But I felt nothing.

As you may have noticed, I’ve been taking a break from writing. In fact, I’ve been taking a break from more than just writing, to focus on my health and my studies as I approach exam season. But I also needed to focus on my faith. I want to talk about some of the emotions I went through over the Easter period. It was a period which I found emotionally far more difficult than I had ever expected. For me, therefore, it was important to take a break and work out why I felt so broken at what should have been the most assuring and renovating of seasons. I had to take a step back and perspectivise. For the first time I had to actively seek to find the Easter mess-egg-es (excuse the pun!) that I had always taken for granted: hope, renewal, forgiveness and identity.

And I dug right down to the bottom of my soul
To see what I had inside
Yes, I dug right down to the bottom of my soul
And I tried, I tried…
But I felt nothing.

So wrote Edward Kleban in his lyrics for the musical A Chorus Line. Not, of course, that I am comparing the Cathedral life to a chorus line, though unfortunately it is a comparison I have, though unwittingly, made before: apparently the Spanish sentence ‘mi hermano es una corista’ does not only translate as ‘my brother is a chorister’ but also ‘my brother is a showgirl…’  What Kleban was getting at, however, about the pressure to feel something in a moment where one feels nothing, puts into words the detrimental and enclosing effects provoked by the mind’s consumption by such nothingness. He puts into words how I felt over Easer.

This year’s Easter will be forever characterised by one of the biggest spiritual lows I have had in a long time. As with any low, it was preceded by one of the best periods that I have gone through in a long time: I spent 5 days in Athens. Now anyone who actually knows me will testify to the fact that I am a bit of a Classics nerd. Maybe not the Classics nerd you think of, with the hand knitted cardigan and broken glasses who spends every spare second translating everything that he says into Latin. No, I’m a bit more fun than that. But equally I have just spent the last 10 minutes trying (though failing) to find Thucydides 4, the Battle of Pylos, inspiring. My mum would definitely call me nerdy. She often despairs at the fact that my brother and I, sitting at the dinner table, argue about what the aorist past participle is of πιπτω is, for example. She does not think such to be appropriate dinner time conversation. I disagree. But I digress.

Going to visit Athens was probably the highlight of my year so far. It was wonderful to escape the stressful life of London, and fly away to a sun-filled, ice-cream-fuelled city surrounded by every iconic Athenian monument. As with any tourist, we visited the Parthenon and the Forum, went shopping in the Plaka, and ate a ton of ice cream. We walked in the footsteps of those about whom we learn every day. Now as I turn to my Thucydides, I try imagine my bedroom walls dissipating, and me sitting on top of the Acropolis, looking out to the sea, awaiting news from Pylos, as Nicias did.

Our last full day was Palm Sunday. Part of me was sad to miss Palm Sunday in England – the small child inside of me yearned to see the one day of the year when moody lorry drivers on our bypass were stopped by police, making their distemperate (another one for the ‘my made up words’ dictionary – to mean the opposite of temperate) presence known by honking their horns vociferously, in order to allow a donkey to pass through to the Church.

But Palm Sunday in Greece came with its own unexpected beauty. Though we did not brave it into a full Greek Orthodox service, we poked our heads round in time to see the priest (complete with full length beard, of course) begin his chant whilst dousing the congregation in copious amounts of incense. If people in England complain about incense, they should try even standing in the doorway of a Greek Orthodox Church. The scent is choking. And suffice to say, I was too much of a germophobe to even touch the icons at the entrance, let alone kiss them, as one ought.

But was unique about Greek Palm Sunday was the sense of boundless community that went alongside it. Despite clearly being foreigners in our t-shirts, shorts and sunglasses (though we are not, as we were frightfully often mistaken for, American), whilst the Greek citizens bundled up in their coats, scarves and jumpers – it was only 27 degrees of course- we were part of their festival. Throughout the day people gave out palms (bright green fresh palms, not the dried dead ones that make their way to England) and orange blossoms, as they heralded the arrival of Christ into Jerusalem. But somehow it seemed they were welcoming our arrival too. We felt one in Christ, though our denomination separated us.

So returning to bleak grey England at midnight on Holy Monday was not so pleasant. Memories of cocktails in a rooftop bar overlooking the Acropolis, as the bleeding sun set into the blackest of skies, were long gone. It was rainy grey England, 13 degrees, and miserable. The question lingered in my mind over why I could not have stayed in beautiful Greece…

Life clicked back into place almost unrecognisably. Though restored and rested, the routine clicked back; it felt like we had never really gone away. Back to work, meetings, people to see, revision to do. The reality that the summer term was actually in two weeks, and that meant AS levels in four weeks struck. I had no idea what the difference was between βραδυς, βαθυς and βαρυς, and in four weeks I was meant to be translating unadapted Lysias. Things were not looking good.

From Good Friday to Holy Sunday, we hosted my mother’s twin goddaughters, aged 19. They had never been to London before, and so Good Friday was spent visiting all the major sites of London: Buckingham Palace, the Tower of London, Tower Bridge, the London Eye, the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey. We ate pizza and tried to embezzle as many free samples as possible from those outside Euston station who had clearly been told ‘one per party.’

When the sky turned black, I was sailing down the Thames on a Clipper. I didn’t even stop or notice.

And anyone can tell you that a day trawling round London as tourists is tiring. We got back and flopped into bed. Jesus’ death didn’t make an obvious appearance in the day. I didn’t have time to process it. I just slept. And I woke up on Holy Saturday with no sense of grief, emptiness or despair. It was just a normal Saturday, spent, I am ashamed to say, braving the doors of Hollister for the very first time with two teenage girls.

Until the evening. I was Stewarding at the Cathedral. I was reading at the Cathedral. A quick change and a fast run down the A3 and we were there. The nonchalance with which I had regarded Easter up to this point was brought crashing down to earth by a brutal building that bore the scars of all conflict, anger and distress. A building stripped bare to its core, to bricks and mortar, to its beating heart. A building shrouded in tears and which screamed of the pain of Christ’s sacrifice. And I felt ashamed. I could have done more. I could have committed myself to God over the Triduum. On the fast flowing river of life, I could have taken the time to stop and listen, to reflect, to notice.

And so perhaps it was of little surprise that, when the words ‘He is risen,’ were proclaimed, and the flickering construction lights blinked on to fill the darkness, I felt nothing. I stood up and read about living in Christ. But I felt nothing. I felt like the showgirl I had once described my brother to be. I was saying one thing, and feeling the opposite. I was looking out at a crowd with whom I felt as if I was in a constant battle. And I felt like I was losing. I didn’t know where I stood anymore. Surrounded by confirmands, amongst whom 4 years ago I sat, I felt incredibly lonely. I was calling to God to help me see, to help me listen, to help me feel. But I felt nothing.

Perhaps it was because I hadn’t had time to process death, I could never process resurrection. But even recognising this, I still felt adrift, and I couldn’t put my finger on why. Bishop Jo spoke of restoration, renovation and resurrection. In that moment I could see was desertion, desperation and destruction. I saw more goodbyes, more pain, more loss. I couldn’t find tangible hope. I couldn’t see myself.

But, although initially I could not recognise it, although momentarily shrouded, my strong faith was still there. I hadn’t faltered as I thought I had. Others could see the light of faith shining within me. And such reassurance from those around me meant little by little, I began to piece myself back together. I’ve had to learn all over again what it means to give yourself to faith, to trust, and to love. I’ve had to turn aside. And it’s only now, a month or more after that day that I can say I’ve re-found what I thought I’d lost.

It was partly to do with the busy-ness of the period that I failed to see the faith in my heart, and the faith at the heart of society. I was so busy that I didn’t have time to notice all that was going on. But as much as I blamed myself alone for how I felt, I now don’t think it was all down to that. If we define ourselves by what we didn’t do, we cannot see a way forward. I expect I had been subconsciously closing my heart to God for a longer time previously, as one thing after another brought unforeseen blows to my trust in my community. Over time, I had grown into an armour that prepared me for inevitable battle. I needed to let it go, and to fight with faith.

It took the lowest spiritual low to make me see my faith again, and to make me understand that neither I, nor society, can afford to lose faith. But perhaps most importantly, the lowest of lows made me see that neither can I lose faith, however hard I might try. It is a part of me which brings me life and hope, renews, restores and resurrects me. My heart is open to God, I can see, and I can hear, and I’m not ashamed.

If there’s one thing I could tell those confirmands I was sitting with, it would be that being Christian is rarely easy. People assume that with God everything is made easier. But sometimes trusting in God makes everything so much harder. And sometimes you don’t have the answers to why it seems so hard. You feel quite alone.

But even when life is harder than it ought to be, even when you cannot feel Him, God is still working within you. It might take you a while to see it, but it will be there. You are never alone, even in deepest isolation. Sometimes you can find faith for yourself, and sometimes it is those around you who show you who you really are. You will experience guilt and regret. But you will also experience love, support and hope. You will go through highs and you will go through the deepest lows.

This faith thing, it’s a massive journey. But you’re not alone.

Picking yourself up and moving forward

Let no man despise thy youth; but be thou an example of the believers, in word, in conversation, in charity, in spirit, in faith, in purity. Timothy 4:12

Today I was reminded what a blessing it can be to return to somewhere that holds so many deep personal memories. To walk around a place is to relive those memories, to see them again, and to fully comprehend their value in life. To understand this is to put life itself into perspective, to marvel at its wonder and to truly hear God’s call.

