Make yourself at home…

I was just into my second glass of wine (a rather nice white Rioja, if you’re interested in that sort of thing), when the barman asked me a question: ‘Where’s home for you?’ ‘Wiltshire,’ is the obvious reply. After all, that’s where I live and have lived for 45 of the 49 years I’ve been alive. But this is no ordinary bar and no ordinary question.

13116499_10154147310046880_7976055465134336988_oI’m back at El Palmeral, a retreat in southern Spain, near Elche.

It’s run, as it has been since it first opened, by Mike and Julie. It’s likely they might read this, but I’d say it whether they did or not: they have big hearts. Those hearts are filled with love and compassion, the ability to listen to the problems large and small that people bring with them to this retreat (sometimes not even aware they have them), and a welcome for all those who come through the gate to this oasis of peace.

Although, having just written those very words, a donkey has started braying his/her head off, just over the lemon groves behind me. Shut up, donkey: how very dare you bring your noise into this place of silence?

Except, of course, we all bring our noise with us. Each person coming on retreat is here for a reason and some people’s noise is louder than others.

My secondary reason for being here is to tap into that peace and calm that closes around me the second the gate closes behind me.

But my main reason for being here is my enduring and ongoing friendship with Julie that – incredibly – only began three years ago when we were both exhibitors at an event, near Newark. She and I (and her husband Mike) have become firm friends and I look forward to catching up with them, whenever I can.

It’s Mike who is the barman. He mixes flippancy and profound remarks, with the same care and skill as he applies to the drinks that he makes.

I’m giggling even now at some of his lines: my favourite so far, has been the conversation we had about what the AGM for the Anarchists group (a real event, by the way) might be like. But he’ll also throw in a question that will make you stop and – perhaps – even shake you out of the complacency of what you thought you knew.

‘Where’s home for you, Heth?’ came the question. ‘Wiltshire,’ came the answer. And yes, it’s true that I love that county with all my heart. I love the Salisbury Plain, the stark whiteness (now it’s been painted) of the Westbury White Horse against the chalk hills overlooking Westbury, the glorious valleys and gently undulating banks of green land that I’m proud to call my home. I feel safe there.

It’s home.


However, the question of what home is and where it might be, is more complex than that. You can live in a place and not feel at home there. Similarly, you can be right at home in a place that you don’t actually live in all the time. The phrase ‘Home is where the heart is’ is something often bandied about, but I’m not even sure it’s that simple.

I often talk about how it’s important to be content with where and who we are right this moment. That’s not about geography and never has been. And yet, a sense of place, the knowledge that we’re where we are meant to be and being at peace with that, is probably linked to knowing where our home is.

The writer Adrian Plass – who’s also a regular visitor here to El Palmeral – says this in his book, ‘Seriously Funny’ (co-written with Jeff Lucas): ‘When you feel safe at home, you can go to any other place on earth and never forget where you really belong, nor be separated from the love that will protect the most important part of you wherever you are and whatever happens to you.’

That sense of safety is not likely to be linked to a building, although there is a sense of relief and happiness when you put the key in the door and go in. It’s more about a safe place to be. People can live in amazing apartments, villas and showpiece homes and not be happy. They can also live in remote cottages, two up, two down terraces and blocks of flats and be content.

Home might be where the heart is, but I suspect it relies more in that heart being content. For me, that’s about faith. It honestly and really is. I can’t say I never have doubts, or get angry with God or wonder what it’s all for, but underneath it all is a quiet and genuine confidence that – as the singer-songwriter Martyn Joseph once said: ‘Whoever it was that brought me here, is going to have to take me home.’


Very British Problems…

This week I made an earth-shattering discovery. No, I don’t mean that I invented a new type of tea (although that would be the pinnacle of my life’s work) nor did I find something really horribly gone off in the fridge (although that has happened too).

No. The discovery I made was far more profound. I finally found out the name of someone I’ve been commuting with for more than a year.

The trouble with commuting is that there are certain rules that go with it. You must always have the same seat. You must always stand on the same bit of the platform. You must always sigh and roll your eyes when the train is late.

463902_10151574802586880_1377032994_oMost importantly, you must never EVER get into conversation with someone you don’t know. As you stand on the platform you must never make eye contact with anyone around you. And however many times you sit next to the same person you must never acknowledge their existence.

The British are a ridiculous people. When I was in Zimbabwe three years ago, the friendliness overflowed. Complete strangers would ask how I was. A group of clergy at Harare Cathedral asked me if I was married and when they discovered I wasn’t, offered to sort out a husband for me. That still makes me giggle at the thought of travelling back to Heathrow and having to declare a husband at HM Customs.

