The Buckaroo Principle

As a child, I loved the last day of the primary school term when you got to take board games into class. I took Mousetrap. I loved Mousetrap. You rolled the dice, you moved your mice and built an exotic plastic trap made of buckets, old drainpipes, a bath and some broken old steps. You hoped you’d be the one to turn the crank handle and – bang – someone else’s little plastic mouse would be caught in the trap.

Other people brought other games. One of my absolute favourite games that someone else brought in was Buckaroo. You had to put bits and pieces on a mule and hope it wasn’t your go when it decided to kick everything off. It was quite tense as you carefully placed the bucket, the pick or the rope onto the side of the plastic animal and then – boom – off it all came and scattered all the bits across the table and classroom floor.

You never knew which bit would make the mule kick off. You just knew that one bit would. It might not be the heaviest thing. It might be the tiniest piece of equipment. But there was an awful inevitability that it would eventually have had enough and throw everything off.

Over the past few months I’ve talked a lot about what I’ve started calling the Buckaroo Principle. AA Milne once said in his Winnie-The-Pooh books, ‘You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.’ We don’t know how brave we are or how resilient until we’re really tested beyond what we know or have previously experienced. But we aren’t bombproof. We are never bombproof. The trouble is that – as with Buckaroo – we really don’t know what will make the mule kick off. We just know it will.

It might be the big thing. It more likely won’t be. But all the stresses that you’re dealing with build up and build up until finally it’s like the equivalent of a tiny water bottle is put on to the mule and – boom – everything scatters, leaving you to pick up the pieces spread far and wide. Sometimes that will leave you with a wry apologetic grin as you pick up the bits that have fallen into a friend’s mug of tea. Other times it will leave you weeping because you accidentally trod on the plastic pickaxe in your bare feet.

One of the things I’ve learned over the last few months is that pretending everything is all right is like pretending the Buckaroo mule will take everything that’s put upon it. It’s not going to end well.

As a man called Paul once said to a church in Corinth two thousand years ago : ‘If you think you’re standing firm, be careful you don’t fall.’

Admitting you can’t cope, admitting that some days you’ve had enough of being a grown up, admitting that you’d like to scream at someone is not a sign of weakness, but a realistic statement of where you are. And it’s fine to be honest. It really is. Be honest with yourself. Be honest with those you love and trust.

You may find out that they already knew. You may find they were worried for you. But what you will definitely find is that they’ll be the ones on their hands and knees beside you on the floor helping search and pick up all the pieces to put them back where they belong.

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Don’t worry, I’ve got your back…

You know, it’s a strange old thing. You think you’ve got a handle on life and where you’re going and suddenly you find yourself in a whole different place from where you thought you would be. Five years ago I was working my notice from the BBC, three years ago I was working my notice from an international development charity called USPG. I foresaw neither of those things. Equally, I never foresaw that I’d end up working for the Maritime & Coastguard Agency and nor did I foresee that because of that move, I’d now be less than 48 hours away from playing my first ever gig with a band called Steam Shed.

What does all this prove? Not much probably, other than to show you’d be best off NOT asking me to pick your lottery numbers.

Yesterday, we had our final Steam Shed rehearsal before the music festival gig we’re playing on Saturday. The other band members Doug, Paul and Richard are amazing musicians who make it seem easy. All I had to do was get the right words in the right order. How hard could it be?

Well, apparently it can be very hard when you’re trying to remember the words of a song that you co-wrote. I’d love to say it was because it was filled with complicated and complex grammatical amazingness. But that would be a big fat lie. After the fourth attempt of trying to sing the same few lines with a complete lack of success, I just looked at the other three and said, ‘I’m going for a walk.’ I walked across the yard to where there was a field full of sheep and watched them for a few moments, while the cool breeze and silence around me helped put the world back on its axis. They’re only words, I told myself.

When I walked back into the studio to continue the rehearsal, Paul the drummer looked at me for a moment: ‘Tea?’ he asked. Tea, of course, makes things infinitely better in my world. Then this drummer who’s played in front of huge crowds, supporting very famous musicians, looked me straight in the eye and said, more kindly than I probably deserved: ‘Whatever happens out there on Saturday, we’ll keep playing until you find your place again. We’ll keep playing and no-one will know. Don’t worry Heth. We’ve got your back.’

‘We’ve got your back.’ Reassuring words. You are not alone. Steam Shed might be made up of four very different people, but together we’re a team. We’ll stand together on Saturday afternoon and we will give it our best. Together.