2 months ago, things that were said there really upset me. I made the decision to take a break, to focus on myself and to evaluate the worth of returning. It really shocked and scared me that a few words could break me down to someone so vulnerable, and cause me to relive past events that I had bottled away. Things that you never even thought would affect you again can suddenly all come flooding back in glorious technicolour. What upset me further was that this was somewhere that I had always felt valued equally as part of the community, it was where I had grown up physically, emotionally and spiritually. Yet this was suddenly a place where I felt isolated and vulnerable.

Sometimes it seems when something like that happens, that the easiest thing to do is to run away from it. And that’s what I did. I walked straight out into the car park, found my Mum, and just started crying. All I could do was cry. And that’s what I needed then was just to let all those frustrations and emotions out. It seems childish now, but the thing I wanted more than anything was to drive away and to never come back.

I decided to take a break, and to think about which decision I was going to make. The words of Nanny McPhee (great films if you haven’t seen them) kept circling round in my head during that time. Did I stay or go?

When you need me but do not want me, then I have to stay. When you want me but do not need me, then I have to go. –Nanny McPhee

At that moment in time I felt neither needed nor wanted. I thought I had to go. But as time went on over those 2 months, I saw that not being wanted meant I was firmly needed. I wanted to change the attitudes that were engrained in that society which had so affected me. I wanted to challenge the stereotypes and prove that I was something more than what I seem. I wanted to show that young people like me are just as equal as anyone else. I decided that I would return, stronger and more determined by my emotional defeat.

It was only today, returning to the place almost 2 months on, and talking it through that I fully saw that I was needed in these ways. I believe that this was God calling me to carry on. It was God calling me to prove what I believed in my heart was right. And this urge I felt to pick myself up and move on, that was God moving in me.

I walked around the place today and I tried not to see all the negative things that I had been replaying in my head over and over, but I remembered the happy times. I saw me as an 8 year old, entering the building for the first time in awe and wonder. I saw me as a 10 year old, reading scripture for the first time; as an 11 year old walking barefoot as a King; as a 13 year old confirming my witness; as a 15 year old giving an innocent and wonder-struck and excited 4 year old a flickering candle; as a 16 year old welcoming and guiding, in Christian stewardship. And there were so many more, like a good Pandora’s Box being opened and brimming full and exploding all at once on to the white wall of canvas. These were the things that make me who I am. I knew that I had to keep going, because that was my calling. I had to return, because God was calling me.

It took more faith, encouragement and determination than I ever thought to pluck up the courage to take the decision and say yes to God, to say yes to continuing. But I did it. And now I feel stronger to cope with challenges that life is going to throw at me. Because I know that along the way there will be days where I find it hard to know what God wants and needs me to do. And after those days you need to pick yourself up, examine, and ultimately, move on, made stronger by what has happened. The ability to pick yourself up, perspectivise (NB new word: to perspectivise = to put into perspective), and go out into the world a stronger and better person for that is an ability that we should never take for granted, it is something that defines who we are, and how God shapes our lives.

If you are a young person and you feel unwelcome in your Church community, you are not alone. Don’t let anyone tell you that ‘young people are not needed in this Church,’ ask you ‘what are you doing?’ or ‘why are you here?’ I’m ashamed to say that it won’t always be easy, but you are always welcome, and always needed. It takes a lot of strength to be strong, and carry on doing what you’re doing when people don’t make you feel welcome. But be strong, and I’ll be strong with you.


Here are two little motivators that have helped me in the past to pick myself up and move on when I didn’t necessarily hear God’s call. I was reminded of these during my 2 month period of reflection, and I hope that they might be of use to you too.

  1. The first is this anonymous quote: “Every day may not be a good day, but there is something good in every day.”

If your struggle to find a reason to pick yourself up after something happens, take a break, pause and reflect on what happened. Find that something good. For me, my silver lining was my recognition of God calling me to carry on and to use what I have experienced to challenge the perception of young people, to encourage others and to be someone that younger people might look up to. The best motivator is to find the good thing that happened that day, or what good could come out of a bad situation, because something will be there, you just have to find it.

2. The second is this song.

LYRICS: http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/kellyclarkson/whatdoesntkillyoustronger.html

LINK: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xn676-fLq7I

I know this song is about a break up, and may not seem relevant, but when I was younger and felt sad or upset about something, I always used to listen to this song and it made me feel just a little bit better. So if your motivation is not God or you are struggling to find a positive, give this song a listen, read the lyrics. Hopefully this will give you the inspiration and the motivation to pick yourself up and carry on.

 

 

QOTD

Don’t go through life, grow through life. ~ Eric Butterworth

 

I saw this quote this afternoon, after an enriching and encouraging talk with one of the Canons at the Cathedral. To be honest, I had been dreading it. I’m not a particularly confident person at voicing my opinions outside the home. Trust me – my brother would easily confirm that I’ll put up a domestic fight where I see it is necessary.  I accept the fact that I am opinionated in certain spheres, and I mostly I feel confident in my own opinions, but I won’t often share them, for fear of being judged.

Much of my fear of voicing my opinions comes from the fact that I am still 17. What weight do my little words have on the world? How can I see things in a way that adults can’t? I must be wrong. I stay quiet, and let the adults talk.

But recently I’m beginning to understand that it doesn’t have to be this way. I’m proud of my opinions, and I’m gaining more confidence both in myself, and my abilities to voice concerns and suggestions. I’m almost an adult – I can take responsibility and show leadership, despite my age.

I felt alone before, like no one would understand me if I spoke out. They weren’t saying the things that I saw, so I must have been wrong. But, in truth, we all see the world in a different way. It is, therefore, important that everyone feels able to voice their own opinions. Perhaps they don’t say what I see because they don’t see it. And if they don’t see it, then they should see it. And it’s my responsibility to make them see what I see. Because I am important, however young I am. I can play a role, and my little words might just make a difference in my communities – because sometimes God speaks to the young.

That’s something I’m still in the process of accepting.

And key to that was doing something – was speaking out. And I spoke. I probably spoke too much. Bottled up thoughts turn into an avalanche of offload. But I spoke. And that’s what’s important. It felt like a relief, a burden gone. The thoughts I’ve kept inside for so long, the anger and the confusion, could all flow out to someone who, actually, understood. And, as a result, I found a bit more of myself. A bit more confidence, trust and resilience. A part of me seemed to heal. I grew in myself.

One of the things that I will always remember from the conversation we had, was the word ‘appreciate.’ We should ‘appreciate’ people in our communities. That doesn’t just mean appreciation in terms of gratitude, though this vitally important, but also appreciation in terms of growth. We should enable those around us to grow, physically, mentally, in strength, in confidence, in faith, in understanding, in curiosity, in vocation.

So perhaps we should just go through life, ignoring our opinions and bottling things up, but grow through life. We should appreciate, and we should be appreciated. With the help of those around us, our communities, we can grow in confidence, and discern our calling. We should grow and become the people we strive to be – freed of shame, fear, doubt, and lack of self-confidence. We should speak out, be strong, and we will grow. And perhaps we will see that we are not so alone.

Thank you to those who appreciate me and enable me to grow in every way.

You shall grow not old

I feel like I haven’t written forever. And when I say I feel like – I know I haven’t written in a long time. The truth is that I’m always writing, in my head. The following letter is a culmination of thoughts that plagued me during a 4 day choir tour to Ypres and Ghent, Belgium. It is addressed to my great great uncle, Serjeant J Ranson 41581 of the 52nd Field Ambulance Division, RAMC, of the 17th Army Division, which became part of the 2nd Army , joining the British Expeditionary Forces on 31st July 1915. We visited his grave whilst we were there. The letter tells his story, and ours, together. It was an extremely moving tour, in memory of all those who fell for our freedom. I am exceptionally grateful to all the staff who trained and took us, who made it educationally enriching, and who allowed us to visit his grave.

James, Uncle Jim, Jimmie,

I wept by your grave today. The grave you never thought you would own. A grave that, like so many, bears the body of one who was far too young to die. Aged 22, on the 6th October 1915, you were hit by shrapnel in the back of your left lung whilst saving Scottish Highlanders during the Battle of Loos. As Serjeant Beardsall wrote to your sister, Elizabeth, “In giving another life, [you] gave your own.” You had worked tirelessly since September 1914  “in the inky blackness of the night” to bring the wounded back to the field hospital. That night you made it back, but your punctured lung wept out your life’s breath and you were gone. A “good and true man” gone, like so many others, into the only place that promised hope. Death took you as his own.

You, who had been so proud to write back here and tell us of your encounter with the King as he visited the field hospital, had died a hero’s death. But even knowing that could never have relieved your pain and suffering as, slowly, you passed away. Your brother, Richard, also of the RAMC, was by your side, and for your sake, in your memory, fought his way through the remainder of the war to become an engineer. Edward became a lawyer. Elizabeth and Grace became nurses. But you, unlike your siblings, were never to achieve your life’s ambition. You had been training to be a dentist, and, when war called you, you “answered unflinchingly,” joining the RAMC. You had dreamed of emigrating to Canada to live and work amongst fellow commonwealth citizens. I hold the postcard you wrote back to Ted and Lizzie, your siblings, from your visit to St Lawrence in August 1913. You dreamed of moving there for good, but, like me, you complained about doing your own laundry. And just over a year later, in a moment, your dream was gone, the trials of laundry long forgotten in the pain of war.

