Change? Bring it on…

The good thing about travelling on an early train is that you start to notice that the mornings are getting lighter. It’s only a very slight change but having frosty weather with crisp air, glowing stars in the dawn, followed by the creeping pale blues, streaks of orange paving the way for a glorious sunrise is a good feeling.

Spring is on the way. We’re halfway out of the dark and heading for those longer days of daylight where everything feels that much better.

It won’t be long before I’ll start to really be able to see a marked difference in where the sunrise appears in my journey. It won’t be long before I’ll be able to see the deer in the fields rather than just dusky silhouettes in the darkness before the dawn. It won’t be long before the fields start to be filled with the first lambs of the season. It won’t be that long before I start to get a thrill of delight watching hares dashing about across the rolling countryside of the Wylye Valley.

This time last year, I was making this journey from Wiltshire to Hampshire for the first time.

That was for an interview with an organisation I admit I’d never really heard of before – the Maritime and Coastguard Agency. The rest, as all the best clichés say, is history.

5878_CannonI now know rather a lot more about maritime matters, ship surveys, Dutch cannons, the SS Richard Montgomery and search and rescue.

It makes me shake my head about my previous ignorance, while the secret geek in me has relished a new source of knowledge to gather in a magpie-like way.

But on that day as I headed down to Southampton, I remember looking out of the window of the train and wondering whether I’d ever come to love this commute as much as I loved the commute to London. And then, reminding myself that I’d once wondered whether I’d ever love the commute to London as much as I loved the early morning drive to Swindon, across countryside that included owls in flight returning home after a night’s hunting.

I still felt the hurt of losing my London job on that morning and was very much missing the friends I’d made while working there. Will I make friends like that again, I wondered. The truth is, of course, no. Because the truth is that there’s a whole bunch of different friends to be made.

Tonight, I’m on the train again going home after a night out with the people I didn’t even know this time last year. We were marking the retirement of one of my colleagues – one of the first people, outside of my particular department – who made me feel welcome. It was a night filled with warmth, laughter and fun, a fitting way to say farewell to someone who brought all those qualities and far, far more to life at work.

It’s funny how you can go from a stop position to fifth gear when it comes to friendship. I’ve gone from exchanging a few words over making tea to indepth conversations about life, the universe and everything. I’ve gone from just recognising faces to knowing names, which football team they support, their family life, to knowing who likes my home-baked cake (most of them, frankly) and, for some, celebrating their highlights, whilst for others, it’s been walking alongside them during their low points.

That old proverb about a stranger being a friend we’ve not met yet, is a true one. I constantly marvel out loud to my closest friends at work about how you go from not knowing someone at all, to not knowing what life was like without them.

One of my favourite jokes asks how many Baptists does it take to change a lightbulb? ‘Change?’ comes the answer, said in mock-horrified tones. We fear change. We like what we know.

My friend who is retiring, faces a massive change. Stopping work after so many years of the nine-to-five is potentially daunting. Preparing for a different kind of life is just as scary as entering an office on the first day of a new job. I’ve no doubt that Andrew may well have a few fears about that. I’ve equally no doubt that he will also step out into this phase of life with the enthusiasm that’s made him such an asset to the place he is now leaving behind.

But the friends I’ve made as a result of that step into a new era of my working life, are a reminder to me that actually change isn’t to be feared. If you don’t take a risk, you won’t know how much different your life could be.

7891_skydiveIf you don’t pick up a new book, you’ll never know the intensity of feeling words come alive until you experience the story, rather than read the page. If you don’t step out of the plane, you’ll never know how it feels to experience the awesome silence of falling to earth under a parachute. If you don’t risk the pain and rejection of love, you’ll never know how it feels to exchange a smile over a shared secret joke with a friend or lover. If you don’t retire from a job, you’ll never know what other amazing and exciting things you could be doing.

In other words, if you don’t embrace life in all its fullness, you’ll never know what it can be to live a life fully alive.