But for the British, conversations like that would be embarrassing beyond description. The writer who is responsible for one of my favourite social media accounts ‘Very British Problems,’ describes us as a people who make life awkward for ourselves one day at a time.

I have made life very awkward for myself on the commute from time to time, by breaking the rules of commuting by getting into conversation with people I don’t know and making friends with them bit by bit and them with me. There comes a point in this relationship when you realise two things. One, that you don’t actually know their name and two, it has gone beyond the point that you can actually ask. I don’t know why that rule exists either. I just know that it does. It’s probably my punishment for breaking the First Law of Commuting: Thou Shalt Not Speak To Fellow Commuters.

Last summer I was trying to keep tabs on an exciting cricket match via my phone. The signal between Salisbury and Warminster is intermittent to say the least and I kept hitting refresh in a bid to find out what was happening. Eventually it was clear that no signal was happening and I pushed the phone away from me in frustration. It was at that point that the rather nice man sitting across the table from me, who had worked out what was going on, leaned across and told me the score. We both laughed. From there on in, the ice was broken and whenever our paths crossed we caught up, chatting about everything from Six Nations rugby to solving crossword puzzles, to our lives outside of the commute.

But what is his name, I hear you ask? Well. There’s a thing. I didn’t know. And it had got beyond the point of saying, ‘Hello, can I introduce myself?…’ Perhaps train companies are missing a trick here: for an extra fiver, your ticket will entitle you to be introduced to a fellow commuter on a formal basis.

For more than ten months I had no idea what this man’s name was. I gave him a nickname while I wracked my brains on ways to find out his real one. The obvious one – just ask him – was too much of an embarrassment. I’m British. It was never going to happen.

Salvation for me came from an unlikely source. It turns out that my anonymous commuting friend and I have the same friend in common. Our mutual friend has a habit of using people’s names a lot in conversation and the relief when he finally used my commuting friend’s real name in an email to me made me want to jump for joy.

How ridiculous you’re thinking. And yes it is. But as a nation, we seem to be reluctant to seem pushy. Or rude. Or nosy. Or – worst of all – a bit weird.

???????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????It’s why we find it difficult to get personal which can make us seem a bit aloof and unfriendly. That runs through all our lives. And if you don’t believe it, ask yourself when you last had a conversation that went beyond the trivial with someone you work with or your neighbour.

I’m not sure what the answer is. Not talking with the people I regularly travel with, would seem ridiculous. Burying my head in a book or staring out of the window for a journey without acknowledging those around me, would go against the grain in a big way.

I’ll just probably go on making life awkward for myself one day at a time by adding to my collection of people that I chat with, giving them nicknames instead of finding out their real ones. Because while I might break all the rules of commuting by chatting with total strangers, there are limits to my rebellion. I am British, after all.


‘And a little child shall lead them…’

Last night I was watching Despicable Me. It was a film I’d been meaning to watch for some time but had just never got around to it, although I had seen the sequel. (Yes, I know, that’s the wrong way to do it but that’s the way my life is sometimes…)

Anyway, I’m not going to put any spoilers in this blog in case you’re the other person in the world who hasn’t seen it. Suffice it to say that part of the plot revolves around the relationship between the grumpy villain and the three children he adopts to use for carrying out one of his dastardly plans.

He – and his slightly weird dog and the even stranger Minions – are determined to keep aloof from these three little girls. But gradually they are all brought closer together through the child-like innocence with which the children greet everything they do together.

And – of course – in the end, the villain Gru sees what we’ve known all along, that these children have got into his heart and he can’t let them go.

There is something about childlike innocence that is very endearing. Sometimes I wonder whether it’s because most of us have lost ours and long for those days when we greeted everything with a child-like wonder.

I’ve tried to hold onto mine. Living life to the full includes the awe and excitement of watching a sunrise day after day after day. I hope I never lose the thrill of spotting deer and hares in the valley while my train wends its way through the Wiltshire countryside. I hope I never lose that feeling you get when you unexpectedly meet a friend. Or the joy of listening to a piece of music that touches the heart.

?????????Childlike is very different from childish. Childlike is outward-looking, the joyous acceptance of the blessings that surround us. Childish is the inward-facing selfish assumption that everything has to be as we want it now.

I completely understand that children aren’t always endearing. I know there are days when children can be obstinate, grumpy, whingy and whiney hard work. But then so can we.