Elizabeth wrote to your regiment, yearning for details of your death, to comfort your parents. They received a letter, thought unbeknown to them, on the day of your death, written with sheer excitement as you described that you would be moving to a new hospital to take charge of a dressing station. Moving to the place that would be your place of death. Only, two days later, they heard again, from Archdeacon Southwell, that their beloved youngest son had died. Serjeant Beardsall replied on 16th October 1915, a man who knew you well, describing you most favourably as “a jolly chum, respected and loved as a MAN.” Yes, he put that in capitals. You “could always be relied upon to perform duty…you would be right there and do it like a man. Never could [you] be accused of shirking or cowardice.” In hope, he asked your family to “bear up under the affliction of the Almighty, in His wisdom, placed upon [them], until such time as He calls us all together again, in that promised blessed reunion where we believe there are no more sorrows and partings and where we shall all attain that peace which passeth our understanding.”

Holding your medals today, though I had struggled before, I saw how he could see a hope for heaven in the midst of the horror you faced on a daily basis. How you all needed to find a promised peace. How still today we must remember your sacrifice to truly see our own peaceful freedom.

I came to Belgium, to Lijssenthoek, around 4 years ago. I was young, and the horrors of what you faced did not pierce my innocent mind. War was still history, and it seemed easier to detach myself from your pain. But now I am 17. The same age as 150 000 British boys who fell. And this time, 100 years of days past seemed like very little at all.

We came to Belgium through France. I imagine you did too. Coming from Accrington, the journey down to London and across the Channel to the Continent must have been deeply exciting. Though, admittedly, it was not the journey you had wanted to make. Canada would have been far more thrilling, and would have held far more promise. But you made the journey, for your country’s sake, though it is probable that you would not have travelled by train, through the tunnel, at 7 am, eating ham and cheese sandwiches and singing Zadok the Priest. Perhaps you, laden down with possessions, bundled and crouched in a corner of a boat, alongside hundreds of others, would have laughed to see the ease of our journey.

And, after France’s topography, Belgium seemed awfully flat. With the sun beating down, we could see for miles. It was idyllic countryside, with emerald green grass newly tufting, and daffodils spotting the roadside, like little dashes of yellow paint. But as soon as we stepped off the coach, it was clear that this idyll was a façade, it was an ephemeral idyll still slashed with scars of your bitter world. Shell holes became evermore obvious to the eye, as rabbits and hares, running on a flat plain, disappeared from view and then resurfaced again. It was like a child had been let loose with a holepunch on the blank canvas of the countryside, where the soil of the fields is still fertile with your blood.

We visited the trenches, preserved as harrowing memory of your daily life. The juxtaposition of the trenches with the quiet wooded countryside brought the realisation of the sheer lack of greenery that you would have seen, and the perpetual mudbath that was the Salient. We felt claustrophobic as we crouched and inched our way through the passages, tunnels, and runs. Though it was staggeringly hot, the mud sucked at our shoes, and the mixture of the smell of rusting corrugated iron and muddy dung was choking. At my feet lay stagnant water, a deep brown colour, where dead flies circled in an incessant cycle. Our choirmaster’s face as his phone fell and was engulfed by the mud epitomised our 21st century horror at what we saw.

But then I remembered you. You who were fighting throughout winter, for whom these trenches were not just muddy at the sides, but on top of the boards, to halfway up your shins. For whom the trenches were filled with bodies, dead and alive, piled on top of each other. For whom there was no alternative to claustrophobia, no idyll to look out upon. For whom a hotel with hot showers, beds and cooked breakfasts to return to at the end of a long day was an untouchable dream. For whom a phone would have meant nothing; the Bible, photographs found next to your heart and your imagination were your lifeline. For whom the smell of putrid flesh mixed with dung, rust, blood, and more was far worse than what we could ever have experienced.

As we journeyed on we saw yet more spring greenery that you would never have known. When we stood at the top of the belfry in central Ypres, a reconstruction of the shattered shell you would have seen, and got lost on unknown roads, we could see lambs, goats and fatted bulls frolicking in the fields. Perhaps you never thought that Belgium could be beautiful. I expect it seemed more like hell to you. And it seems the beauty of today’s Belgium is underpinned by your hellish conditions. Your hellish suffering. Your hellish loss. It seemed that as we looked out on the country, every five seconds a new graveyard would appear. Sometimes small, with only 15 or 20 graves, sometimes expansive with more graves than the eye could count. It was painful to see. Your losses put into perspective our freedom, and the beauty we find in the Belgian nature. And yet, as we passed a row of pollarded trees, devoid of the green natural life that seemed omnipresent, each was felled. It was hard not to imagine them as soldiers, the men with whom you shared your life, drawn up in a line, each one falling to the sound of a single gunshot.

But I hope that beneath the pain of death, you would have smiled to see these graveyards. All your graves are white, pure and painless. Around each cemetery there are trees, and before each grave flowers, so that each is almost a garden of Eden. A peaceful paradise, where we can sit and remember you. The transcendant peace that Serjeant Beardsall spoke about in his letter. The sun shines, gleaming off the rows of graves. There we each find an inner peace, albeit derived from horror, with which we can learn to look beyond the pain. Each cemetery bears the cross of sacrifice. It is a memory both of Christ’s sacrifice, and your mortal sacrifice, that we might live freely. There is an altar, on which is inscribed ‘Their name liveth for evermore.’ And it is true. You all sacrificed yourselves. You have an individual grave, where your name, age and regiment is written. On the walls, and all around, are found your names. Every man is named, even if no body has been found for him. And if there is a body, but no name could be identified, the epitaph is simply ‘A soldier of the Great War. Known unto God.’ Because even if we cannot know – God does. And in heaven you shall live, known by God, forever in peace. And on earth your name shall live for evermore.

In such a way, visiting the German cemetery at Langemark was, for most, emotionally harder to deal with. Their cemetery, surrounded by the white peace offered by ours, is dark, shrouded with oaks, symbols of their strength, where up to 35 men are commemorated on one stone which is laid flat on the ground, as if symbolising the fallen men. There is a mass grave where 44061 men are buried. The darkness seemed to engulf the cemetery and the hope for peace in the future seemed intangible; the horror of war lingered. The stark difference between the two seemed to forge a greater gap between the men; the black and the white; the victors and the losers. But reading the names, though at first it was harder, I remembered that each had a story, just like you. They were just men, facing the same struggles and pain as you, both of you cannon fodder. They were all losers. As I looked over the wall of the cemetery, struggling to find peace, I saw a host of birds take flight into the blue sky, rising invisible into the sunlight, beyond the clouds. For me, seeing these birds was where I found hope. Just like our men, their spirits rose to heaven as one by one they fell for their country. In heaven we are all the same. We are all mankind, and in such a way we must try and close gaps of hatred, to find the peace we crave. We cannot afford further war in the world.

Perhaps no other monuments stand as greater testament to this than the remarkable Menin Gate in Ypres, and the Vimy Canadian Memorial. We learnt of Edward Kelly, goalkeeper of the 1st XI  at our school, who had a History Exhibition to study at Merton College, Oxford. He left school in January 1915 on receiving a commission as an officer into the army. He was at the front line for less than four weeks before he died. His body was never found. And around him, the names of 54,388 other men who fell and have no known grave. He was 17. The same age as me, at the same school, wanting to achieve the same things. It is likely, on arrival, like you, he would have walked through the Porte de Menin, then bearing no memorial, excited and eager to face the reality of war beyond the town itself. As excited and eager as the cyclists of the same age who raced through the now majestic memorial on Sunday, racing to the finish line. But Edward Kelly never made it to the finish line. And neither did you. And neither did the thousands named on the Menin Gate. And neither did the thousands on the Vimy memorial, those with whom you had once hoped to live, in Canada.

And so, when we sang, at St Bavo’s Cathedral (Ghent), St Maartin’s Cathedral (Ypres), St George’s Memorial Church (Ypres) and the Menin Gate (Ypres), it truly felt that we were singing for you, in memory of you. You would have known some of the music we sang. As a fervent Christian, I have no doubt that you would have heard pieces such as Tallis’ Salvator mundi. Our 20th Century Chilcott and Paulus offerings would have been beyond you, but the sentiments offered, that ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that who so believeth in him would have everlasting life’ would be known to you. The reassurance of Christ’s sacrifice so that you might enter heaven would have carried you through. And I have no doubt that at some point, lying drenched in mud, and covered in the blood of those you saved, and those who passed, you looked up and asked for The Road Home, pleading: View me Lord, and later, Miserere mei. Perhaps you even wondered what Insanae and Vanae Curae were casing you so be trapped so in this brutal war. Little did you know that it would go on for a further 3 years. As the music we sang floated up into the vast expanse of the buildings, especially at the Menin Gate, a serenity was easily found in suspended dissonance, slowly resolved to consonance. It felt like you were singing with us. As Mrs Hawkins of St George’s Memorial Church, Ypres said, hymns we sung like ‘All things bright and beautiful’ link people across countries, across centuries. Your souls, combined with ours, forever entwined, will sing for peace. Indeed, from visiting “Toc H,” we are all too aware how much singing meant to you. And so we give you, with you, what little we have, our exquisite musical offerings, harmonies of hope.

We laid white wreaths of fresh flowers at Tyne Cot, and at the Menin Gate, the two largest memorials to allied men who fell, to symbolise the peace and life that you have given us today. We visited the grave of N.G.Chevasse, an Olympian and vastly decorated medic who died in a similar way to you. Like you, he was a relative of one of the pupils on tour. There are so many like you. We visited your grave, and in the heat of the sun on my back, warming me, felt like your heavenly spirit with me. In a strange way, laying these wreaths and placing a cross at your grave felt like a degree of closure, both personally, and for the group: an acceptance of all that happened, and a cry for the maintenance of peace in our turbulent world. And I wept for you, and for all those who fell with you, and for all those who have fallen since.