The year in review…

One of my favourite cartoons is based on the old Footprints story, where a man sees his life as a set of footprints across the sand. In the cartoon version, Jesus says to him, ‘That one set of footprints is where I carried you.’ There’s a momentary pause before he carries on: ‘And that long groove is where I dragged you.’

You don’t need to have faith to know that walking this journey can be tough. You don’t need to have faith to appreciate that there are times when you do have to be dragged – sometimes kicking and screaming – along the pathway.

This is the time of year when people – inevitably – begin to look back at the year that is nearly over. Facebook is currently offering its users the opportunity to put together a photographic collage giving a figurative snapshot of 2015.

And inevitably too, there are features and reports all looking back at the year that was. Even blog writers get caught up in the looking back at what the past 12 months have brought.

It was the collage of my friend Will’s year that made me start thinking about these things. Will would be the first to say that 2015 has brought as many challenges as blessings. He was forced to miss his own stag do because of what he refers to as his ‘heart sniffle’, and which friends described as a ‘poor excuse.’ More seriously, it was a time when we all held Will and his now wife Sian in our hearts and prayers.

I can’t tell you how poignant it was to attend their wedding. How much we shared their joy as we had earlier shared their worries and concerns. I remembered again that joyful day this morning, after Will posted the pictures from the wedding. With the humour that’s typical of the man, he remarks ‘A day we’ll never forget (although we forgot to share the photos).’

The smiles say it all as photo after photo show the couple overflowing with happiness while the laughter of friends also shines through.

 

5535_Mr & Mrs WalderFor these two, the year has ended with one of a blessing they never expected – their first child. Even writing those words brings a lump to my throat, knowing what they’ve been through to get to this point.

No amount of photo collages can ever do justice to the year that is rapidly drawing to a close. Who could have predicted the experiences that we have gone through, the incredible highs and the desperate lows?

For me, Will and Sian’s wedding remains a highspot in a year that – if I’m honest – brought more challenges than blessings. I count the blessings and look for silver lining in the gathering clouds. My Granma told me once that nothing is ever wasted. She’s not been wrong yet.

I am genuinely grateful for both triumph and disaster. Yes I am. Honestly. Although equally honestly, I’d also be grateful if the disasters could go on an extended holiday for a while. Adversity does shape us. For people of faith, the difficult times are expected, if not welcomed. Darkness can feel overwhelming but, as the African proverb reminds us, the dawn will break.

Christmas has been described as a celebration of being halfway out of the dark. While I understand the reasoning, I think it’s far more than that. Christmas is a statement that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overwhelm it. Christmas is a statement of hope despite all the evidence to the contrary around us. Christmas is the time when a young woman trusted in the face of enormous challenges to have a baby who would bring her happiness, but also heartache. I suspect that she wouldn’t have missed out on either of those things for the world. The baby who grew to a man, told the world he had come to bring life in all its fullness, and put his life on the line to prove it.

A year in review: life in all its fullness. Or as the Swedish diplomat Dag Hammarskjold put it, far more eloquently: ‘For all that has been, thank you. For all that is to come, yes.’

Breaking a season of habits – let’s start by saying ‘No’ to Black Friday…

The British. We are a nation of addicts. We have habits like you wouldn’t believe. And some of them are more dangerous than any habit forming drug you might come across.

We have things that we always have to do and to say. One of my favourite social media pages is Very British Problems which pokes fun at all of those habits that make us peculiarly British. We queue, we tut and we worry about holding doors open for other people.

I’m known for my tea drinking habits. When I first started working in Southampton, it took just three days before the staff at my local coffee shop would see me come in and assemble my tea tray before I’d even had a chance to say, ‘Good morning.’  Most of my friends make tea for me as a default. It’s a habit. I admit it. My name is Heather Skull and I LOVE a good cup of tea.

Christmas is particularly a season of habits. Every year we do the same things and we buy the same things. I can guarantee that for many homes, this is the only time of year that there’s a pile of food and drink in them that people wouldn’t normally give house space to.

