Parting gifts – part two/5 – 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.


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


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
tells of
Some now
so fine
they are barely
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


I don’t know about you, but I have come to be very cautious around the word ‘transformation’. It makes me nervous. It comes loaded with power and assumption and disappointment. To me one of life’s greatest cons is that something can be transformed instantly, like the adverts or slogans or mission statements say.

And yet I cannot deny transformation. Seasons demonstrate a continual, slow transformation, from one state of being to another.  Nature does this without signing up to the belief that one state is better than another, merely that it happens.

There is a wonderful book called ‘Hope for the Flowers’ which describes, mainly with pictures, two caterpillars who end up climbing a tower made from lots of other climbing caterpillars. They end up treading on other caterpillars to reach the top and once there, above the clouds, all they see is lots of other caterpillar towers. On seeing this one caterpillar climbs back down and finds themselves in a chrysalis, later emerging a winged butterfly.

It is a beautiful book about transformation of body and of heart. Turns out we need transformation, to find another way, to make a small or radical change. More important still is the location of this transformation. I have been in places where the prevailing message is that one person can transform another, indeed we are made to believe it is our responsibility to do so. At best this overestimates our capabilities. At worst it is a kind of arrogance.

No one else actually transforms the caterpillar into the butterfly. The environment of the chrysalis, the succumbing to the time and place that leads to change. Only the caterpillar can do that.

My youth work training offered me this piece of advice ‘the best you can hope for is small victories’. I’m not even sure if victories is the most helpful word, resonating as it does, of one conquering another. Nevertheless I found some truth in it, because I only saw those children and young people for a tiny fraction of their life. I could only offer limited time and space to show them care and worth and value, and hope against hope that they would understand. But so many other messages were coming at them in their lived experience, in their environment. Their time and their space was full of other more destructive  things. The window of influence was tiny. In my work now as a mental health chaplain it is the same. The offer of time and space seems too little, and at times nothing much seems to change. Not that I am responsible for anything more than carving out a bit of time and space where a person is safe, harm free, accepted and held so they can find their own chrysalis.

The Compassion Project in Frome is about this About making connections and drawing out the innate compassion within each of us. It harnesses this for the transformation of lives and communities, one tiny influence at a time.

I attended a mental health training day where a speaker explained the physiology of the brain from a tiny baby to a teenager. It was utterly fascinating and at the same time disturbing about how much damage can be done. In relation to this he spoke about a concept he called ‘the biology of hope’. The idea that very slowly, with each positive encounter with a fellow human, our brains can mold and shift and forge a new path. I have never forgotten this phrase ‘the biology of hope’. A chaplain friend told me a story of a baby who came in to the hospital without family to care for him. She went and held him and sang to him and played for weeks and weeks. And then he went on elsewhere. And she wondered whether there was any point to what she had done, given his age and his circumstance. From my very depths I said yes there was. Because for those weeks he experienced a world that was good and was kind and was loving. His world up to then had left him without hope, a world without tender touch or loving gaze or fed tummy and a world with raised voices and physical pain. Her arms and voice had transformed the world for him, showed the possibility of goodness.

Folk can end up feeling disappointed when they did not transform someone else’s life. As if it was even their place to do so. What awful pressure and expectation to live with. Better I think to consider that transformation can only take place within each person, it is their own biology of hope. We may aid transformation by creating an environment which is patient and safe and nurturing, but that is all. That baby has gone on to be a toddler and child and will be an adult. My friends actions will not have transformed everything for him. But she transformed that bit of his life, contributed to his biology of hope. We are the make up of many transformations, some positive, some negative, some fleeting, some long lasting and deeply significant. We live alongside as humans together, we are not unchanged by one another, standing as we do shoulder to shoulder. And so we humbly sign up to the idea of the biology of hope, for the tender, unfurling, transformation of us all.

Image by enriquelopezgarre from Pixabay

Life is dappled

Life is dappled 
don't you know

Not all bright field 
Not all pitch black
Not all twilight
Not all dawn 

Life is dappled
don't you know 

Not all sunset
Not all dusk 
Not all half light 
Not all starlight 

Life is dappled 
don't you know 

More like
puddles of sunbeams strewn across the path 
More like 
mottled patches of shade upon the earth 
More like 
shadows cast, that lengthen towards the night 
More like 
shafts of golden rays that quicken the heart 

Life is dappled 
don't you know 

R.S. Thomas wrote a poem called ‘The Bright Field’. In this he writes the line, ‘life is not hurrying onto a receding future, nor hankering after an imagined past’. I often need to repeat this to myself.

Artist Meg Wroe has helped me by painting numerous images about this poem Stopping and looking at her art situates me in this present moment.

Bright field by Meg Wroe

When I read ‘The Bright Field’ and dwell on its’ images, it makes me think of my life as a film reel. When I view my life like this I am reminded that the field is always there. I try and notice where the sun has broken through and illuminated things for a while. I tell myself that when it is pitch dark, that it does not stay this way. The field is just beyond the trees. So I look out for shadows forming out of the darkness, I know then that light is on its’ way. The dawn has broken upon the field, is coming to brighten things for a while, to illuminate the treasure that is found here. Life will be dappled again.

Header image by Pexels from Pixabay

Walk out of the photograph

You know how a photograph captures a particular moment? Back in the days of print-only photos this was especially true as photos were fewer and farther between. Nowadays we can take thousands of photos. One of my closest friends has over 20,000 photos on her phone. I mean, really?! The glorious and multi talented author Alexander McCall Smith wrote a book, ‘Pianos and Flowers’, which follows the narrative of choosing a photo and forming a story from this. What an excellent literary idea to share with us all. In one of these stories there is a picture of several people in groups, couples, and alone on a lawn in front of a stately home. Captured timelessly in black and white. He notes that one couple are pictured stopping and looking at a statue on the lawn, ‘and then walk out of the picture, into the rest of their lives’. Reading this stopped me in my tracks. The realisation that at any given moment a snapshot is taken of where we are and who we are with and what is of foremost concern for us. And then, very shortly after, we walk out of that picture, and into the rest of our lives. Sculpture artist Daisy Bomans creations remind me of this That we do not live static lives, we are always in some kind of motion, even if this is internal.