And I said goodbye and returned home. A journey that you never made. It seems pertinent that the last anthem of the tour, sung at the New Brandenhoek Cemetery and later, to lull the sleepers, as the delayed Eurotunnel train burst into the light of England, was: For the Fallen.

You shall not grow old as we that are left grow old. Age shall not weary you, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun, and in the morning, we will remember you.

With a century’s worth of love and gratitude for your ultimate sacrifice,

Your great great niece.

 

JamesRanson3

James’ medals – The Victory medal 1914-8, The 1914-5 Star, The British War Medal 1914-8

 

 

JamesRanson2

James Ranson, or Jimmie, as he was known to his men, like all who fell, was awarded a certificate of service from the King.

 

10 Reasons Why…

Completely unrelated to what I am writing about today, I would like to start with a thank you for your messages of support. I will be going into hospital on Friday – to be honest I’m a little nervous (actually very) because I’ve never had to have an operation under general anaesthetic before, but I am optimistic that this should solve the haemophiliac problems with my nose. I am so grateful for all your continued prayers and well wishes – it will be a tough week but hopefully I am on the mend! 

I was asked to share these reasons by one of the Canons at the Cathedral where I have been a congregant most of my life. More than anything I thought that in this season of Lent, this would be a good way to reflect on life at the Cathedral, and my journey of faith, as well as reflecting on what it means to be part of the Cathedral community years ago, and today. I hope that in sharing it, you will have cause to reflect on why you stay where you do when, after all, there are a million other places where you could go. What does your community mean to you? Why does it make you give thanks?

1o reasons why I stay and worship at the Cathedral should seem easy, perhaps I should be able to think of 100s, even 1000s of reasons why. But for some reason it wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be. It made me ask myself a question I have hidden away from in the past year. To be honest there have been many times when I wanted to be anywhere else but the Cathedral. Yet every time I stayed in bed, purposefully avoiding being at the Cathedral, I felt guilty for not being there and suddenly I wanted to go. Something still draws me back.

1: The Cathedral was a place where I grew up. Perhaps not quite so much as the 5 children know who live in Cathedral Close, but still to a considerable extent. I first went to the Cathedral in 2006 and then again in 2007 to sing evensong with my local Church choir during the summer. But we must have started going to the Cathedral regularly in 2008, when we knew that my brother was going to be a chorister, and he came a probationer in September 2009.

9 years is a long time to be in one place, and I can see how I have changed over that time. I am now 17. I am a completely different person to the 8/9 year old who cried at least once a week because she had to be at the Cathedral 3 days a week. I was selfish, I wanted to go home. I thought people who came to visit only wanted to see my brother in the choir. I would never be allowed to sing, because all the girls’ days off were the boys’ days on. It wasn’t fair.

But now, I can see how much I grew up, from having to do sticking and gluing prep in the back of the Cathedral to the shock of the Stewards and Virgers, to revising for my GCSEs and AS level. I often wonder what the walls would say if the walls could talk. How they have seen me grow. The stories of me being told off for skipping down the transepts, or for sneaking in before Nine Lessons and Carols to nab a seat. If their eyes could play a video of my childhood, I would see the immature girl become the strong teenager that (I like to think) I am.

But even without the testimony of the walls, I can pretty much link each notable moment or change in my life to a time when I was at the Cathedral. I think that’s pretty special.

2: The Cathedral will always be a special place to me, because it’s the place in which I was confirmed, the place in which I first truly found God for myself.

On 31 March 2013, I was confirmed by Bishop Christopher Hill. It wasn’t just the day, surrounded by friends and family, that was important, but the whole process of leading up to confirmation, and attending classes. I learnt what it was to be a Christian, what things actually meant, and truly began my journey of faith. It was a process which helped me to discern what I believe in, and a period which will remain a key one in my life until the day I die. Whenever I doubt, I think back to that process of learning, and take out my Confirmation folder (yes, I still have it), and look over the things we talked about and learnt together. Remembering that gives me a renewed hope and purpose.

The service itself was the Easter Vigil service, which I am looking forward to going to this year for the first time since Confirmation. It celebrates going from darkness to the light of the resurrection of Jesus, quite literally, with the service beginning in blackness, and the light suddenly dawning. This darkness was also the end of my childhood doubts and fears: the light was the hope and promised peace that anyone who believes feels. It was a reminder of Jesus’ sacrifice so that we might all live purged of sin, forgiven. And that’s what I remember feeling when the Bishop put his hand on my head and confirmed me – my darkness seemed to disappear for a moment. For me, no service could have better accompanied my confirmation.

Furthermore, I was confirmed alongside one of my current teachers, though I doubt that he remembers me from then! I understood that whether teacher or pupil, old or young, we are all one in Christ – our faith brings us together despite our differences, a message that still is important to my beliefs today.

3: The Cathedral is a place that is fundamentally full of friendship. Despite factional warfare and guerrilla overhearing tactics, blended with a touch of snide remark, at the heart of the community life is the value of friendship. And arguably, the Cathedral could not run without such friendship, people willing to give up time to serve as volunteers together.

A tiny proportion of the community I cherish at the Cathedral are actually my age, and the ones who are my age are distant, up in the quire, or behind a cross. In fact, most of my Cathedral ‘friends’ would not consider themselves so, and would probably rather be seen as role models. Indeed, in today’s world, saying that most of my ‘friends’ are over 80 would probably draw some suspicious enquiries. And as much as I would love more people my age, it’s not going to happen in a heartbeat, and most teenagers would not actively seek to be friends with someone whose favourite subjects are Latin and Ancient Greek… So over time, perhaps as a result of once being a lonely 9 year old at weekly evensongs, I have grown a fondness for these elder members of the community. I like to think that I contribute to their (and let’s be honest, my) weekly social outing to Church. But at the heart of it they are just friends, people who like a natter, a cup of tea, a gossip, and who’ll buy you are bar of chocolate when you start crying. Good people whose kindness makes your world work the way it should. Good people who teach me how to tread the path.

4: Music is really important to worship, and forms part of the core foundation of the Cathedral, in my eyes anyway. After all, I first came to the Cathedral for music, and J’s music made me stay.

Through the extended chorister network I found a bunch of choir mums who would take me to the TESCO Costa between dropping the boys off for rehearsal and the Ash Wednesday service, for example, and a community of families who were going through the same pressures as we were, or who’d been through it before. They would chat to me when I was left in an almost empty Cathedral late at night, waiting for my ever ‘helpful’ brother to clear up every last sheet of music he possibly could, whilst craving the sausage casserole which by now was most definitely cold in the oven. People who’d been through it and knew that I would get used to it eventually, with whom one day I’d be playing cards at Chorister Cricket, or decorating biscuits at the winter fair. A sub community inside the whole Cathedral family.

And as much as I used to be incredibly jealous of my brother for getting to sing in the choir, I had a little chance myself. I was part of the Surrey Songsters, and I wore my t-shirt with pride. We, a small group of maybe 6-10, would meet after school on a Friday, and would perform termly as part of the Cathedral’s musical outreach programme. I think I was part of the first, and probably last group of Songsters, a group which didn’t survive more than a few years. But it gave me a bit of confidence, and a tiny splash of vocal training which helped when having to do a music scholarship interview at age 13, in a scary unfamiliar school chapel, never having really sung solo.

But what about now? Does music at the Cathedral still make me stay? Well yes to be honest – as my Mum frequently says, once you’re used to that amazing standard of music, and that commitment to aiding worship, it’s incredibly difficult to head off down to the local parish and have to face John Rutter on repeat, a host of screeching sopranos, a few dodgy tenors, and the bass that fell asleep on the back row. To have to face ‘hymns’ like Shine Jesus Shine or I the Lord of Sea and Sky. They have their own beauty, but for someone growing up surrounded by mellifluosity (another word to add to the dictionary)it’s not quite the same.

5: The Cathedral is where I discovered what I could do as a Christian. I discovered that everyone can find a role, their place, in the community no matter how old they are or where they come from or what they look like. It’s by far not always easy, and I’ve had my fair share of struggles in the roles that I take on. Comments such as ‘I don’t know why they let someone that young do that’ are whispered behind my back, but I still hear them. I have been called ‘incapable,’ ‘too young’ and ‘unwanted.’ But I mostly carry on: there are no distinctions in faith, and each one of us is as capable as we want to be. I usually live be the rule: don’t let someone tell you that you can’t just because they don’t want to accept that you can.

I became an official reader under the guidance of Nicholas Thistlethwaite, our last Precentor, after having read the 6th lesson in the Christmas Day Nine Lessons and Carols service for 3 years on the trot. Let’s face it – which other ‘member of Sunday School’ is going to be around in the Cathedral on Christmas Day afternoon except a chorister sister (in the days before resident Canonical children of the appropriate age). Though I am not currently a very active reader, I read about 3 times a year for 5 or so years. I am still on the list but after my experience at Christmas I feel like I’ve lost the desire to share the Word.

In November 2015 I became the Cathedral’s youngest Steward, although I have still never taken the official oath (I don’t think it really matters). Stewarding puts me on the front line, so to speak, being the face of the Cathedral that people first see as they enter. A welcoming smile, a polite enquiry, a reassuring word, a helpful direction. Whatever we can do to make people more at home at the Cathedral, and to facilitate ease of worship, even if that means taking them to the loo, or picking up grotty tissues from the floor after the service. And the best part? Either the wiggly hot air blowing snake that warms the area (mind you, just that area) where the Stewards’ table is when the rest of the building is frosting up, or in the days pre-scaffolding, the Stewards room, called familiarly the Room of Requirements. Everything you could possibly need is down there, and it keeps on going and going and going, right to the depths of Stag Hill, for the 9 year old trapped inside me, anyway.

