The Mechanics of Grace

My friend’s daughter recently had a car accident. Thankfully, she wasn’t hurt.

But her car was left seriously damaged in the incident and this young woman knew two things. Firstly, that the car would in all probability be written off by the insurance company and secondly, she couldn’t afford to buy a new one.

Her situation was looking desperate. She needed the car to get to work as public transport wasn’t really a credible alternative.

Added to that was inevitably some feelings of guilt: after all, the accident had been her fault.

It was all a bit of a sorry mess. Her car was broken. She had no money. Everything must have looked particularly bleak.

So she did exactly what I would have done in the same situation: she rang her Dad. Knowing my friend, I have no doubt that he listened and sympathized and understood. I also suspect that he was more than relieved she wasn’t hurt. He may well have gently established that it had all been her fault – but I suspect he wouldn’t have admonished her.

And then he did something practical. He offered to fix the car. As he told her, it was something that he could do and help her with.

I am sure that his daughter was instantly reassured. She had handed over a broken and sorry mess to the person who knew how to fix it.

And she knew he would.

It may well be that he didn’t promise to have it done by a particular time, but his promise remained a faithful one. ‘Leave it with me,’ he might have said, and his daughter, knowing from experience that he would do what he said he would, trusted him to do it. I’m sure it didn’t stop her occasionally texting and calling – maybe slightly anxiously – to find out how the project was coming along, but underneath was the assurance that her Dad had promised to help her and – in his own good time – he would.

Today, I saw a picture of that repaired car next to one of the car as it had arrived on my friend’s drive. I was astonished that such a bashed in, sorry-looking mess could have been transformed into something so shiny and special.

And as I stared at the pictures, I felt a real lump in my throat.

The car had been repaired. But it had been MORE than repaired. There was something very beautiful about that photograph. It wasn’t just the difference between the broken car and the fixed one. It was the knowledge that my friend would have taken extra special care in the work that he had carried out because of the love he bore for his daughter.

He wanted what was best for her. He knew the need that she had and the challenges she would face if that need wasn’t met. He met her pain and upset with unconditional love and grace.

And he stepped in and he sorted it out.

There is something very encouraging about that.

I’ve been out of work now for more than two months. It’s beginning to really hurt that I can’t find the right job in the right place. I have the ongoing concern about how I’m going to make ends meet. And to be honest I feel more than a bit lost at times.

What is my faith for? Why isn’t God listening? Where is he and what is he doing?

I wish I had the answers. But I don’t. And I have no intention of trotting out trite answers to either myself – or anyone else come to that. I’d rather be honest and admit I don’t know why we find ourselves stuck in dark places where the battery on our torches to show the way out seems to be fading fast with no sign of somewhere to get a replacement.

All I believe I can do is keep taking the whole sorry mess to the one place where I remain convinced that – in the right time – it will be dealt with. Where a gentle smile and the kind, loving words, ‘Leave it with me,’ will send me away reassured that through love and grace something very shiny and special will come out of what seems like a wreck and a disaster.

Happy New Year…?

There’s a rather dead looking firework this morning on the green next to my house. It just looks like a bit of soggy cardboard, with no indication that last night it was causing quite normal people to shout with excitement as it burst into starry golden lights, raining sparkles down on the world.

It’s just a bit of cardboard. That’s all. The illusion of gold has completely gone this morning.

Sometimes it’s hard to speak the words Happy New Year. They don’t always trot tritely off the tongue. And sometimes it’s extra hard to speak those words out loud when you know for many people 2015 is going to be filled with challenges and problems. And that was BEFORE the clock tower that houses Big Ben even got to its twelfth chime.

More than 30 people have died during celebrations of the New Year in China. In Indonesia the celebrations were cancelled as the consequences of that horrific air crash begin to sink in. In the UK there are people waking up to a New Year in which they know they will have to find a job after the collapse of City Link.

Father Mulcahy, the ever patient chaplain in M*A*S*H wrote a war song in one episode, which finished with the poignant line, ‘With the pain and death this madness brings, what were we ever singing for?’

And it would be a fair to ask a similar question. Why have we just spent millions of pounds sending explosives and plastic into the air to shower glitter over our heads? One of my friends remarked that he’d watched thousands of pounds worth of arts funding going up in smoke. I found myself comparing the cost of what had been spent on celebrations with all the adverts across Christmas appealing for funds to help tackle the Ebola crisis and children suffering abuse over the festive period. Or paying redundancy money to those who’ve lost jobs.

Now, I appreciate that we’re only a few hours into 2015 and this already looks like a blog written by someone who’s a cross between Ebenezer Scrooge and Eeyore.

