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)

View from here…

‘You’ve not written many blogs lately,’ someone remarked recently. True dat, as my friend Sian would say. But sometimes you’re too busy living life to actually write about it.

It doesn’t mean there’s nothing happening. I’ve been to Cambridgeshire, Stornoway, London and Shetland in the space of just a few weeks. The car hire place knows me so well now that I just have to ring up and say, ‘Hi, it’s Heather,’ for them to know exactly who I am, what I’m ringing about and what happens next.

I’m always thankful that I’ve had jobs where I can travel. There’s beauty wherever you go – whether it be the rocky outcrops of Manicaland in Zimbabwe or the steep and craggy hillsides of Lerwick in Shetland. I did remark to one of my colleagues about the beauty of Shetland and she laughed: ‘You might not have thought it quite so beautiful if you’d been standing around in the pouring rain last night,’ she remarked. She probably has a point. Except that I tend to think it’s always better to look for the rainbow rather than moan about the rain. Especially when coming in out of the rain means a massive mug of hot chocolate awaits…

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Travelling isn’t that glamorous, whatever people think. I love travelling and I’m always happy to hop in a car, get on a train, or check-in for a flight. But regularly being at the mercy of a public transport system that has an eccentric view of the simple word ‘timetable’ or tipping out your worldly goods into a tray – or in my case, several trays – for inspection at an airport, tends to lose its novelty pretty soon on.

And I admit to still being slightly nervous during takeoff as that engine starts the roar which means there’s no going back. Once you’re in the air of course, it’s amazing to look around you and see the world from a different angle.

Different perspectives bring a different view of a world you thought you knew. I find myself taking pictures through aeroplane windows but struggle to sometimes work out where I am. Even the familiar city of London looks different from above although I enjoy picking out the landmarks I know from my childhood visits there and my more recent time working in Southwark.

Sherlock Holmes once remarked that people often see but they do not observe. I’d definitely agree with him on that one – in fact I’d go further. People don’t even look up, let alone see or observe. On the daily railway commute I’m aware that while I’m looking out of the window watching the deer run around the fields or the heron lazily flap away from the river, others have their heads down tapping away at laptops or glued to smartphones. Very few are gazing out at the vista of the Wiltshire valley we’re travelling through.

I admit to doing a lot of sleeping on planes – sometimes it’s the only way to catch up on the sleep I lose on a regular basis to get up to … err… catch the plane. But I always choose a window seat, knowing that when I wake up from my doze, there’s a different view of the world to see. Watching the sun glint off the plane or marvelling at the cloud formations or looking at the miniature versions of the cities spread out below me. It’s never dull.

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Observing beyond what you just see in front of you brings unexpected pleasures. A recent walk with my best friend made us both giggle a lot after we realised the gently waving field of crops was actually being caused by two deer dancing through the middle of it. And just a few days ago, I watched the River Thames turn into burning gold as the sun caught it at an angle that I wouldn’t have seen if I wasn’t in a plane or hadn’t been looking out of its window.

Seeing is not observing. Seeing is passive, observing is acknowledging, taking in and reacting to those things we see. Observing is an active way of looking at the world around us and taking it in, noticing its beauties, picking up on its sadness and anger and actually responding to all of those things…

Although I did get distracted by a pack of llamas the other day. But that’s a whole OTHER story..

How was your day three years ago?

I’ve never been any good at keeping a diary. My mother faithfully records the main points of the news of the day in hers every evening. I start one occasionally but then get a bit bored and the entries tail off into eventual nothingness.

Funny thing now though is that I keep a diary online without even thinking about it. In it I record all the things that matter to me that I feel I am happy to share with others. Generally it’s the often hilarious happenings on the train with the commuting friends I have made or the daft things that happen in the family or work but sometimes it’s other tougher incidents that are darker in tone in which I’m struggling to find the rainbow.

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Picture: Heather Skull 2016

Who could forget the talent my nephew has for balancing a breadstick pot on his nose? Or the day I accidentally put my cardigan on upside down in front of a senior manager at work? The day that the drivetime presenter on BBC Wiltshire and I made what we claimed were state-of-the-art toys out of old coffee cups? Or two years ago today when a friend who realised I was heartbroken at the impending loss of my job, said just seven words: ‘Come on. Let’s go get a pint’?

Actually, to be honest, I would forget completely. Facebook may have its faults but as a way of reminding me of important milestones and funny moments, as well as keeping me in touch with the friends who create both those things, I really can’t complain.