6: The role I play and the experiences I’ve had in these different roles lead me on to my next reason. From these days of service and the emotions I’ve felt alongside them, the Cathedral has helped shape my beliefs and motivations and ultimately has given me lessons from which I have learnt to be the person I am today.

I don’t believe that anyone should be ignored on account of their age, but equally I know that it happens all the time. I’ve learnt not to get rattled by it, to accept it to its face, but challenge it in my heart. I know that no one should be seen as incapable, no matter who their are or what their individual needs are, and I’ve learnt to cater to these needs to make everyone feel welcome. I’ve learnt to be strong, to challenge what I see, to form my own opinions. I’ve found the confidence to speak out when I don’t think something’s right. I’ve learnt how to read people’s hearts and not just their words. I’ve learnt what it is to be loved, and supported, and upheld. I’ve learnt to work with people I never thought I could work with.  I’ve learnt to be honest, and to share my opinion when it’s required, but equally to keep my thoughts to myself when they’re not wanted. I’ve learnt to be patient, sitting in the car for an hour before services. I learnt not to provoke my parents, and what consequences were – believe me, you don’t want to be thrown out of the car to walk round the Cathedral 20 times in mid-November when the wind is roaring and the constant driving rain turns you sodden. I’ve learnt to listen. I’ve learnt that it’s ok to laugh and equally ok to cry. I’ve learnt what it is to be an adult. But ultimately, I’ve learnt what it is to lead a God driven life. And these lessons give me the motivation to be the person I choose to be, and the person from whom others may choose to learn these lessons. A person who can make other feel equally supported, loved, and upheld, who can see a value in everyone just as people see value in me.

7: The Cathedral is a centre for teaching and learning. Although I don’t study RS and never profited from school visits etc. to the Cathedral, I take from the Cathedral my own sense of learning. It is the place where I receive my only spiritual guidance and teaching.

Though sermons once played the most important role in the service as the time in which I could get out my book and delve into some other world while some dreary man was jabbering on about Simeon, the sermon is now the most important part to me in drawing lessons from Scripture, and making astute links between this passage and the world that surrounds us. Teaching and preaching help me to discern where I stand, to view current affairs with newly opened eyes, and to see God all around. I am now able to make my own links between the Scripture I read and the world I live in. More often than not I learn something new each time I open my mind to listen. Sometimes it changes my opinions on something in a way I never thought it could.

In this way, the Chapter at the Cathedral have all played an important role in my spiritual development through the years. From confirmation lessons, to BOB, sermons and phone calls, the Chapter have helped me to see things differently, and to see God and the wonder that is found in Christ and faith in my own life. I don’t think I will ever be able to see an Easter egg in the same way, or bake bread without remembering a glorious summer’s day of biblical baking and pick-up-sticks. Sometimes even when I didn’t think I could find God anywhere, they have helped me to find hints of his love, or to think in a less constricted way. It seems so easy as a teenager to close your mind and to give yourself over to doubt and fear, to shut yourself out from God, but Chapter have taught me that it isn’t as easy as it seems. God always seems to find me again, even if it takes a chat to help me see it, that, in fact, I never lost faith. I will never be able to thank them enough for the lessons they’ve taught me, and for the life’s worth of teaching, reassurance and guidance they’ve given me in my 9 years.

8: You’ve probably never been to our Cathedral. But it is a masterpiece of architecture, with high arches and a ‘honey bathed golden interior.’ It is plain, but so full of colour at the same time. It has slippy floors with underfloor heating (when not covered in warping wood) and it used to always feel warm. Whenever you came in from the bitter world, the rain, ice and snow, it was a little haven. When the sun shines, it strikes the arch at the crossing, creating pillars of golden splendour, and light through the stained glass creates the most beautiful paintings on the blank canvas of the walls. In the darkness, the candles flicker in the windows, beckoning in the wanderers. Even now, in the iciness, it is hard to forget the comfort and the warmth the building once offered, and will again one day soon.

If you sat in the nave, and closed your eyes, the gentle hum of traffic would gradually disappear and it was silent. A space for peace and reflection, for quiet prayer and gentle tears. A place that laughed alongside you, and smiled when its people smiled too. Space to be, where you could just think and hear your heart beat. Space to grieve, praise or pray. Whatever you needed, the building gave it to you. It was the perfect place for anyone and everyone who needed it.

Though this warmth is quite noticeably absent at the moment, and the everything seems to be carrying the burden of scaffolding, and the pillars weep, and inside the infrared heaters and metal makes congregants feel a bit like battery hens, it has a certain beauty. And though it is hard to find that silence there once used to be, there are whispers of what the future will hold. I know that I for one can’t wait to find that warmth again.

9: For me, the Cathedral has always been a place that opens doors. There are so many times where I have felt down about something or another, as you can expect over the 9 years. Often, having gone to the Cathedral I grasp a new perspective on things, and whether I’m being unreasonable or not. A few times, just as I thought a path was coming to an end, I found a new one to take. It has given me hope when I thought the world contained none.

From the age of 11 to 13 I was bullied at school and I became very withdrawn. I lost all confidence that I had, and I wasn’t good enough at anything. I wasn’t valued because I wasn’t clever enough, I had to drop out of the swim team, I wasn’t a size 0 and I wasn’t musical enough. I was average, above average even, but still not quite good enough. I remember summer 2013 I came top of my year in the end of year exams, and I was due to receive a prize at speech day. The week before, I showed prospective parents around my school, and when they asked about bullying at the school, I was honest. The prize was taken away from me. No one told me why, though later I was told that it was because I had presented the school in a ‘bad light.’ I thought it was because I wasn’t good enough anymore. Even top wasn’t good enough. Prize giving was held at the Cathedral, and when I wasn’t present my Mum spoke to Paul the Virger, asking that she might be able to sneak in – her seats, too, had been removed as only prizewinners’ parents were allowed to come. With the connections we had at the Cathedral, this was no problem. The next time I saw Paul, he gave me a big hug, and told me how much he knew I was valued, and not to believe school, and that he would always support me. I hope he knows how much I appreciated that. I started crying. Because I knew that I had to get out of the hole I had found myself in.

I haven’t gone back to being the confident and sassy child I was aged 10. Performing, still, is something I find daunting, and I get incredibly nervous because I know that people will be judging me, and they might see my failure. ‘I might never be good enough’ is a thought that I am only now overcoming, and it has plagued the majority of my teenage years. But time and time again, the Cathedral, staff, chapter and community have opened doors for me, to help me see that I am valued and turn my failures into building blocks to make me stronger. They have given me books, so many hugs and tissues, chatted to me, and made me see that I have a place. They gave me hope when at aged 12 I would cry on the way to school every day. The Cathedral became my place, where I was valued for who I was. I didn’t have to achieve a quota, or fit a stereotype. I could be me. Still, mentally when I need a place to escape to, to calm down, to quell nerves, or to find confidence, I place myself in the middle of the nave, the West doors shut to the stormy world, staring up at the East window where the light shines through, and the pure dove gleams.

10: If you’ve made it this far, then you’re a champion! I wouldn’t be surprised if you had got bored halfway through. And I hope this last reason, as stupid as it is, will make you smile. It feels a bit stupid, but it has to be said. The Cathedral’s chocolate brownies are quite literally the best I have ever had. Although I am currently ‘taking up’ not eating puddings or snacks, Cathedral chocolate brownies will definitely be my weakness.

To be honest, it was always the shortbread biscuits that took my heart, in those days where everyone in the family had to be given a biscuit to keep them going in between Eucharist and Matins. But recently, the shortbread biscuits have lost their softness, and the Cathedral has outsourced some of their produce, so we are faced with slightly condensated and soggy bakewell tarts. So I turned to the chocolate brownies. Awfully awfully bad for you. But there you go. Sometimes, after getting through Byrd 5 part mass and James MacMillan, you need an oozy chocolatey treat. I am looking forward to 45 days time when I will probably get my next – they are to die for.

So there are my 10 reasons, though it probably felt more like 10000. I know that one day, fast approaching, I will fly off into the world, and I will leave my people’s Cathedral far behind me. I will leave the community behind, and the chocolate brownies. The Chapter will find new places, lead new lives, and a whole new lot of choristers and their families will grow up like I have. And to be honest, I’m quite excited to leave it behind, and all the memories too, and join a new community, and find 10 more things to be thankful for there. But the Cathedral will always remain a mental haven for me, and will be my Pandora’s Box of childhood memories, all centred around a rather ugly building on the top of a windy hill.

 

Present mirth hath present laughter

As part of my A level English course, I have to study Twelfth Night. It’s a good play, not Rattle Arrow’s (as my English teacher calls him – criiinggee) best, but good all the same. Maybe that’s because I have a tragic streak in me which makes me prefer the deep dark tragedies. But it’s a good play – principally because it includes two of my favourite words, cockatrice, a word with which, as some of you know, I have a passionate history, and hob-nob. Hob-nob. Brilliant word, and my favourite biscuit (bit of trivia there…!). Over half term, I went to see the first of the previews of Twelfth Night. Here are my thoughts… PS Look out for a second review of Twelfth Night (to compare and contrast) in early June, when I will have been to see it at the Globe. PPS Thank you to my parents and godmother for taking me out to the theatre twice, a very special treat xx

“Vibrant,” “weird,” “fun,” and “mind-blowing” are all quotes that I gathered about this production, when I asked people to sum it up in one word. But it is possible that no other quote quite sums up Simon Godwin’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night than Feste’s own words, “present mirth hath present laughter.” Through an all too recognisable 21st Century lens, Godwin makes Twelfth Night’s messages of gender liminality, friendship, laughter, love, grief and pain speak clearer to us than ever before. It is striking that, even 414 years after Twelfth Night was written, the play can so easily find its feet in a modern world; its joy and pain remain deeply affecting.