And yes, I admit it: I’ve never been a big fan of New Year. I admit I’ve often felt it was a night of expensive forced gaiety. That’s not to say I’ve not enjoyed individual New Year’s Eve events, but as a rule, it’s not been something I’ve looked forward to with any particular excitement.

In fact, it is more likely that the excitement of New Year’s Eve soon leads to that cold grey feeling of being overweight and overspent.

The next few days and weeks will be littered with broken resolutions, massive credit card bills and – often – a massive feeling of anti-climax.

And yet. As I watched the crowds gathering for New Year’s Eve in London and as I read the texts and messages coming in before and after midnight I was reminded of what makes us fully human. It is this: Our hope and optimism that things will get better. The hope and optimism that 2015 will be a new and exciting chapter. The hope and optimism that brings many of us through the most difficult times as well as help us to celebrate those exciting moments.

If we knew what was coming we might run and away and hide under the mountain of cardboard boxes and bottles filling up our recycling boxes.

But we don’t. We experience each day as a new one. Yes, 2015 will be filled with challenges, but it will also be filled with the kind of moments that will leave us laughing until our ribs hurt.

I had no idea at the beginning of 2014 that I would be losing the job I love. But then neither did I know that I would be jumping out of a plane. Or making a whole lot of new friends. Or know how my old friends would step up to the plate when it really mattered. I never foresaw the pain of leaving people behind. Or the pain of receiving a whole lot of rejection letters from potential employers. But equally I never foresaw the joy of receiving a note from a member of the youth club saying how much she appreciated what I did for them.

There’s a really old hymn that says ‘God holds the key of all unknown and I am glad. If other hands should hold the key… or if he trusted it to me… “ Well, can you imagine? If we had the key to our own futures? No thank you – or perhaps ‘No Fear,’ would be a better response…

So. Happy New Year to all of us. May we step out in hope and optimism and faith in 2015, may the laughter outweigh the sadness and may there be more light than darkness for all of us. And may we know what we are singing for…

And as the former UN General Secretary Dag Hammarskjold once said, ‘For all that has been, thank you. For all that is to come, yes!’

Or as one of my youth club might say, ‘Bring it on, 2015.’

The Advent of Hope…

‘We are not simply at the mercy of the hopeless and often bad experiences that we have in the everyday world.

These do not ultimately determine what we are and what we may become.

New and unexpected things can always rise up out of our lives because there is, despite all the anxiety and unhappiness that surrounds us, a source of salvation from an unexpected place – a stable in Bethlehem.

Something that is bright and pure and not simply superstitious or wildly enthusiastic is proclaimed in this age old Christmas message.

It is this: That despite all the evidence that exists in the world as we know it, there is a way from darkness into light – there is a light shining in the darkness.’ *

I first used these words in a BBC Wiltshire carol service in 2007. Seven years on, out of work and facing an uncertain future they have never mattered so much. I know I’m not the only one in a tough place. So I commend it to all those facing their own demons of darkness and fear, in the sure and certain knowledge that whoever it was that brought us this far will continue to shine a light on each step forward until the night is gone. Or as my great and wise friend Ronnie remarked earlier today, ‘Let’s pray for the GPS (God points souls) signal for where we go next.’

The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.

Happy Christmas.

(* Source unknown; altered by Heather Skull 2007)

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I believe I can fly…

On Friday I jumped out of a plane. Twice.

You have no idea how fantastic it feels to be able to write those words. Four years ago one of my friends told me I should think about skydiving and I thought about it for 30 seconds and said ‘No fear,’ or words to that effect.

But this friend mentioned it again and again on a regular basis and while I was still saying no in my head, my heart was already thinking about flying above the earth. I saw his pictures as he trained to be a skydiver, secretly looked on YouTube at other people’s skydiving efforts and wondered whether I should – literally – take the plunge.

He stopped mentioning it and I stopped thinking about it. Until the summer when an e-voucher dropped into my inbox, offering me the chance to do an indoor skydive. I looked at it for a moment, bought it without thinking and booked to do it on my birthday. My head was saying ‘This will prove once and for all whether you want to do this thing.’ My heart was saying, ‘Yeh, yeh, yeh…’

I did my two minutes at the centre in Basingstoke. As I went in to the vertical wind tunnel, I felt a thrill of excitement. As I came out I booked another six minutes. And then some more after that. And then – after being put in touch with a skydiving instructor by my friend who was really encouraging me – booked some more time with with him in the tunnel.

And in between all this tunnel time I booked a skydiving course in Spain. I lost weight. I worked hard to master the position that my skydiving friends were telling me would keep me stable in the sky. I booked the course for October. Those three months between the summer time and heading out to Madrid seemed the longest of my life.

