the trees that stand still and patient, wrapped under layers of white cold.
I find my soul in this cold climate.
Turns out my son knew this already. For his 8-year-old, misspelt, scrawled, folded up, poem to me this morning reads;
The nice place is home, The warmth of the bed. The wonderful snow. The snow is white and calm, kind and beautiful. Take care, because the snow will guide you, to where you belong, your heart. LFR 2021
I hold in my heart the women I have known, my dear friends, my colleagues I’ve worked with, those I’ve learnt alongside. I call to mind my mentors who’ve listened and walked along side me. I remember the women I’ve read who’ve spoken exactly what needs to be said. I think of my female idols in culture past and present. I look at all of this in my minds eye and all I can see are curves, beautiful, necessary curves, like the Angel of the North, contoured and absolutely resolute. Like the curved forms created by Gaudi (my token male here) to draw with lines soft and still have them stand strong.
A song then, to the women I have known…
To the women who were objected to
because they were too soft,
and cared too much.
To the same women who were told
they were too fierce
and too strong.
Soft and strong in all the wrong places,
like some grotesque part lion, part lamb,
so they could not decide which kind of cage would suit you best,
even though they could not bear to look at you in any case,
even if they would not see you.
To the women who have refused
to nip and tuck who they are,
who have ceased trying and rightly failing
to contort themselves into very specific shapes.
To the women who have kept their whole selves,
not left pieces behind in their wake,
but gathered up instead, insults and all.
To the women who have put two fingers up
to the many things they could change so slightly,
told these voices to jog on.
Refused to succumb to something so unlike them,
Refused to change the orientation of their heart,
Refused to re-train their mind to think in ways more conventional.
Refused to cover up their face and body to be deemed more acceptable.
Refused to pretend,
and so find themselves always at home.
Always with a bottom line to stand on.
A fidelity to a way of being.
The way of soft and strong.
The year came in like a rolling tide, in pounding waves that would not subside. So much so we could not fight it or hold it back. All we could actually do in the end was to take the surest and firmest position and stand resolutely in the sinking sand beneath our feet, letting the waves pummel us over and over. Sometimes being swept under by a waves’ full force, tumbling, holding our breath until we resurfaced again, finding air and re-taking our stand.
The dawning realisation there is no boat coming to take us to a distant shore. Beyond the shore is not where we live out our lives. Our times are here in the frothing, crashing tumult of it all.
But we are not alone, we are battered for sure, but not alone. Looking down the shoreline we notice distant dots, also swaying, also bending, also enduring, but still standing. As fierce as the waves which roll in behind them.
The losses came thick and fast, death by a thousand tiny cuts. Or if by not this, then by the relentless sorrow manifest in the lives of our friends. Life-changing accidents. Sudden death leaving families reeling in its wake. IVF again. Cancer again. Addiction again. The odds stacking up against us seared as we are by separation Losses, almost such that they defined us completely. Save, in the end they did not They could not. For silently, out of a banished corner crawls kindness, on her knees inching forward into the light and in her shadow, holding tightly onto her hand for safety emerges a tiny but fierce creature we recognise as Hope.
This Christmas time it may be, that this simple thing, may be someone else’s, missing, everything. The early morning The torn wrapping The late lunch Grandma’s hunch The warm home One another Food to share Walks together For some None is there No gifts of care Food alone A silent home So let the potatoes burn and gravy be lumpy Let eyes roll but hearts be happy Those divine hands that forged the earth are now Tiny fingers round a thumb This simple thing that was to become the earths, missing, everything. Let our eyes see, ears hear, hearts be open To the tiny moment, a gift from heaven For our simple thing, may be someone else’s, missing, everything.
by Kate Fox Robinson
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
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
But in fact
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.