Every day now our daily post deliveries feature at least one gift catalogue filled with things we never knew we needed or wanted. Many of these gifts will be bought for others who never knew they wanted or needed them either.

Tomorrow is Black Friday. It is ironic that this has become a ‘festive’ day in its own right. A day to celebrate consumerism, a day to worship at the altar of the great god commercialism.

Picture of Shopping

People will queue for hours and fight over giant screen televisions. Greed will take over from common sense. Battles over bargains. Buying things that were never needed or even wanted in the first place.

The excuse in some cases will be that people are buying in advance for Christmas and saving themselves some money. The reality is for many that they will end up buying things they never really needed in the first place. And the truth is that actually we need less stuff in our lives, not more.

A family friend once told me that every time she and her husband moved house, they would throw out all the stuff in the roof if it hadn’t been used in that time.

I come from a family of hoarders and that’s the kind of statement that might make us all hyperventilate. But the awful truth is that I could probably get rid of 75 per cent of my stuff and still have enough.

I did take the decision a few years ago not to buy any more DVDs once my shelf space was filled and I’ve not broken that vow. But I’ve still not had the heart to get rid of the 75 or so mugs that I appear to have accumulated over the past 20 years. And there are still 500 books in this house that arrived with me ten years ago when I moved in.  The accumulation of stuff is a habit many of us find hard to break.

And yet… there are limits. I watched with a fascinated horror at images of people racing into their local supermarket or other shop, desperate to get a bargain. Did it really matter that much? Was it a considered purchase or just hysteria? I still can’t answer that question, but I can’t get away from the quiet thought that somebody somewhere needs to knock all our heads together to bring us to our senses.

But – encouragingly for us as a nation – there is a quietly growing backlash against Black Friday. There’s protests outside big shops. Smaller shops are refusing to be drawn in. We don’t want to play, thanks. We’ll stay at home instead. There’s even a whole campaign on social media and beyond appealing for people to not buy anything on Black Friday. Now THERE’S a useful habit to pick up.

Things don’t matter. People do.

My mobile phone provider has been sending me emails for several days now trying to whip up my excitement about the fact I can now upgrade to a new one.

It even told me when I had only ‘three more sleeps’ to go. I rather think that the company might be rather overdoing it. It’s just a phone. I value it more for being able to keep in touch with those I love rather than what apps or settings it has on it.

We’re only three days away from the start of Advent. A reminder of a season that has at its heart the most generous gift of all. A gift that reminds us our priorities should be people, not stuff, generosity, not selfish greed.

I state here and now that I do plan to buy something on Black Friday. I plan to persuade my friend and colleague Laura to go out at lunchtime with me so we can go mad buying things. When I say buying things, I mean two special festive coffees and a couple of paninis to go alongside a lot of giggling and chat. The cost will be less than £20. The value of the time spent together away out of the office? Priceless…

I believe I can fly (like an anvil)

‘The thing is,’ I said, ‘that I do actually want to skydive.’

Then I added with a mock-serious expression: ‘The Archbishop of Canterbury told me that I should.’ My instructor – Stu – looked at me with a ‘Why couldn’t I get a normal student?’ expression on his face.

Just two days earlier, I’d – more or less – had a complete meltdown on the plane going up to do an initial skydive. I can hardly bear to think about it even now, but I was almost hysterical about getting to the door and doing the skydive I’d been coached to do.

It wasn’t my finest hour. It certainly wasn’t my proudest moment. Ashamed, I could hardly look anyone in the eye and was distraught and angry with myself, suffering a complete sense of humour loss, and left wondering what I thought I was doing.

I still can’t answer that question.

Friends back in the UK were sympathetic and understanding, but some were also bracing in their sympathy. ‘Get back in the sky,’ was the consensus of my skydiving friends, ‘You’ve done it before. You can do it again.’