From my previous blogs you’ll know that for the first six days I was at the dropzone where the skydiving course was held, we were all grounded by the weather. It wasn’t until Friday, two days before most of us were due to go home that the weather was anywhere near good enough to jump.

I was assigned to an instructor and waited my turn to go up in what seemed like a very tiny plane considering the eight or nine bodies stuffed into it. Slowly we climbed into the sky until at last we reached 13,000 feet. An alarm sounded to let us all know that the door was opening and I watched as the others in the plane – the more experienced jumpers – disappeared.

By now I had a real understanding of fear. I’d have given anything to get off that plane. In fact I’d have given anything for someone to shut the door and tell me the whole thing was just a joke and we could all go home now. If I’d not been warned that’s exactly how I would feel, I’d have felt ashamed. As it was, I crawled to the entrance, lingered for slightly too long but finally pushed myself out of the door and into what felt like an abyss.

I have no idea what happened for the first few seconds as I fell out of that plane. That’s common too. Your brain is refusing to recognise what has happened and you are experiencing what’s called sensory overload. I was aware of the two instructors either side of me, holding on and sorting out my position in the air. I tried valiantly to do all that I had been told to do but my brain was refusing to believe that I was falling through the sky at 120mph.

I was checking my altimeter every five seconds and looking into the horizon as I’d been told. At six thousand feet I knew I needed to pull my parachute. I couldn’t find the pull for it, despite having practiced several times on the ground. I kept searching but knew I was running out of time.

Just as I thought that, I was suddenly pulled away from the two men either side of me and realised it was my canopy opening and that one of them must have pulled it for me. Forgetting for a second what I was supposed to do, I realised that my falling had stopped and then remembered what I was supposed to be doing and looked up. I’ve never been so pleased to see a piece of material in my life. It was orange, but more importantly it was big and symmetrical and – when I moved the steering toggles – it was controllable. As those were the things I’d been told needed to happen, I was able to take more of an interest in the things around me.

And then it hit me. I was flying. Flying six thousand – no, now five – thousand feet above the earth, with my feet dangling and a smile as big as the canopy over my head. To nobody in particular, I announced that I rather liked this game and sang several choruses of Oh What a Beautiful Morning.

Not for long of course. I had my instructions and looking down, identified where I was supposed to be heading to begin my pattern of descent. Pulling myself around so that I was heading towards the olive trees where I’d been told to hold on until it was my turn to come down, I was quite pleased to hear the voice of my instructor asking me to do a couple of pull downs on the steering toggles (known as flares which cause the canopy to brake) so he knew I could hear him.

I listened as he guided me to where I needed to be next, marveling that this piece of material could respond so sensitively to my pulls. Dropping slowly to one thousand feet and turning left, dropping gently to 500 feet and turning left so that I was facing the wind seemed easy. I watched the ground come closer and closer, listening intently to the instruction from the man on the ground who told me when exactly to put my brakes on to land. It was a perfect text book landing. Or would have been, if I’d not put my feet squarely onto muddy ground and stood uncertainly upright for a second before the squelchy mud inevitably pulled me over so I landed in an undignified heap causing my instructor to laugh through the radio while he asked me to raise my hand so he knew I was uninjured.

As I stood up to collect up my now collapsed canopy, I realised that I was crying. Crying because I really could fly. Crying because I could actually throw myself out of a plane. And crying that someone who wouldn’t even climb a ladder when she was 19, had descended through 13,000 feet of space.

I hope I never forget the day that the earth was spread out under my feet. I hope I’ll never forget the moment that I brought a parachute canopy down to earth. I hope I never forget what it truly means to live life to the full.

Epilogue

I did go up and do a second skydive but for various reasons was unable to continue the skydive course after this one. Sometime in the future I hope to return to the accelerated freefall course, but until then, I shall hold the memories in my heart and smile from time to time as I remember the day I believed I could fly.

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Tomorrow’s another day. Seriously.

I don’t think I’ve ever been as obsessed with the weather as I have been over the past few days. I’ve become addicted to the websites and apps that claim to give accurate forecasts for Ocana – where the dropzone is that I’m currently hoping to skydive at. Clouds suddenly become of great interest. The trainee skydivers can often be spotted staring into the horizon hoping the low cloud will go and blue skies will follow. We’ve all got cricks in our necks and a slightly maniacal look in our eye when we mention clouds and their formations and why they should shove off somewhere else.