If I’d not left the BBC, if I’d stayed at USPG, if I’d not impulsively accepted a temporary contract with the Maritime & Coastguard Agency… if… if… if… The fact is all of these things did happen and now the man who was on the interviewing panel for my current job has become the friend I write Steam Shed songs with. He and the other two will have my back, just as I will have theirs on Saturday afternoon. I’ve got no idea how well – or not – this gig is going to go either. Just as well really.

I never foresaw any of this. Who would? It’s all so unlikely. In those darkly difficult last few months of 2014 when I couldn’t foresee where my next job would come from, I remained quietly confident that the faith I’d held so dear for so long was right. In 2017, I can look back and be reassured of that kindly light that’s led and continues to lead through more dark and difficult times to come. After all, I know who’s got my back…

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The end of the world as we know it…

This morning a commuter who had been about to get off the train at Salisbury came rushing back into the carriage. Surprised just for a moment, we watched with increasing understanding as he – slightly sheepishly – picked his laptop case out of the luggage rack. ‘This would probably help,’ he grinned ruefully, before then making his way off the train. ‘Lucky you remembered,’ said my friend Martin. ‘I’d have had to chase it to Southampton,’ replied the now relieved commuter.

For him, it would have been more than a slightly hashtag awkward moment to have got to a meeting, reached down for his laptop and had that awful realisation that he’d left it on the train. Thankfully he remembered. But for the thousands of people who – it seems – leave all sorts of important things on trains every day, it’s a different story. For some it’s an irritation, for those who lose something of great sentimental value it might feel as if the world has come to an end.

I once took my then six-year-old nephew on an outing to see Thomas the Tank Engine. Unfortunately my car broke down on the way there and I had to call one of those nice men from the breakdown services. As he inspected the engine, soon identifying what was wrong, my nephew made all of us laugh by announcing, ‘This is the worst day of my life.’ ‘At his age,’ remarked the man carefully putting my car to rights, ‘It probably is.’

Quite often I’ve heard people say about something, ‘It’s not the end of the world.’ Usually that’s a coverup for the fact that they feel like it actually is the end of the world. It’s sometimes – not always – something minor.

These days my perspective on what counts as being at the end of the world is different. There’s a reason for that. The thing is that I have been to the end of the world and I know what it looks like. Most other things that go wrong really don’t matter that much. In fact many of the people that I know read this blog have also been to their particular end of the world and know that terrible darkness and devastation of being in that place. REM’s song ‘It’s the end of the world as we know it,’ goes on to say ‘And I feel fine.’ Actually, at the end of the world no-one feels fine. It’s dark there for a reason.

But what it does do is gives you a different, possibly sometimes better, perspective of life around you. When life as you know it changes beyond recognition and you have to adjust to what one of my best friends refers to as ‘the new normal,’ it does tend to put other things in context. These days I have to admit that problems and difficulties that I may face tend to sit in a wider context that makes me feel less affected by them. That’s not to say that I don’t have days when I could happily shut people in a room with someone learning to play the bagpipes (my current favourite idea of punishment). After all the splinter in my thumb hurts momentarily just as much as my broken leg…

What I do find myself thinking and sometimes saying now though is, ‘It’s not the end of the world. I’ve been there and I know what it looks like. And I am, though bruised and bearing still quite raw wounds, thanks to the love with which I am surrounded, still here.’

Farm Gate

Farm Gate

Dealing with the thing in front of you

In the old days, when children’s television was filled with programmes about a community of youngsters living on a double decker bus, a soup dragon living in space with a bunch of pink long-nosed woolly creatures and a man who went to a fancy dress shop and had adventures, there was a programme called Crackerjack. (Go on, put your hand up if you just yelled out ‘Crackerjack’ in response…)

‘It’s Friday, it’s five to five and it’s Crackerjack,’ would come the shout from host Ed ‘Stewpot’ Stewart. And like a Pavlovian response, back would come the screamed cry from several hundred excitable ten-year-olds all crammed into a studio: ‘Crackerjack!’  Trust me, we all loved it and regularly quoted it in the playground. And we all wanted one of those Crackerjack pencils they gave away on the programme…

Yes, I know, maybe we were easily pleased.

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Anyway, one of the regular features of the programme was a quiz called Double or Drop where two contestants had to answer questions. If they got it right, they got a prize, but if they got it wrong, they were given a cabbage.

The difficulty was that they had to hold everything they were given and if they dropped anything, they were out of the game. Quite often you could no longer see the child for the pile of prizes and cabbages they were holding as they struggled to carry everything at once. The more they were given, the more difficult it became to stay in the contest.