I had a lot to think about. It’s not the end of the world when things go wrong, but how we deal with those moments will prove what sort of perseverance we have and what sort of character we develop.

If I didn’t do this thing, I would regret it. If I didn’t get back in the plane and jump into the sky at 16,000 feet, a little of me would always feel a failure. No, it’s not the end of the world, but actually, it does sort of matter.

As I was thinking all this, I saw a post on social media from the Archbishop of Canterbury. It made me grin, slightly wryly, but he was quite right.

‘The Archbishop of Canterbury,’ I now told Stu, ‘says that we are least what we could be when we fear and most what we should be when we trust.’

Not sure Stu was hugely convinced.

However. The fact remained that my fear had overridden – completely – what I wanted to do and to be. If I’d trusted the instructors – and there were two of them going with me so I was never alone in the sky – as I should have done, I’d have got through it and done the skydive.

7871_skydiveSo when Stu asked me if I wanted to be put back on the manifest (list of people going up in the plane to skydive), I firmly said, ‘Yes.’

As I climbed in the plane this time, I felt far more at peace. I’d warned John – the secondary instructor – that I was going to sing to keep me in a happy place. Some friends promised to pray, while others said they would send up positive vibes.

I looked out of the window and watched the view as the plane climbed higher. In my head and then out loud I sang one of my favourite songs – Stuart Townend’s version of Psalm 23.

I apologised to John who was right in front of me, for the singing. He complained about that, but complained more when I accidentally slipped off the seat because of the plane’s steep climb and fell onto him. This made us both giggle – probably the best thing that could have happened as I was still grinning when I saw that we were getting close to doing the jump.

The door opened and it was my turn to go. With a sense of calm I didn’t have the first time, I took a deep breath, knelt on the edge, turned to one instructor as part of the drill to ‘check in’, to the other to ‘check out’ so that we all knew we were ready, leaned forward, then backwards and then pushed myself out into the air.

The last time I wrote a blog about skydiving (October 2014) I called it ‘I believe I can fly’. It should have been called ‘I believe I can fall like an anvil towards the earth.’ For the first few seconds, while I couldn’t breathe properly, my mind shut down. And then words ran through my mind, real words, the words that I had been taught and recited to myself over and over and over again over the past weeks. Heading. Alti. Secondary. Primary. The drill that mattered and would get me through those first moments.

Although after that, I did get a few things wrong, to be honest. I mistook a ‘Look at your altimeter’ sign for a ‘Hey Heth, you’re doing fine’ gesture. The careful body arch I thought I was making was nothing like. And I half-fought with my instructor over where I thought the pull to open the parachute was.

But suddenly it felt like someone had wrenched me up by the shoulder straps and abruptly stopped me in mid-air. One of us had done it right and the parachute was opening. Another drill took over in my head and I counted up to the requisite number, before looking up to see a beautiful (trust me, it is very beautiful) canopy over my head.

7891_skydiveNow ‘I believe I can fly’ was a little more accurate. I told the world once more that I loved this game and even sang a couple more lines of Psalm 23 as my instructors were unlikely to complain, as they’d disappeared towards the ground at far greater speed than I could even think about.

The reward for overcoming fear and trusting the two instructors to deliver exactly what I genuinely believed they would, was once again this unique view of the planet. Fields of rice, row upon row of olive trees, intensely clear blue skies and a quality of silence like no other I’ve ever experienced.

But before I got too carried away, there were more instructions to follow and a landing pattern to put into place. I’d love to say it was a textbook landing, but that would only be if the textbook said, ‘At the last minute forget how to land properly and crash heavily into the hardest bit of ground you can find.’ The bruise on my left leg is still quite impressive.

I got up – eventually – and began to try and pack up the canopy with the help of my instructor, who was probably wondering why his student had all the grace of a house brick while landing.

‘You’re not going to blub are you?’ came his voice.

7868_Skydive

‘No,’ I said, lying, as I was sniffing a bit. Truth is that I was overwhelmed about what had just happened. That the fear that had paralysed me had been overcome enough for me to throw myself into 16,000 ft of nothingness.