Yesterday there was real hope and optimism that the conditions might be good enough for the level 1 students like me to actually get into a plane and then drop out of it. I was issued with my jumpsuit, goggles, helmet and altimeter – this last one an incredibly important piece of kit that tells you how far away the ground is. You look at it every five seconds because that’s – roughly – how fast it takes to fall a thousand feet. Suddenly I felt sick inside with nerves and excitement. It’s taken me about four years to get to this point and the possibility of this life-changing skydive actually taking place really began to hit home.

The first plane went up with the experienced jumpers and instructors keen to have a look to see what the conditions were like. The rest of us rookies paced about and watched the skies as this group came out of the plane and then gracefully landed on the ground. I watched slightly enviously of the perfect landing that one skydiver executed and was reminded with a wry grin of the previous trainee who’d described his efforts as ‘falling like an anvil.’

My ambition was simple. Get up in the plane. Get out of the plane. Try to get through all the drills that my instructor in Spain Phil and my coach last week in the UK, Stu instilled in me. Heading. Alti. Arch. Toes. Land without breaking anything of my own or other people’s. How simple it all seems. I was more than ready for it.

Then I saw one of the instructors who’d been up to test the conditions, shaking his head gently during a conversation and my heart sank faster than an anvil falling out of a plane. The winds were too strong further up in the sky for people like me who’ve never got out of a plane before. And that, it transpired, was that. The clouds returned with a vengeance, the patches of blue sky grew fewer and no-one was surprised when the instructors, the pilots and then the rest of us left for the day.

It doesn’t matter how much planning and forethought goes into our schemes. The weather can put paid to it all.

Today we were back early at the dropzone, staring up at the bright blue skies and all hopeful that this was the day we’d all get to do our first skydive. Impatiently we waited for the various people to arrive who would make the decision. My instructor Ryan remained doubtful. The trouble is, he said, that the winds are strong and likely to blow inexperienced people away from the area where it’s safe to land . Given that there are trees, aircraft hangers, railway lines, power cables and a very busy motorway to contend with, I was happy to listen to him and take his advice. It didn’t make it any less disappointing, but I’d rather be alive than have to scraped off a road or power cable.

Watching other more experienced skydivers coming into land was an education. Their twists and turns, sharp drops and fast landings were a lesson in how to make tricky things look easy. One of the Spanish instructors was sympathetic as he saw me watching the jumpers land with a wistful air.

‘One day it will be your turn,’ he said, ‘But we can’t take risks just to take that sad look away.’

Tomorrow is, after all, another day. And I would like to experience it.

Waiting for the plane that never comes…

Skydiving isn’t all Top Gun and Point Break. It isn’t all piling into a plane and then pouring out of it again at thirteen thousand feet, experiencing an adrenaline rush that exceeds all others. Sometimes it’s just about sitting around and waiting. And waiting. And waiting.

One of my fellow trainees here in Spain remarked that he had a tanned face and stiff neck from staring up into the sky, hoping for that magical break in the clouds that would see him – after ten days of waiting – finally make it into the sky to do his first skydive. The weather conditions here aren’t right for seasoned skydivers, much less the new kids on the block.

It’s a long wait. You soon make friends. But the wait for the clouds to disappear can cause even the sunniest countenance to darken a little with despair. This is, after all, Spain, not England. The rain in Spain falling on the plane here has put paid to our chances of taking to the skies. Again.

Yesterday I finished ground school which takes you through all the drills and techniques you need to know. This morning I passed my ground school exam and found myself in a practice harness, suspended six feet from the floor and experiencing what it’s like in an emergency when the parachute opens but doesn’t open well. As I was shaken around in the harness while trying to reach for the cutaway clip that would release the troublesome canopy and then to the reserve parachute clip that would save my life, I suddenly realised how much I wanted to be in the air for real.

There is no point whatsoever in getting stressed about things that you have no control over. I can’t make one cloud move. I can’t make one tiny patch of blue big enough to hold a plane with my new friends and me in it. It’s humbling to be reminded that it doesn’t matter how much planning we might do, how much we think we’ve got everything sorted, we have no real way of controlling the planet or its weather.

This morning as we all arrived in glorious sunshine, the mood was upbeat. The instructors themselves were optimistic, getting ready and briefing the first students who are due to jump. The students who’ve been waiting far more than the three days I’ve been hopefully looking skyward, began to have a spring in their step. But within an hour it started to become clear that the cloud of yesterday had made an unwelcome comeback and they had retreated to the bar for copious amounts of coffee (no beer allowed before skydiving) or to the hangar to play ferocious games of table tennis.