In the preview stage of the production, I felt privileged to be able to attend one of the first live performances at the National Theatre. It seemed to me that the production at that time was still somewhat like a flower on the cusp of blooming to its full splendour. Teething faults with staging, costumes and props, and an Antonio [Adam Best] who dropped his Scottish accent half way through, whilst arguably at times adding to the humour of the play, did undermine the serious undertone to Twelfth Night that has given it its ‘bittersweet’ label. Therefore, despite an ingenious triangular flight of steps (perhaps symbolising the love triangle at the heart of the play, and the steps of patriarchal hierarchy that were an underlying presence even in times of misrule) opening to reveal every set required, from a ship in a storm, to streets, atria, pools, gardens, a chapel, a gay nightclub and a front door, and many noteworthy performances, it was the ruffed stage manager who held a wall up for a considerable part of the play whilst spinning round with the revolving stage who became a favourite character of those in the audience.

Yet arguably such is the joy of live performance, and I have no doubt that the production will only go from strength to strength in the coming weeks. And undoubtedly, it is a production that merits attention. Godwin has clearly chosen to highlight gender as a principal driving factor in the comedy, and tragedy, of this adaptation. One might even argue that it was the notion of gender that was the binding factor that made this fair cruelty of a play work successfully. Yet it was interesting to note that, in the programme, Tiffany Stern goes as far as to say that this highlighting of gender suggests that ‘gender and sex themselves are performances and that both are as much social constructs as physical ones.’ In a modern setting, the problem of gender and sexuality is still a constant question, and I wonder whether any member of the audience did not come out of the performance questioning what it means to be female, male, homosexual, heterosexual or bisexual. Are these just social constructs? Whatever your personal opinion, it is clear that, for this production, the casting of a Malvolia [Tamsin Grieg], female Feste [Doon Mackichan] and Fabia [Imogen Doel] were extremely important, dramatically increasing the number of women on the stage, thus allowing for an increased sense of homoeroticism, seemingly somewhere present in every scene.

It was interesting to note the portrayal of the relationship between Sir Toby [Tim McMullun] and Sir Andrew [Daniel Rigby] which Godwin had also underpinned with Andrew’s homosexual desires for Toby, unparalleled in either Trevor Nunn’s film (1996), or that of the Globe production (2012). It would not be an overstatement to say that the homoeroticism between Toby and Andrew was far more pronounced than that between Orsino [Oliver Chris] and Cesario [Tamara Lawrance]. Indeed, dressed head to toe in pink, with a man-bun, and a physical performance littered with jumps, hops and skips, from his first entrance Sir Andrew fitted straight into the modern stereotype of homosexual men. With ‘camped-up’ lines such as ‘I’d beat [her] like a dog’ and a final flick of the hair following Toby’s harsh words to such a ‘gull,’ the audience was left with the image of Andrew as an embodiment of modern homosexuality.

The Malvolia sub-plot, as in many interpretations, gradually became the main plot of the story. With an audience full of aging Archers fans, the casting of Debbie, Grieg, as Malvolia inevitably led to a sympathetic audience. Indeed, words such as “I didn’t expect the end to be so sad” filled the babbling gossip of the air following the performance. However, Grieg’s portrayal of Malvolia was not originally so ‘sad,’ in fact being reminiscent of a stereotypical Victorian schoolmaster, seen as simply a sanctions master and presence malum volens.

It was at the end of the first half of the play, with Malvolia splashing around in a fountain that didn’t quite squirt water (yet), that the theme of appearance vs reality in Twelfth Night found its incarnation. The gulling was so successful that the second half saw Malvolia in a costume that epitomised her fall, a modernised interpretation of yellow stockings and cross gartered to say the least, with a touch of Commedia dell’Arte for maximum effect. However, arguably what was most striking was the Malvolia’s final line ‘I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you,’ which saw Grieg remove the wig that she had worn the whole play, both as the Puritanical and the promiscuous Malvolia. Her final gesture to the characters, therefore, was that throughout the whole play she had been playing a role; her true personality was not to be found in either persona she had portrayed. This undeniably left the question of what constitutes a true identity lingering in the audience’s mind.

Furthermore, it was clear that beneath the hilarity and pain, a lot of thought had gone into the relationship between casting and costumes. For example, Viola and Sebastian [Daniel Ezra] were played by two African-American actors, which added to the modern stance of the play, challenging stereotypical intra-race and inter-sex relationships. The actors wore simple white shirts and black trousers, meaning that their appearance was androgynous, to the extent that the final scene saw Olivia embracing Viola and Orsino likewise embracing Sebastian, once again heightening homosexual themes of the play. As mentioned before, costume also played a key role in the character of Malvolia whose black garments were always in direct contrast with the pink, purple and green of Andrew, Toby and Feste respectively, emphasising their conflicting characters. The change from complete black to complete yellow clearly marked the gulling as a key shift in the character of Malvolia. Yet, the touch of a Pierrot Commedia dell’Arte cape, though flounced about (albeit inside out – the Velcro clearly wasn’t working) by the gulled Malvolia, demonstrated that she was little more than a sad clown, a fool, the butt of the joke. A similar change from black to bright colour was also used in the costume of Olivia, symbolising her progression from the darkness of death to the light of love.

As the play unravelled, with a surprise at every corner – did anyone else expect to see Toby in a mankini? – it was the question of how Godwin would choose to end the play that was most pressing in my mind. Would the rain raineth? Well, as mentioned, the staging opened out, and so the end saw the revolving stage (and yes, the ruffed stage manager with it) split into thirds. Whilst Feste stood and sang, each time a third faced the front, we saw a new scene: Antonio being set free, Andrew leaving with a teddy bear that had been previously destined for Olivia (not a dry eye in the house, I can assure you), the marriage of Olivia and Sebastian and subsequently that of Orsino and Viola, with an appearance from Toby and Maria noticeably absent. And as the staging came together once more to form the flight of stairs, it began to rain. And there was Malvolia, still dressed in her gulled clothing, slowly ascending the stairs to the light, whereupon she reached up, almost offering herself to God to be redeemed, to be forgiven, to be loved. Did Malvolia reach her God? Well, the lights went out and the show was over.

So perhaps you never thought that Shakespeare could be mixed with gay clubs, teddy bears, toilet roll, and swimming pools. Perhaps you can’t seem to picture a transvestite singing Hamlet’s famous ‘To be or not to be speech’ in an operatic aria. But somehow, Godwin makes it work, and if you look a little closer, you might understand why. The production was certainly played ‘for the laughs,’ but occasional glimpses of despair sharply pierced the hilarity, to the extent that on leaving the theatre it was a cloud of melancholy that hung over a dispersing audience, and not one of comedy. And despite my stomach’s memories of aches of laughter, for me the play ended with a perennial final note of warning – ‘present mirth hath present laughter,’ the opportunity was left for each to read into that what you will.

I would highly recommend going to see Twelfth Night at the National Theatre if you are able to (but probably don’t take Grandma…). https://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/twelfth-night

Lead by example with hope; never fear

My brother and I, usually amicably but occasionally not quite so, share an office. Usually a great source of dispute is what we listen to when we are working. My brother, when I am listening to something he doesn’t appreciate, takes pains to remind me that it has been proven listening to music with lyrics while you are working significantly reduces your brain’s capacity to take in the information you are studying. He learnt that from Vish, his study sensei (but that’s a different story). I similarly take pains to reply that he is a music scholar and academic musician so he should be listening to all music and drawing astute links between them. He usually leaves the room, slamming the door as he goes.

But if we happen to get on amicably (63% of the time) we tend ignore Vish, and a fly on the wall would not be surprised to hear plainsong, psalms and hymns in the office as we work (the hymns aren’t so good as we tend to sing along, sometimes substituting words for others especially with naff hymns – “I the Lord of sea and sky/I have made my people fly” and “Who put the corn into the cornflake” are two of our favourites – you get the picture). But last week was half term, and, having had a bit of that unknown quality of sleep, my brother and I were on good terms (it lasted 2 days). One day I allowed him (sorry Vish) to listen to a podcast whilst he played Fifa, and I wrote my french essay. And it was something that was covering the installation of the new President –

“I want our young people to know that they matter, that they belong,” Obama said, her voice breaking several times near the end of her remarks. “So don’t be afraid. You hear me, young people? Don’t be afraid. Be focused. Be determined. Be hopeful. Be empowered. Empower yourself with a good education. Then get out there and use that education to build a country worthy of you boundless promise. Lead by example with hope; never fear.”

And I’m not American, far from it. But I felt as if at that moment, Michelle Obama was speaking to me too. Somewhere in our lives we will all experience a feeling of not belonging, of fear, of lack of focus, of lack of determination, of lack of hope. And in that moment, I was feeling all those things.

We are constantly afraid, and we hide behind this dark shadow of fear, letting the world slip by. It is all too easy to think that we don’t matter, that people will not listen to us. But Obama rekindled that hope in me that there is a way that we can all change the world if we try. But she also recognises that it’s not going to be easy – there are times when we are so afraid that all we want to do is curl up under the duvet, in the warm, and not come out. We revert to our inner child. But it is our responsibility to get out there and use our gifts for good – to send a message, to be the person that we want to be. Because if no one tries then the world will slip by.