The thoughts of the friends all across the world, who were willing me on or praying or both had helped. Singing had helped. But most of all, trusting two people who knew what they were doing and wouldn’t let me down, had brought a reward which still makes me smile as I write this.

It won’t make the fears go away but serves as a reminder that – as Arthur Hugh Clough said – they may well be liars. Trusting allows us to be what we should be, fears hold us back and prevent us from getting anywhere near what we could be.

And, by the way, never underestimate your value as a friend or supporter in someone else’s life. As I walked towards the gate out of the landing area, I noticed a group of people who had gathered to watch the skydivers as they landed.

But as I got closer, I realise it was many of those people who had only two days before commiserated with me about what had happened when I had a meltdown. And here they were to support and cheer me in after I’d landed. Some of the very experienced skydivers had offered support and advice and even admitted to their own fears. It had all helped.

Now I did cry a little as a big tough military guy jumped over the chain fence and ran towards me to give me a big hug.

‘Well done darlin’’ he said, ‘I knew you could do it.’

Eventually I carried on walking towards the hangar, flanked by John and Stu. Brave of them, considering I could have burst into song at any moment. Instead, I thanked them both for sticking with me. Then I thought perhaps I should tell them what had really happened in the doorway of the plane.

‘I’ve got a confession,’ I said to the two instructors walking either side of me, ‘When I jumped out, I had my eyes shut.’

‘That’s all right,’ they both answered, ‘So did we.’

2636_parachute.jpg

Seasons of thankfulness…

So… the harvest loaf has been shared, the last slice of apple pie devoured and songs about ploughing fields and scattering seed dutifully sung.

It’s a great day for giving thanks and saying thank you.

My church isn’t the only one to have been marking the season this weekend. Many places up and down the UK have also been giving thanks for the provision of the harvest.

harvest field

I suspect it has an even greater resonance in rural areas as the relationship with the land is a much closer one.

After all, we watch the changing scenes of the farming landscape across the year and know – roughly – when to allow extra time for journeys because the tractors and trailers are bringing in the harvest.

I always grin to myself as we sing ‘Come ye thankful people come’, remembering the slightly grumpy farmer who refused to sing ‘All is safely gathered in’ because in his view harvest services were held too early in the year.

His compromise was to sing ‘MOST is safely gathered in’ at the top of his voice to make his point to the long-suffering vicar.

Generally our harvests are good ones. It’s not always the case though. Crop yields (the amount of crop harvested per unit of land) matter. When they’re down, it’s not going to be a good year.

It’s not often that there is a catastrophic loss of the agricultural harvest here.

In my past life as a BBC Wiltshire journalist, I’ve often done interviews with farmers who’ve admitted their low crop yield is going to make things tough for them financially – often in a completely matter of fact way and I felt for them.

It’s tough being thankful in difficult times. About five years ago I came across a song by Matt Redman which talks about how we should give thanks in the bad times as well as the good.

Yes. I know. Tough gospel.

But the man who introduced me to the song is a farmer called Cameron. Cameron and his wife Muriel, who have become very dear friends over the past few years, farm in Wiltshire. They mainly farm pigs. We’ve had quite a few hilarious moments together on the radio – retelling the story of the Prodigal Son on their farm, complete with authentic real pig sound effects remains one of my favourites.

On this occasion I’d asked them both if they would be willing to talk about their favourite harvest hymns for a special Sunday breakfast programme I was putting together.

Cameron instantly said it would be the Matt Redman song ‘Blessed be your name.’

When I asked him why, he paused. When he resumed his story, I understood why.

In 2001, Wiltshire like many other rural places, was completely locked down and in the grip of an epidemic of foot and mouth. I remember it well. Farms were off-limits and some were almost in a state of siege, nothing in, nothing out. Cameron and Muriel’s was one of those places.