By this afternoon, the instructors were apologetically telling us there would be ‘no further activity for today.’ One of my new friends who is training with me looked as sad as I felt, as she hugged me goodbye until tomorrow. I have to admit to feeling a little downhearted too. It isn’t the end of the world of course, but once you’ve got the skydiving itch, you really need to scratch it. And you really, really, REALLY can’t do that from the ground.

Some of the friends I’ve made here are already having to leave, despite having made no jumps at all. Their time has run out. Their other life is calling them back. Some have managed to extend their stay to cover the hopeful period on the weather forecast chart which has rumours of wall-to-wall sunshine. My deadline of Sunday night is approaching and I was touched that some of those who’ve managed no jumps were generous enough to hope I would get at least some of mine.

We are all waiting. Some of us more patiently than others. It is what it is and can’t be switched on and off like a kettle or a TV. But just because we know all that, doesn’t actually make it any easier.

On one of my exam questions, it asked, ‘What does the instructor ask you just before you exit the plane?’ The answer I put was ‘Are you ready to skydive?’ It was correct. The answer to the question is a resounding Yes. Yes. Yes. Yessssss, of course I am.

Skydivers have a special wish and greeting for each other. I’m beginning to understand it far more than I did a few weeks ago.

So I wish you all – particularly those who have the urge to jump out of perfectly good planes with the equivalent of a bedsheet on your back – ‘Blue Skies and Happy Landings…’

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Chin up and believe in yourself

If I had a pound for every time someone’s said, “Ooh, learning to skydive, that’s brave,” I could probably buy a complete new skydiving rig. Especially if I had a pound for all the other times that people have asked me WHY I’m doing it.

The truth is, I’m not exactly sure. Except that over the past three or four years I’ve listened to a friend who’s enthused about it and I’ve seen the pictures and film footage of this mad man jumping out of perfectly good planes and wondered what it might be like. But like all these things, I felt I always had a good reason for not being able to do it. Or rather made excuses to put it off…

It was only in the summer of this year that I made the decision that it was time to go and find out once and for all if skydiving is as much as an adrenaline rush as I fear it will be. Firstly though – as it isn’t cheap – I took advantage of an offer to experience indoor skydiving at a wind tunnel in Basingstoke to see whether I really thought I might actually want to do it.

I have to admit as I stood at the door, I felt like every single nerve was singing at the top of its range. Ten seconds later my breath was quite literally taken away as all the oxygen appeared to be sucked out of my nose. My arms, legs and stomach felt like they were going several rounds with a Force Ten gale. I watched my instructor, tried to do what he said and discovered simple instructions like ‘arch’ (to get your best body position for freefall) and ‘relax’ can be really difficult to put into practice.

And yet, as I left, I found myself booking another one. A few days later and I was booking the full Accelerated Freefall course to do it all in the skies over Spain.

Two days ago I was receiving coaching at the indoor skydiving centre from a great guy who’s an AFF instructor and very experienced skydiver. Stu’s enthusiasm and ability to teach in a way that’s both lively and very educational left me equally enthused and far more confident about taking to the skies than I was this time last week.

If I tell you that I can turn circles, flip myself over and move backwards and forwards, it might not seem that much. But after ten minutes of tunnel time it felt an immense achievement. I worked harder than I’ve done in a long time and the following day I had aches in places I didn’t even know I had…

But I’m still grinning. Tomorrow I fly out to Spain and start the AFF in earnest. And I’m more excited than a six-year-old on Christmas Eve. Goodness ONLY knows how I’m going to sleep tonight.

And that’s what really matters. The enthusiasm and encouragement of my skydiving friend, the patience and praise from Stu at this week’s coaching session means that suddenly yes, I really do believe I can fly. And – what’s more – it’s going to be the most fun since one of my friends turned up at a pub Christmas lunch dressed as a nun. (Long story for another day.)

The last entry in my indoor skydive logbook says that I should keep my chin up and believe in myself. The first is actually a physical thing really but I’ll take it in both senses of the word. And as my coach Stu remarked in an email to me yesterday, ‘Remember that above all else, it’s meant to be fun…’

I have no doubt that my nerves will be singing an almighty chorus while I’m in the plane working its way up to skydive height. I have no doubt that I will say some very rude things in my head about the people who encouraged me to get this far as I stand on the ledge. And I have absolutely no doubt at all that when I land I’ll be pleading with my instructors to let me go up and do it again…

One of my friends gave me a card which says this, ‘Life isn’t a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a well-preserved body, but rather to skid in sideways used up, worn out and shouting “Wow! What a ride.”’

Or as someone else once put it slightly more succinctly: “I have come that you might have life and live it to the full…”

There’s only one answer to that: ‘Gerrrronnnnimmmmmo…’
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