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 relentlesssorrow 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 theydefined us completely. Save, in the end they did notThey could not. For silently, out of a banished cornercrawls kindness, on her kneesinching 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,
The early morning
The torn wrapping
The late lunch
The warm home
Food to share
None is there
No gifts of care
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,
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,
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,
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.
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.
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
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.
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.