I remembered these feelings when I was at the Eucharist on Sunday. I didn’t really want to go – it felt more of an obligation than a choice. I put on my jeans, not usually deemed appropriate, heaved myself into the car and we went. At the beginning of the service I felt really uncomfortable, a feeling I haven’t experienced in a long time. I was afraid to go there, a place that seems so full of despair. I was afraid of what I would feel. But the reading was –

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 27 Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life[a]?

28 “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. 29 Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 30 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31 So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

Matthew 6:25-34

And this also touched me, and made me think about my fears, worries and my current failure to empower myself to be the best person I can. Sometimes, a lot of the time in fact, it is so easy to let worries about health, religion, business, day to day life, education, exams and relationships weigh you down and take over your brain. But life is about making the choice to be that young person Obama wants you to be. It’s about trusting fearlessly in God, no matter how far you feel from Him, because everything will be given to you that is necessary.

I don’t want to be someone who gets to my mid twenties and looks back and thinks ‘what did I do in my teenage years that made me the person I am today’ and regret not doing anything. I’m not going to stand up in the street and start preaching at people to change their ways. But I write it on here. Every day I make a choice to be the person I am. Every day I have the choice to be empowered and to stick up for myself and have no fear. And 60% of the time I do that. 40% of the time I let time pass me by. And I regret that, but I know I’m not, nor will ever be perfect. So all I can do is try to make that choice when I wake up, and carry that choice through to the end of the day.

Sometimes it’s those little epiphanies that make me think: yes. I can do this – I can be that person I choose to be and I will have no fear because God is beside me. It is the everyday God who reassures us of his constant presence and allows us to live in hope, and not in fear. Even in the darkest pit of despair, he tells us that there will be hope: we must not worry. There will be mistakes along the way. You won’t make it to that person every day. And it’s taken me 17 long years to accept that it’s ok to cry. I think I cried more this weekend than I have in a long time. But in a way, I feel more at peace, though my worries and fears still rage inside me, I want to use them to make me the person I see in my head when I think of who I am in God.

So maybe, just sometimes, Vish, it’s a good thing to listen to words whilst you’re studying -maybe it will reveal to you a determination to achieve your full potential.

 

Operation: Stop Me Bleeding!

****Probably not a good idea to read this if you are squeamish,

but I promise that it’s not too graphic****

I have had nosebleeds since as long as I can remember. Admittedly, for a 17 year old that’s not very long. I think it probably started when I was in Junior School, aged 6.  I was part of the school swim team (yes – I have some sporty genes in me!!), and in my school at the time, the school swim team was a very elitist group to be in. And I was very proud to be in it. We trained for an hour and a half before school on a Monday, and for 3 hours after school on a Tuesday. We had navy swimsuits, and what I called my tea-bag shirt, which kept me warm poolside.

I remember getting changed every practice on the benches – in those days when 30 girls could all get changed in the same space without feeling awkward. The coolest girls were those could do the knicker-trick and didn’t have to strip in front of the others (I have still never mastered this art!). And the year 6s were even cooler – they got dibs on the individual changing rooms. But for the rest of us there was no shame. We were proud to strut out from the girls changing rooms with our towels, and complete 60 lengths of IM. There was always a certain time when I wished I could stop, but as soon as I remembered that I would go home to dinner, it would be worth it. That’s what made Monday mornings so much harder – there was no guarantee of a snack afterwards, and I wasn’t one of the girls whose au pairs brought them in a limousine with a pre-packed snack of chopped carrots and hummus (all Waitrose organics – obviously darling). No – I had to cope until lunchtime.

But on the whole, I didn’t mind Swim Squad. And afterwards on Tuesday, wet from the pool, I would go to the Cathedral for evensong. I think that was the bit I enjoyed most – even if I did mostly fall asleep, exhausted, to Howells and Rose. I was doing well – I was the U10 A team front crawl 100m swimmer. Until one day when I finished my race, slammed my palms hard on the timing board at the end of the lane and watched my name appear – 2nd place (whoop) – on the board above me. And then I heard a high pitched scream. I mean nothing new there, I was at an all girls’ school. I heard high pitched screams every day, all day. Spiders, dirt, a boy. Everything was screamed at. I looked around, and couldn’t see anything. I didn’t feel so good – but at the end of the race one was bound to feel a little weary. Then my instructor reached down and pulled me out of the water. I was shaking, and fainted in her arms. I was having a severe nosebleed, from both nostrils. I was wrapped in my tea-bag shirt and towel and taken to the first aider. Every time I swum afterwards the same thing happened. I was moved from A to B. Then from C to Reserves. And then I wasn’t part of the team again.

Perhaps I was allergic to Chlorine, the doctor suggested. So I swam with a nose clip. That didn’t work either.  My swimming career was over. Not that I was ever hoping to get very far. Just to be a year 6 and get to use the changing rooms. And now I was a little fragile girl who would bleed every time I jolted or got hit by a ball. And someone spread the rumour that a nosebleed was the mark of the Devil. So for a few months I didn’t really have a very good time of it.

But it got better. And I mostly forgot about it. I would have a nosebleed every now and then, but it wasn’t major, and it wasn’t incapacitating, just massively inconvenient. But I never really went back to swimming. Until last year. I began to swim recreationally again. And the bleeding came back. I stopped swimming, but the nosebleeds didn’t stop too. Most days I would have one. And once I had had one, then I was bound to have at least 5 more secondary bleeds. They were normally only 5 or 10 minutes, not long. But they were very frequent. When I had 18 in a week, we decided to go to the doctor.

Last December we were referred to a private doctor, Dr R. I wasn’t that nervous to see him, because it had got to a point where I couldn’t deal with the bleeds anymore, a point where they were truly incapacitating. When we got in to see him, he set out possible causes: hay fever (n0), allergies (no), high blood pressure (no), rugby (definitely no), large amounts of physical activity (no), genetic blood conditions (not so far as we knew). And then he came to the one that it could be – swimming. By this point I had long stopped swimming, but Dr R, like my GP over 7 years before, reckoned that the chlorine in the pool could be causing an erosion reaction with my skin making the capillaries to break. As I had had so many nosebleeds, my blood vessels were now extremely weak, and would be prone to breaking.

So right there and then, at an appointment that I thought was merely a consultation, he gave me local anaesthetic, and performed the operation, chemical cauterisation – the burning of the inside of my nose where the blood vessels were weak to stop them bleeding. Boy did it hurt. I gripped my Mum’s hand with strength I don’t think she even believed I had. I could feel tears in my eyes, and it was at that point that Dr R said ‘Don’t worry, you’re doing great; this is the point at which the 18 year old massive rugby players usually pass out.’ OK great. So the operation that he said wouldn’t hurt usually causes the nations toughest to faint. And here I was aged 15 gripping my Mum’s hand. As soon as we left the hospital, I burst into tears. I’m not sure whether it was the shock, the anaesthetic or the pain, but I knew I did not want to go back to school. I cried my way home – literally. I remember that there were cinnamon sugar biscuits in the back of the car and I ate and ate them to try and get that taste of blood out of my mouth. We drove to two pharmacies to get my prescription before eventually I crawled into my bed, dosed up on Ibuprofen to get me through. But I couldn’t sleep.

The next few days were awful. I had to go back to school, and I was in a lot of pain. I didn’t sleep well, and my nose felt all stuffed up. But the bleeding stopped. I had a follow up appointment in January, where he checked everything was going well. I was fine – the bleeding should stop. And it did, for about a year.

However, over the Christmas 2016 period and January 2017 my bleeding has got worse and worse. On Monday I was in the shower when I looked down to see red shampoo in the plug. I sighed and brushed it off – showers are usually one of the triggers for a nose bleed. I got out and pinched my nose with my towel. I slipped into my dressing gown, and went down to my parents’ room, where I knew there would be tissues. And I sat and pinched my nose, cooled my it with ice, and waited. But it didn’t stop like it used to. Normally my nosebleeds were frequent, but only 20 minutes maximum. This one lasted for 50 minutes.

About an hour later I got changed into my school uniform, my hair knotted and damp, with the taste of iron at the back of my throat. I didn’t really feel like eating, and we were running really late. I arrived at school, with a bagel in a Tupperware, and didn’t think much more of it. Everyone probably thought that I was a typical teenager, running late because I hadn’t been bothered to get out of bed when the alarm went off. I went to assembly and my first three lessons. I had tissues in my pocket, and I was being very gentle not to bash myself against anything in case I knocked something and started bleeding again. Everything seemed fine. But at break time, sitting down to revise for my Latin test, I felt my nose running, and soon realised it was blood. I ran to the toilet and grabbed some tissues. My housemistress marched me straight to the San, and I was sent home. It was not safe to be in having lost so much blood. And with one of the worst headaches I’d ever had, and feeling considerably faint, I was quite glad to go home. Altogether, an hour and a half’s worth of bleeding, and another half hour in the evening.

We managed to get an emergency appointment with the Consultant on Tuesday morning. I felt calmer to see Dr R again, and prepared myself for the cauterisation I knew was coming. Except it didn’t. Examining my nose, Dr R recoiled when he saw where the bleed was coming from. And this time it couldn’t have been caused by swimming. And he said what I was fearing most, that my bleeding is too serious to be solved by chemical cauterisation. The skin around the main vein in my nose has disintegrated. The emergency operation would just not work. I was devastated, I just wanted it all to be over and to have some peace – and sleep through the night without a nose bleed. Was that so much to ask? I had a French Debating competition in the afternoon, and my housemistress would not let me go if I didn’t have the operation. I just wanted to be at school and be normal for once (don’t say it – you think I’ll never be able to normal!).