Daisy Boman | Take Chances (2016) | Artmarket Gallery

We are emerging from a time frame when the snapshot seems to be on repeat, or at least like a film reel running in perpetual slow motion.

This moment for you, where you find yourself – it is not framed in. There will be a time when you walk out of this photo, this snapshot, this picture, into the rest of your life. There may be some bits you may cherish and wish to take with you. There may be some you cannot continue to carry, characters who will be missing from future frames. We cannot remember all our moments, though they all change us. But if you pick any given one from your life, a frame that you wish to cherish forever, or a frame you wish never took place, it is as true for that frame as for any other, ‘This isn’t everything you are’ (Snow Patrol). There are more photos to be taken. More steps to take. Because everything changes, even the dependable tide. The tide which to me seems like such a very constant, rhythm. Even the tide changes, day by day, travelling a little more or less farther, every day changing when it will arrive and leave. If the tide is allowed to change, if the tide is allowed a little wiggle room, well then, so are we, even as we pass from this picture into the rest of our lives.

Has the tide heard of the moon?

Is the tide aware of its' own movement in and out?
Does it remember every shore it has covered before?
Or does it always discover the shore anew? 
Does the tide know, as it crashes and furls 
That it follows a pattern greater than its' own ebb and flow? 
Has the tide heard of the moon?
This far away pull that daily shifts the time and reach
Of the otherwise dependable, predictable tide? 
Has the tide ever noticed in the dark of the night
a shimmering silver light casting a path over its' waves 
The reflection of the face of her distant cousin
on which so much depends, 
though the tide is unaware. 

Image by reginasphotos from Pixabay

Header Image by Igor Ovsyannykov from Pixabay

This and that

I find myself thinking and writing about this and that. Specifically swimming and running. Of course this is not only about swimming and running, or indeed about any form of exercise. As you read what ‘swimming’ and ‘running’ mean for you, I imagine what you think of and picture will be unique to you. I have an inkling though, that you will know for yourself, what is ‘this’ and what is ‘that’.

My whole life I have swum. I have made my way to whatever local pool I lived by as often as I possibly could. Swimming comes naturally, I am well rehearsed, I know the patterns my body and nervous system follow over and over, I have refined techniques for endurance, speed, efficiency. I float, glide and am held by the water. I have missed this. I have missed exchanges with other swimmers and having them alongside, like we all know the greatest secret. COVID 19 meant there was no swimming, for over 3 months. Then, finally I drove nearly an hour for an outdoor swim in a marine lake. It was glorious. It wasn’t even a nice day, grey, wet and windy, the water chilly and not in a refreshing way.  I climbed in and swam and swam and gazed at the sky and breathed deeply and embraced the wonder of swimming ‘out of lane’ in the lake, for as long as possible. I remember being a little nervous before, joking that I might sink because I was out of practice. Though of course this was not the case, rather it was total flow and part of me was restored and healed in the water. I was put back together and emerged more intact and revived than before. A great big part of me had been missing and now it was back. I can live off consolation like that for ages. This swimming lark is a life love, something I can progress in, commit to, challenge myself. I dream of my next swim and long for when I can go again freely. Swimming is my ‘this’ and it confirmed in me what my other ‘this’ is. I know for other folk swimming is definitely a ‘that’ because you have to get all wet and cold, and if they have to swim they would prefer lanes so at least they know where they are and can feel safer.   

Running is like that for me. It is my ‘that’. It is also reminds me of another ‘that’ in my life.

Running for me is unfamiliar and in many ways has been unappealing. Lockdown had other plans. So I’ve learnt how to run, I’ve tried hard. I’ve got better. I can make it round a route and I can see why others love it. Parts are fun, especially on a good-weather-but-not-too-hot day, being in the great outdoors, inhaling passing flies. So running has fulfilled a function for me, I had some transferable fitness (to a degree). But running has different demands on my body and my mental endurance. I do not leap out of bed wanting to go or look forward to when I can next get out there. I have managed a certain distance and I will not be attempting any further. Now lockdown is easing I will keep what I’ve learnt about running, I will keep up my new found skills. But I know I am only part-soothed by it, it is not what makes my heart sing. I can do it, just about, and I applaud those who do it much better and love it. But for me running is a ‘that’. It reminds me of my other ‘that’.

Life is made up of this and that

Give a bit of this

Take a bit of that

In out in out

Shake it all about

You can’t have this

Without some of that

I love this

Not so sure about that

Life is made up of this and that

Give a bit of this

Take a bit of that

In out in out

Shake it all about

You do this

I’ll do that.


I’ll do this

You do that

Life is made up of this and that

Give a bit of this

Take a bit of that

In out in out

Shake it all about

I’m very good at this

And not so good at that

I’m drawn to this

I’d rather leave that

Life is made up of this and that

Give a bit of this

Take a bit of that

In out in out

Shake it all about

You love your this

Which might be my that

I’ll bring my this

You drag along your that

That and this

This and that

In out in out

Shake it all about

Seems to me that maybe life needs both, some of this, a little bit of that. There will always be a ‘that’ which demands some time and attention and energy. I expect you know what that is. So may we identify ways to get enough of ‘this’. Times, places and people where we can put down that, take up this and shout out loud ‘Look at this! I love this! I was made for this!’.

Image by Comfreak from Pixabay