They couldn’t go to church, said Cameron, so had no other option than to hold their own service on the farm. As a family, they sat together, prayed together and read the Bible together on Sunday morning.

And in the afternoon, Cameron had to go out and destroy all his pigs because of foot and mouth.

I can hardly bear to write it even now. Farmers don’t always get a good press, but I’ve seen the way my friends and their staff care for the animals on the farm. I’ve seen piglets struggling to survive being brought inside and placed in warm boxes by the Aga in their kitchen.

I can’t begin to imagine how it must have felt on that terrible day back in 2001. And how it felt to have to start all over again on a farm that had been in the family for many years.

And yet. Despite all this horror, here is Cameron telling me that the song that matters most to him says these words, ‘Blessed be your name, when I’m found in the desert place, though I walk through the wilderness, blessed be your name…’

I have huge respect for anyone who holds onto their faith in the darkness. Their words carry authority as they speak of their trust in God even if they admit they don’t understand the whys.

Giving thanks in the difficult times isn’t easy. Finding the things to be thankful for can be tough. Silver linings are often be lost in the blackness of the cloud.

And yet. In the midst of disaster there is often an assurance that we are not alone. For me, the darkness that I have often experienced in the past few years isn’t made any less dark by the knowledge that I genuinely believe God’s there alongside me. But what that knowledge does for me is remind me that he won’t leave me until I emerge into the light, sometimes gently encouraging me, sometimes – frankly – dragging me like a temper tantrum filled toddler, but always there. Always.

And at that moment – as the old harvest hymn says – I’m reminded to thank the Lord, for all his love. Through the snows of the winter, the warm sunshine that swells the grain, the breezes, the hurricanes and the soft refreshing rain…

Flowers in the ballast…

It’s been a busy week. And it’s only Tuesday. Yesterday I came back from working with my Coastguard colleagues in Northern Ireland. Today I travelled down to Hampshire to talk all things media with other members of HM Coastguard.

September in the UK can be glorious and this week it definitely is. The sun shone brightly across the water as I travelled back towards Southampton, the gently reddening leaves glowed in the warm rays and the feeling of sun on my face through the train windows was a welcome one.

I’d missed the actual train I was meant to catch and instead caught the slower one that stopped at every station. I’m always intrigued when a train stops at a station that appears to have been built in the middle of nowhere – where do all the people waiting for the train appear from?

As we got closer to Southampton, gentle meadows filled with the final flowers of summer give way to large grey steel warehouses, brick-red houses, towering cranes, the distinctive red and white of St Mary’s stadium complete with what looks like a load of spiders legs across its roof.

The natural world seems – well – a world away as the evidence of man’s handiwork rises into the sky. Concrete creations, brick upon brick and paving slabs as far as the eye can see.

Metallic rail tracks stretch away behind me and in front of me. In between them is the ballast – piles and piles of little stones. To the side is mile after mile of fencing – and in the city, unfortunately, all the rubbish and detritus that people so often cast over them. In once place – disturbingly – a headless doll has been tied to the fence in a nasty parody of crucifixion. It is disturbing and I find myself wondering what was running through the mind of the person who carried out the deed.

For a few moments I am reminded of all that’s nasty in the world. The cruelty that we can so often inflict on each other, both mentally, physically, spiritually and emotionally. I’ve experienced enough darkness to know that it leaves you broken and hurt and wondering why someone has done what they have.

Darkness. It’s very real. It’s crushing and it can leave you at the bottom of a deep hole from which there is no escape.

While I was considering this, the train slowed to a complete stop at a signal. Looking out of the window, all I could see was something called the Northam Traincare Facility. More metal.

But then I glanced down as my eye was caught by something bright. And yellow.

There between the unforgiving ballast and train tracks was a plant. A plant with yellow flowers on it – to my shame I wasn’t sure what kind of plant it was, although my mother would have known instantly.

flowers

I looked at it for quite a long time. How was that flower growing? How did it survive being constantly driven over by a series of trains heading south and east? What sustained it? There it was growing up beyond the height of the rail track, straining towards the sunlight and – there was no doubt – it was flourishing.

