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.

double or drop

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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The parable of the piano…

When I was a child, there was an incredible feeling of excitement as I came down the stairs on Christmas morning wondering what my sister and I would find. In the last couple of days I’ve had a return of that excitement – this time because I know what I would find when I got downstairs.

A couple of days ago, a man called Steve and his assistant arrived at my house late in the evening with a big van and a special trolley. It was foggy and they’d had a bad journey down to where I live in Wiltshire. I – meanwhile – had been pacing up and down my lounge and looking out of the window every few minutes wondering where they were. They were bringing my new-to-me piano bought just a couple of weeks ago and something I couldn’t wait to get my fingers on. I’d chosen it after falling in love with its sound and tone, even though it was covered in dust and in need of a tune.

It’s been one of the longest two weeks of waiting of my adult life. Two weeks ago my beloved old piano which I’d been playing since I was nine-years-old went to its new home where – in a beautiful bit of serendipity – it’s now being played by another nine-year-old learning how to play. I admit to a massive lump in the throat and a few tears as I watched it go and then had to live with an empty space in the lounge where it used to be. How I missed having a piano. Two weeks seemed like a very VERY long time…

But last night as I sat and played piece after piece on it – sorry, neighbours – the wait had all been worthwhile. This beautiful piano responds with a tone and beauty that makes my heart sing. If I’d not given up my old beloved piano I’d never have known the joy of this one. And actually, if I’d not given up my beloved old  piano, a nine-year-old in another part of the country might not have felt her heart sing either.

It’s hard to let go of the things that we love. I remember when I left BBC Wiltshire four years ago, crying buckets all the way home. I also remember in my impromptu leaving speech telling my friends and colleagues that while I was looking forward to beginning my new and exciting chapter, it did mean the ending of the previous one. And that hurt. Sometimes it still does. I miss those lovely people I spent so much time with. But without ending that chapter I would never have gone to Africa and I probably wouldn’t have been to beautiful Stornoway or Shetland. I certainly wouldn’t be sitting at my new piano playing pieces of music that I’ve written with one of my friends that I met through work.

My role as a press officer at the Maritime & Coastguard Agency involves a lot of managing risk. The question, ‘What could possibly go wrong?’ is generally followed by the answer ‘Let’s make a list.’

That question could equally apply to us. It’s a question that often plagues us – usually in the middle of the night when perspective has gone to sleep in another room – and sometimes it prevents us from doing the things that could actually benefit us. I held onto my old piano for too long because I was too caught up with worrying about where it might end up. And I was worried that I wouldn’t find a piano that would inspire me as much as the old one. The truth of the matter is that both of these statements are wrong on a massive scale.

In a previous blog I talked about how sometimes we need to take a risk and step over the edge to experience life in all its fullness. The Christmas carol service at my church today includes a reading that says about experiencing the pain of life and death. Living life in all its fullness means the highs and the lows. I’d always rather live life that way than flatline but it isn’t easy when despair and depression strikes. The current flood of advertising images making Christmas out to be some spectacular sparkly gorge-fest is not the reality for many and feeling guilty that – for whatever reason – our Christmas is a failure because of that doesn’t help.

Christmas is about hope – it’s light in the darkness. It’s a reminder that – as the old African proverb says – however dark the night, the dawn will come. It’s no coincidence that the Advent season which leads into the Christmas one talks about waiting, waiting with a purpose, waiting with hope, waiting in difficult circumstances and holding onto the hope that something better is on the way.

If the parable of the pianos teaches anything, it reminds us to let go of things that could be holding us back, while waiting patiently and in hope, that something better is coming.

Which reminds me, I’ve got a very important appointment. With the new piano in my lounge.

The parable of the quince jelly

‘Mmmm, quince jelly,’ I said, opening the jar and adding some to my already laden plate.

There are lots of things that help me know I’m in Spain. Giggling with my dear friend Julie has to be top of that list.

‘You love me really,’ I remark cheekily, after a particularly bonkers action on my part.

‘I’m working on it,’ comes the retort from Julie, with a massive twinkle in her eye.

Laughing out loud is something that happens a lot here at El Palmeral. Julie and her husband Mike can have me in stitches with some of the things they say, but often also provoke deeper thought and conversation through remarks that get well beyond the trivial and frivolous.

They’re – frankly – most of the reason that I come here. Other things are the remarkably warm weather that means even in October on a day threatening rain, I can still be sat outside wearing just shorts and a t-shirt.

And also the friendliness of the other people staying here, and the myriad friends that Julie and Mike have, both English-speaking and those from the nearby village. It’s nice to be remembered and recognised.

One of the English-speaking friends is responsible for my happiness during my first lunchtime. Riekie makes quince jelly. Trust me, it’s amazing. And it reminds me of my childhood when my mother used to make it from the quinces grown in Wiltshire by one of her friends.

This morning Riekie has brought another three jars of freshly made quince. While I’m chatting with her, she explains that the fruit is ugly-looking and doesn’t merit a second glance. In fact, even when it’s turned into juice, it’s still not looking great.

It’s not until the juice has been boiled with the sugar that a spectacular change comes about. Suddenly this insipid looking juice turns into a beautifully warm russet colour, creating the flavour that makes my mouth water thinking about it.

It’s a rough old process boiling jam or jelly. It takes no prisoners and yet the result is worth the harsh treatment it gets in the preserving pan. Something beautiful comes from something unattractive, but it takes hard work and a hard process to make that happen.

It’s absolutely true to say that a desired result can take a lot of hard work and effort to make it happen. Getting fit requires a lot of commitment, sweat and – in my case – dogged determination in the face of mental tiredness to keep going. If you’d told me a year ago that I’d be able to run 5k on a regular basis in a reasonable time, I’d have laughed at you.

Quince jelly takes effort but trust me it’s worth it. The transformation of this ugly fruit into something that brings a smile to all those who try it is something special. The quince has been through a rough old process to get there but something very beautiful comes out of it.

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I’m hesitating over these next few sentences. I am aware that for anyone going through a challenging time or a terrible experience is not going to appreciate some woman currently having a lovely time in sunny Spain telling them it’s for their own good that they’re going through it. I’m not sure I would say that anyway even if I was sitting in my office in Southampton looking at a dreary grey English day.

What I would say, as I’ve said on a number of occasions, is that my Granma always said nothing was ever wasted. As someone who’s finally come out of their own difficult dark valley to stand, if not at the top of a mountain, at least halfway up it, enough to appreciate the view anyway, I struggled to see that for some time. That was until the day that someone said to me while talking about their own problems which were reflected in my experience, ‘You completely get it. You understand.’ Suddenly I could hear my Granma’s words again. Right again, Granma.

And then there’s the friend who’s been through a mental health breakdown is willing to share his experience because he hopes to be able to help others.

The quince that becomes the rather yummy jelly is an ugly old thing. The process it goes through to become that beautiful state is a harsh one. The result is something special.

I won’t labour the point. And I’d still hesitate to say something good will always come out of something awful. But I will stick my neck out and say that there are always a few tiny sparks of hope in the middle of terrible despair.

The lesson of the quince jelly reminds me that there is no avoiding the harshness in a life where things are often broken and rotten to the core. But it does give me hope that something special may be found in it. Even if it’s just the friend who makes you laugh, or gives you a hug or sits with you during the long dark nights. Or perhaps a jar of freshly made quince jelly…

(With thanks to Riekie for the photographs)