We think we have a lot to pass onto our children but communication is a two way process and they have a lot to give us.

I’ve been very blessed to work with children in a voluntary capacity for more than 20 years. I’d be less than truthful if I didn’t admit that sometimes it’s been harder work than I would’ve liked. But I’d do it all again for the times that those children have amazed and surprised me from asking if they could do some fundraising by sleeping out in the church to the unexpected words of thanks in letters and emails.

This morning I was given another reminder of the blessings of the childlike approach. As I played Matt Redman’s song ’10,000 Reasons’ before the service began, I suddenly became aware of a small presence by my side.

A little girl had slipped out of her seat and was watching me play. I began to sing the song to her and she joined in with her face all aglow with real joy. As I sang, I thought of the picture her mother had posted of her on Facebook just the day before of this child in hospital. This is a girl who humanly speaking has had more than her fair share of challenges. And yet, here she is singing with all her heart and soul the words from Matt’s song, ‘Bless the Lord, o my soul.’ When she got to the line, ‘Whatever may pass and whatever lies before me, let me be singing when the evening comes,’ my vision blurred slightly with tears at the way she sang it with such joy in her expression.

This little girl isn’t perfect. She’s a normal little girl who no doubt occasionally drives the rest of her family to distraction. But her joyous approach to life provides a salutary lesson for me about why a childlike heart matters. hands_2

It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t ever feel sad or angry or depressed. That would be ridiculous and go against everything that it means to be a human, fully alive. I think what this little girl’s attitude really teaches us is to keep looking up, to keep plodding on and – most of all – to keep on singing. Preferably in the company of children.



Why sheep may safely graze

I love Spring. I love the fact that it is getting closer. I love the fact that – because we’re British – we get more excited than ever about the fact that it is noticeably lighter every week, if not every day. I’ve got an app on my phone that tells me when the sun is due to rise. Guess what? It’s getting earlier. And even if I didn’t have an app, I could still tell you, because the sun is appearing earlier in my commute.

So I do like Spring. And the promise of longer days and – oh yes, please – the possibility of warm sunshine as the days go on.

At the moment though, sunshine is tempered with frost. The beautifully delicate dawn brings myriad shades of blue, yellow, red and orange and as the light touches the frost-tipped dark green grass, there’s a depth of colour that no photograph can really do justice to nor an artist can really capture on canvas.


Anyway, I digress. Really I want to talk about sheep. No, really, I do.

As the train wends its unerring way (unless there’s overrunning engineering work in which case we go on a random route via Eastleigh, but that’s a whole other story) through Wiltshire and then into Hampshire, I see that many of the fields have sheep in them.

I confess that the child in me wanted to yell out ‘Lambs’ yesterday morning. It’s the first ones I’ve seen in the fields this year.

Sheep are interesting creatures. Yes, they are. And while you could be forgiven for thinking that they’re a bit dull and all the same, actually, they aren’t.

The fields with the flocks of sheep are often trackside and as the train rattles by I’ve noticed there are several different kinds of reactions.

There are the sheep that just instantly panic and make a run for it across the fields to where they think they’ll be safer. And then there are the sheep that were quite happily eating grass but see the others make a run for it and think that they must make a run for it too. But there are also the sheep that carry on with the task in front of them, refusing to get stressed or panicked or distracted from it by the loud rattley train life is throwing at them. They know where they are and what they’re doing and they just keep going on.

Well, I don’t need to labour the point do I?

It’s also easy to get drawn into panic when it’s around us. It’s harder to make considered decisions when others are acting like out-of-control windmills. It’s even harder to make decisions when people are trying to scare you into doing something that you genuinely feel isn’t right. It’s in those moments that you need to take yourself out of that situation, physically, spiritually or mentally or all three of those things, so you can take a deep breath and look again.

Being grounded and understanding in what you believe helps, whether that’s politics or faith or something else. I’m not ashamed to admit that I try and keep myself grounded in my faith. It doesn’t always work. I’m not a saint nor have I ever claimed to be. But that solid foundation should help me not to be swayed from what I believe to be right whether it’s deciding on how to use my vote, making a work-related decision, or weighing up whether I should be moving on to the next bit of my life or staying put. Advice is invaluable. Panicky influence is not.

More often than not staying put, being calm, standing firm in your beliefs and taking time out to think calmly and rationally reveals the truth. The truth for those sheep that stay put to eat the grass is that however loud the train, however scarily noisy it seems to be, however much it seems to disrupt their little lives, it never actually harms them. And is gone almost as soon as it’s arrived.


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…