It has a feature called ‘On this Day’ which tells you about the things you posted over the previous years. Sometimes those make me laugh out loud again as I relive moments of joy and hilarity while others make the lump in my throat hard to swallow as the memories thrown up bring remembered sadness and pain.

Sometimes they are a mix of both. I’m aware that a milestone birthday (as a cricket lover I suspect it’s the only 50 I’m ever likely to hit) brings with it the dangers of thinking nostalgia isn’t what it used to be. But it also gives a moment to look back, to count the ten thousand reasons for my heart to be thankful and to move on to embrace what’s coming next. And it is good sometimes to look at how far you’ve come and where you are now in relation to that and give thanks before stepping forward confidently onto the next bit.

Living life to the full is something I’ll never stop giving thanks for. The friends that I’ve made – Facebook even reminds me of that – the experiences that I’ve had through work and outside of it, the memories that now – gulp – stretch back over five decades.

Those who propped me up and drank copious pots of tea with me and the odd glass of something stronger at times when I felt lost and bereft; the support and love that has carried me at those times; the shared love and laughter that’s left me with aching ribs and unable to breathe; the hind legs that have been talked off unsuspecting donkeys. I could go on, but I think you get the picture.

I really wouldn’t change a thing. Not even the days that have sometimes had to be endured and struggled through. The Psalmist says sorrow may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning. As I said in the very first blog I wrote three years ago, how can we know the joy and thrill of the sunrise when we have not first experienced the darkness of the night?

What I would add three years down the line is that – for me – both those experiences have been enhanced in the case of the sunrise and easier to bear in the case of the darkness because of the people I have been blessed to know and share my life with and for whose presence in my life I continually thank God for.

Keeping a diary of the immeasurable blessings of friends. Now THERE’S an idea…

Keep right on to the end…

‘We’re all doomed,’ proclaimed my walking companion in a credible impression of Private Frazer, as we walked up a hill with the sounds of explosions and gunfire echoing behind us. I have to admit that for a moment it did feel like he had a point and it was a bit like the closing credits for Dad’s Army, causing us both to march and sing the theme tune loudly. And then collapsing into giggles like a pair of six-year-olds.

4829_military keep outStill, if you are going to walk the Imber Range Perimeter Path alongside big signs that effectively say, “Come Any Closer and We’ll Chuck Bombs At You…’ you are likely to feel like you’re in a warzone.

Except that this is a place like no other. While flares and explosions are part of daily life on the Salisbury Plain, there are also carpets of flowers, larks ascending into the visceral blue of the skies and on more than one occasion a complete and profoundly peaceful silence.

It’s been a long-held ambition of mine to walk the Imber Range Perimeter Path. The beauty of the Salisbury Plain is something I’ve known and loved for most of my life. It’s a wild untamed beauty, a place that isn’t easily controlled by human hand. Even the Army can’t contain it – the broken old tanks used for shooting practice are soon overtaken by nature. And despite the fierceness of the training, the nighttime explosions, the practice of warfare, delicate flowers flourish, bees carry out their nectar gathering and birds nest in the hedgerows.

My friend David and I were walking the stretch of the Imber Range Perimeter Path from Tilshead to Bratton – about 11 miles – stopping to admire the gently changing view, picking out landmarks from miles away and enjoying conversation from the ridiculously trivial to the kind of deep theology that stretches and challenges in the same way that walking rough terrain does.

4834_Signs and harvestIt seems an unlikely place to be spiritual where bits of abandoned army flotsam and jetsam nestle amongst the wildflowers. And yet, somehow it is.

The fact is that despite all the noise and explosions behind us, David and I kept walking on, intent on our task and our path. The signs reminding us of the dangers either side kept us on the path that was safe. Our ultimate goal and the prize was ours – in this case a pint of lime and soda and a big bowl of chips – if we kept going to the end.

In places, it was quite tough but our conversation kept us both going when – if we’d been doing it on our own – we might have been tempted to give up.

At the moment when my heart sank as I realised that we had further left to go than I thought, David made me laugh by getting excited about hearing a particular kind of goods locomotive. And then we both laughed ourselves silly as we spent time identifying what class locomotive it was. It was the right laughter at the right moment to keep us going. And – boy – did those chips taste good…

Pilgrimages come in all types. The thing they have in common is that generally they go better with companionship. Shared laughter. Shared suffering. Shared experiences. The common word is shared.

We are pilgrims on a journey and companions on the road;

We are here to help each other, walk the mile and bear the load…

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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.

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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.’