I have to be honest and say that just lately I’m beginning to understand how those youngsters must have felt. Sometimes it can feel like you’ve had a whole lot of rotten old cabbages thrust into your arms and have just been left to get on with it. The sheer scale of what you are holding on to can be overwhelming.

The best piece of advice I’ve been given in the last six weeks was from a close friend who knowing the situation I was in, said this: ‘Heth, the best thing to do is just to deal with the thing in front of you.’

Deal with the thing in front of you. Not what’s past, not what may or may not happen in the future, but just deal with whatever’s currently in front of you. It’s a tough piece of advice to take on board. As someone whose day job is all about managing the risk and looking out for future problems and what could possibly go wrong, the idea of just looking at the current challenge and nothing else is not something I’m used to.

However. Dealing with one thing at a time does two things. Firstly, it helps to focus on the here and now of what’s important and gives a slightly less alarming perspective. Secondly, it’s practical and almost always achievable. Instead of looking back into the past that I cannot change or borrowing trouble against a future I cannot really predict, it forces me to focus on one thing at a time. It doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t plan for the future, but it does mean you shouldn’t be so caught up with it that it affects your ability to look at the present.

I once told someone that I’ve never thought I was being asked to change the world, only to work to try to make a difference in the bit of it that has God has entrusted to me. That’s all any of us can do. It doesn’t mean we’re not aware of the rest of the world or shutting ourselves off from it, far from it. It means we’re looking at the thing in front of us right now and dealing with it. It won’t be easy but trust me, it’s easier than trying to deal with all the piled up cabbages in your arms at once.

You might even win a Crackerjack pencil…

The greatest of these is love … actually

I have to admit that I often struggle with the letters written by a man called Paul to the early church and recorded in the Bible. One of my friends says he has a long list of things to argue with Paul about when he finally gets to meet him. But sometimes Paul gets it spot on. Yesterday I went to a wedding of a friend where one of Paul’s most famous letters was read which he wrote to a church in Corinth. I don’t know much about them but clearly they needed to learn a lesson or two about what love is. 1 Corinthians chapter 13 contains everything you need to know about love – it’s almost a manifesto for it.

Lately I’ve learned a lot about what love looks like in practice and I have to admit that Paul was right. He said that words and actions without love behind them are just a lot of old noise. He went on to say that love is patient, love is kind, does not envy or boast, it is not proud, does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, and keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.

Like all manifestos it contains some tough challenges within it. And like most manifestos that get signed up to, it inevitably gets broken. However… it contains some great promises within it to hold onto. Love always protects and trusts, it always hopes and perseveres. Despite everything that gets thrown at it, love never ever really fails. Ever.

An act of love and kindness can be the difference between giving up or going on. When you’re on a dark bewildering path, you’re in desperate need of some light: the light of kindness and love reminding you that wherever you are, you’re not on your own. At church this morning we sang Stuart Townend’s version of Psalm 23 which says, ‘And though I walk the darkest path, I will not fear the evil one, for you are with me and your rod and staff are the comfort I need to know.’

The idea of God’s staff is meant to conjour up a vision of a shepherd keeping all the threats at bay with a massive stick. However… lately I have a view of God’s staff actually being more the people who appear sometimes out of nowhere to carry out an act of love that keeps the wolf of despair at bay.

It can be anything. When a little girl runs across a room to give you a hug. When a friend puts your favourite cake and a mug of tea in front of you that says more than their words ever could. When a friend makes you laugh because she offers you a Nando’s serviette ‘because that’s all I have’ for you to wipe your eyes with. When a friend who lives two hours away just ‘happens’ to have arrived in your neighbourhood and makes time to have a chat.

Never ever underestimate the power of your act of kindness to shine light into someone else’s dark places. After all, we are pilgrims on a journey and companions on the road; we are here to help each other, walk the miles and bear the load. Faith, hope and love are sometimes all we have left. And the greatest of these – without a shadow of a doubt – is love.

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Speaking my language

I get the giggles every so often. It’s usually over something that just gets me at a moment when it shouldn’t. I was infamous for getting the giggles live on air when I was at the BBC. I’m ashamed to say that I snorted with laughter in the rather over-blown death scene of the film Cyrano de Bergerac. And I was unable to sing on one occasion because of my over-developed sense of the ridiculous when someone sang loudly. And wrongly.

This week my phone made me laugh. I was trying to respond to a message on social media and for some reason best known to itself, my phone’s autocorrect changed the word ‘morning’ to the words ‘nit bunnies.’ For a while there was a running joke on my Facebook page as we all said ‘Good Nit Bunnies’ to each other all across the world.