It was impossible. It was ridiculous. And it cheered me no end.

Flowers take no notice of their surroundings but just get on with being what they’re meant to be. Glowing in the light. Doing their thing. They brighten the world around them, regardless of what that world is doing.

I’m named after a flower. A resilient outdoor flower that keeps going regardless of the tough terrain it’s growing in. Sometimes that makes me grin. It has now.

Flowers do their thing regardless of what’s going on around them.

That’s not to say the flower won’t occasionally wilt and look a little sad in the rough moments. But it resolutely flowers on, causing those who see it to smile and perhaps brightening their day at a moment when they feel least like it.

Flowers in the ballast. Conversations that cheer the heart and leave us laughing. Meeting a friend when you least expect it. A unexpected text message that leaves a warm glow. Receiving praise from a colleague when you thought no-one had noticed your effort.

Light in the darkness…

True friendship: How we laughed in the cells…

One of my favourite quotes says, ‘A good friend will bail you out of prison, but a best friend will be in the cell next to you saying, ‘Boy, that was fun.’

I’m not suggesting for an instant that this is typical of my friendships, but it does have an underlying serious point about where your best friends sit in your life.

There’s a bit of a fallacy about friendship that sometimes suggests you should be in each other pockets all the time.

It’s never been how I work. My best and closest friends are often the people I don’t see for weeks on ends, sometimes even months.

Our schedules don’t allow us to cross paths often, but when they do, it’s like we’ve never been apart. This summer I had the absolute joy of meeting up with a friend I’ve not seen for more than six or seven years and his wife, who I have never met but got to know through social media.

Four hours later, we were still talking and laughing. And thanks to social media, that conversation is still continuing.

I’ve now been working at the Maritime and Coastguard Agency for nine months. There are people here that I can hardly believe I’ve known for less than a year. I found myself saying to one of them the other day, ‘That’s what friends iz for.’ I’ve known him properly for just five months.

Funny thing friendship.

Everyone’s view of it is different and sometimes that can cause pressures and tensions even amongst people who’ve know each other a long time.

But I’ve always believed that once the foundation of friendship is laid it is almost impossible to lose.

Thirty years ago this month, a slightly lost and scared 19 year old sat in a room in a halls of residence at Middlesex Polytechnic, wondering if she’d done the right thing.

At that very moment there was a knock on the door. Another 19 year old put her head around it and grinned: ‘Hello,’ she said, ‘My name’s Jilly. Fancy a brew?’

From that moment Jilly and I became great friends. We’re still friends despite the fact we left Middlesex and went our separate ways three decades ago.

A couple of years ago we managed to meet up for the first time in many years. Too many to remember. We cried and laughed and talked and ate cake like no time had passed at all. To me, Jilly is still the 19 year old who I shared so much with, in an intensive three years at college together.

This is the year of long friendiversaries. Lisa and I met as gap year students working to earn some cash to fund our study 30 years ago this year. When I mentioned this to her sometime back she looked shocked. ‘We’ll tell people we met at nursery,’ she replied and we both laughed.

The value of friendship remains immeasurable. We’re not really meant to be lone wolves. We’re meant to share this life with those around us.

The writer of the book of the Biblical book Ecclesiastes (which doesn’t often get a mention) says that two are better than one and then lists the reasons: they get more work done together; if one falls down, the other can help them up; they keep each other warm, and can defend themselves better against incomers.

I’d add that they build each other up; they do kind and thoughtful things when their friends are at rock bottom; they give you space when you need it; they laugh together, cry together, put the world to rights together; they boost each other emotionally and spiritually; they pull each other along when the path gets tough and they’ve always got your back.

So, here’s to friends and friendship. And to those that know us well – but still love us.

And let’s remain thankful for all those who walk alongside us as we continue the quest to live our lives to the full…

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