I mean, what even IS a Nit Bunny? No idea. But for a while the ‘Nit Bunnies’ gag united a whole load of people who don’t really know each other, but have a common friend in me. It made people laugh.

Comedy often unites. Language often divides. On this occasion a mixture of both caused some smiles around social media.

Language is a funny old thing. While there might be one English language, there are different dialects, words that only mean something to people in one area of the UK or the world. And even when English is your first language, there’s a whole load of words that don’t make sense. As the old poem says, if the plural of brothers is brethren, why is the plural of mothers not methren? Or why, if mouse becomes mice, does house not become hice? Although ‘hice’ does sound a bit like a member of the Royal Family referring to their home…

As the American writer Doug Larson said: ‘If the English language made any sense, a catastrophe would be an apostrophe with fur.’

It’s no wonder that it’s hard to make yourself understood sometimes. Language can limit us in its lack of clarity. Sometimes an inability to articulate what it is you actually want to say can cause offence or hurt or frustration. Basil Fawlty once yelled at the hapless Manuel, ‘Please understand before one of us dies.’ That was funny at the time.

And yet words can do so much harm. It’s never been so obvious that the old phrase ‘Sticks and stones may break my bones but names can never hurt me’ is actually nonsense. Words do hurt. There are people self-harming and taking their own lives because words have hurt them so much. There are young people who suffer from anxiety and critically low self-esteem. And whole sections of our communities feel alienated because of what they are called and how they are perceived.

The language of hate is a strong one. It can be overpowering and leave us feeling helpless in the face of its sheer venom and yet, words can do so much to heal and warm and love. When did we last say something loving or encouraging to someone outside or even inside of our circle of family and friends? What stereotypical words do we use to describe others that would be best left unsaid? The words of peace and love might sound a bit 1960s hippyish, but never have they been so needed as now.

Please. Try and understand before one of us dies…

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It’s a wonderful life…

So, here comes my big Christmas confession: I have never seen ‘It’s a Wonderful Life.’ Even now I know some of you are reading this and shaking your head in sorrowful puzzlement about how someone can have avoided a film for the five decades she’s been alive. The honest answer is I have no idea. Just never got around to it like lots of other things.

But I know the basic premise. The man who is shown the difference that living his life has made to others and what it would have been like without him. His realisation that he has made a huge difference helps him to step back from the edge of a very dark place.

In the last couple of weeks I’ve found myself in separate conversations with two dear friends who have been struggling with that daily business of living that occasionally comes to us all. It’s difficult not to offer platitudes on these occasions and I desperately sought the right words to say. In fact, I ended up saying something similar to both of them. The truth is that both of them in their separate ways of been a real help and encouragement and a blessing, not just to me but to so many others. There are people whose lives these two friends have touched and improved without even realising. They probably have no real idea of how much blessing they’ve brought to mine.

I’ve said before that while I am aware that we probably can’t change the whole world, I genuinely believe that we’re only only actually charged to work to make a difference in the bit of the world God has entrusted to us. These two friends have done that without probably realising that’s what they have done. Sometimes we need to hear from each other that kind of encouragement. Not to bolster up our egos, but to pick us up when we’ve got no energy to carry on the slow plodding walk that sometimes our life seems to be.

About eighteen months I wrote a blog called ‘The Footprints that you leave’.  It was written in memory of another dear friend Shaun. It could just as easily applied to another friend Kev Hitchens who died just a few months ago and who so many of us loved. Both men who were friends with each other as well as me, were paramedics working in Wiltshire. There are still people walking around living their lives and looking forward to Christmas celebrations who would not be here if it wasn’t for the life-saving efforts of Kev and Shaun. Their footprints are still felt both by those of us who miss them and by those whose lives benefited from being touched by theirs.

One of the most surprising things about 2016 for me has been a discovery that another friend’s music has inspired a small talent for song writing that I never knew I had. More proof if proof were needed of the blessings of friends and how life is better for knowing them. At the moment we have a song in progress called ‘The Footprints That You Leave.’ It was partly inspired by walking the Imber Range Perimeter Path to mark my milestone birthday and also for all the friends who have made so much difference in their lives, often without even realising it to the bit of the world that’s been entrusted to them. It includes these two lines.

‘All the footprints that you leave, make them count, leave them lightly’

‘All the footprints that you leave, make them count, shine more brightly’

Merry Christmas. Perhaps this will be the year I do watch ‘It’s a wonderful life.’ Or better, perhaps I’ll try to commit to telling those around me how much the way they live theirs makes that massive difference as they continue to plod on. And try and leave footprints that leave light tracks rather than crush what’s around me.

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