I am currently waiting, and I could be waiting a long time. I need to have a proper operation, electric cauterisation, under a longer-term anaesthetic, to fix my nose. In the meantime I am being given drugs for haemophilia. They seem to be working – my nose feels so bunged up with clots that I can’t breathe out of it. And with medication I was allowed to go to my competition… But I also know that it’s only a short-term solution.

I hate the smell, the taste of blood. I hate the sight of tissues red with my blood.  I feel scared when the bleeding just won’t stop, no matter how hard I try. I feel tired either because of the medication or the blood loss. And I sometimes feel like the little girl who gave up sport and was bullied because everything she did caused her to bleed. But I know that I’ve come so far since those days of Swim Squad. I’m not that girl anymore. And one day this will stop. But for now, I’m just taking it one gentle step at a time.

 

My Weekend: My First Show

If I were my Tutor, I would probably be a little surprised by the things that I say I get up to at the weekend. Without fail every Friday, my Tutor team ask me: “so, what about you? What are you doing this weekend?” And so I expect they’re probably a little surprised when they get the replies that they’ve got for the past few weeks – “I’m off to Liverpool,” or “Oxford this week,” and most recently “Well, I’m spending my Saturday at an optical trade show.” In fact out of all these replies, this was probably the one that vexed them the most.  Liverpool was easily explainable – my Grandad’s in hospital, and we’re going to visit him. Oxford, similarly so, my Uncle lives there and I visited a college. But an optical trade show. What even is that? And why was I there?

First question first. What is it? Well, according to them:

“the largest optical event in the UK, attracting over 7,500 international visitors and more than 200 exhibitors at this year’s edition in February.

Organised in partnership with the AOP, the annual show provides a platform for optical professionals to:

  • Source the latest eyewear, technology and solutions for their business
  • Gain invaluable CET points as part of the world leading education programme
  • Network with fellow industry peers through one to one meetings or parties”

Boring, right? I’m not an optical professional or an eyewear exhibitor. So why was I there? Well the simple answer is my Mum. A high-powered 21st Century City-type, she was putting on an Eye to Eye lecture entitled ‘I can see clearly now…but what can I see?’ (Sadly, despite my best encouragement, Mum refused to put on either James Blunt’s Heart to Heart, or I can see clearly now the rain has gone). And I, well I was free catering staff. Never one to splash out on unnecessary additions to the budget, I was the ‘hired’ help for the day, serving drinks and crisps to VIPs from the lecture. And hired was a very loose term – more like ‘coerced’ or ‘bullied.’ No pay, no food, no incentive. And yet my brother and I were there in full force. Everyone was keen to know our ulterior motive. What did we want?

Well, ultimately, it would give us a whole host of brownie points that we can probably choose to levy at any point in the near future. Say we were given 100 hypothetical points each, we could probably wangle our way out of taking out the bins, or putting away clean laundry for a week. But realistically, that’s not going to happen in our house. And it has to be said that brownie points have a very short life span. In fact, I’m pretty sure my Mum teaching me how to start (and stop) the car for 40 minutes this afternoon has exhausted them all already. Basically, my ‘hiring’ was either due to the fact that I don’t have many friends, and so there’s nothing I can say to get myself out of situations like this e.g. “Oh I’m going round to James’ house that day.” Or I’m just the perfect child and would agree to do anything to help my Mum out. I prefer to think it’s the latter, but no one’s perfect and I’m not a limpet, so it’s probably the former.

But to be honest, we didn’t have a choice. And I’m not sure that even ‘James’ would have got me out of it. And though everyone was asking us why we agreed to come, the answer was that we kind of didn’t agree to come. It was hazily talked about over Christmas when I was in too much of a food coma to really pay attention, and then one day in January we were sent an email saying we were booked on, and that was that. But as the day went on we came into the full realisation of what our motive was, and it was a several pronged fork that we held tightly in our palms.

Admittedly, waking up (yes, I actually had to wake up at a set time on a Saturday, shower, dress, do my make up, eat breakfast and get out the house) was a trifle difficult. I still have my winter duvet on and boy is it a struggle to get out of bed. From a dark, warm, cozy cocoon to a cold shower. Yippee. Not.

But then the first wave of thrill of excitement came over us. We were going to be smugglers for the day. And yes, we are teenagers. And no, doing something naughty does not get any less exciting as the years go buy. In fact, I would hasten to say that it almost becomes gradually more exciting. Trade shows are strict on their catering, and high in their pricing. Mum had ordered from them 1 Apple Juice, 1 Cranberry Juice, 1 bottle of white wine, 40 plastic glasses and a plate of (slightly stale, curling, 1/3 sliced, filled with indistinguishable) wraps. £70.

So we had to pack 2 suitcases with – 1 apple juice, 1 orange juice, mineral water, still water, paper plates, plastic plates, 4 sharing bags of assorted crisps (including a nut free/gluten free/dairy free/taste free option), napkins, leaflets, 2 bottles of white wine, a bottle of red wine, a knife, a pair of scissors, 6 Viennese whirls, Tesco’s finest lemon cake, and 12 Thorntons’ caramel shortcake bites. And we had to get it through the doors, and onto our table without them noticing. The game, my friends, was on. Having been sniffed by an explosives dog, we made it through. Thankfully the dog was trained to smell chemicals and not smuggled food – it could well have been a different story I was telling you today.

And what did we make it through? Well – a red carpet-esque channel, dark, and lit periodically with striking blue lights up the walls. We felt like we were either at a movie premiere, or on the Apprentice, dragging our business suitcases behind us, with our VIP passes round our necks. We were truly in business.

But then disaster struck – we had to find our stand. And in an exhibition centre, that is by no means as easy as it sounds. W225. In a sea of spectacle frames. And we never found W225. Or at least W225 was not what we were expecting W225 to be. Some pristine white pouffes and a coffee table in front of a Calvin Klein model wearing limited clothing and glasses was just not cutting it. But next door was a table, and a table with nothing on, though we discovered afterwards (much to our (obviously) hidden amusement whilst trying to cover up the smuggled in food with our bodies), when the caterers came to reassure us that our 200 champagne flutes had arrived, that this table was quite obviously not ours. But we annexed it – and no one actually came up to us to claim it. And we had to move a ‘where am I?’ board that was blocking our nice table to a place where you were definitely not where the arrow said you were, but that’s by the by. I don’t think we confused too many people, perhaps only the ones who had downed a few too many glasses of prosecco and Mozart chocolates from Silhouette (our Tesco’s lemon cake was really not up to par…).

We did our duty, fending off our food from the hoards who were not entitled to it (I’m not stereotyping, but being honest when I say that a nice man from Pakistan had brought his wife, 4 children, his grandmother, mother and aunt with him, and was trying to flirt with me for free food) – sorry, it’s not going to happen. I can see through the flirting. We served drinks and nibbles smuggled and unsmuggled alike. We cleared up – and only misplaced the knife for a couple of hours (thankfully no knife crime was committed, and if it had then the suspect couldn’t have gone far with a knife that was quite pungently emitting a citric drizzle odour). We recovered the knife, popped it in the suitcase, were resniffed by the explosive dog and passed again. We passed with flying colours. It was on to the afternoon.

Mum had meetings, and having downed cookie and cleared up any of the remaining crisps from our table we weren’t too hungry. So we started on a campaign to collect as many freebees as possible from the 100s of exhibitors that were there. We spoke French to a nice man from Toulouse making frames from a 3D printer, a woman selling glasses accessories, optometrists, opticians, ophthalmologists, ophthalmic surgeons, technicians, designers, models, charity workers, marketers, lecturers, sales staff and management teams. We took selfies and participated social media campaigns. We sussed out who had the best things on offer, and who would be best at getting the goods. We were engaging and charming. And we were there for the freebees. And freebees we got: 4 heavy duty shopping bags, a contact lens cleaner, 3 cartons of popcorn, 2 liquid glasses cleaners, 5 glasses cleaning cloths, 4 spectacle keyrings, a box of chocolates, 2 boxes of mints, a 1/2 bottle of champagne, 16 chocolate coins, 2 chewits, 2 black jacks, a note book, 2 sets of post it notes, 13 pens (some with highlighters, styluses and torches on the end), 4 highlighter flowers, 3 photos (of us) and a headband. And about 1 million brochures. And on the upside to all these freebees – I can tell you an awful lot about frames, manufacture, fitting, design, marketing, and what makes you stand out.

We came home from our first ever show, our first ever time driving into London (we usually would get the train), and our first successful day as business associates, smugglers, and freebee snatchers. We were exhausted, but as far as Mum was concerned the day had been successful, and that was all that mattered. We started out the day thinking that it was going to be an absolute bore. But we were surprised at how much we enjoyed it. And perhaps the main thing we gained from the day wasn’t how to engage with people, work experience, freebee-snatching skills or social media publicising, but actually that in life, especially in business, there are days that you’re not going to look forward to as much and there are days which you think are going to be boring and a waste of time. And all you want to do is stay wrapped up in your bed away from everything. But if you put in your all, if you smile and engage, not only do you learn a lot, and meet loads of new people, get brownie points, and a good night’s sleep, but you enjoy yourself, and you create an experience you’ll never forget.

So maybe my Tutor team think I’m crazy spending the weekends like I do. They think I have no time to do anything. And maybe, in an academic way, they’re right. But I have fun. And I know that the next two weekends aren’t going to fail to disappoint – next week I’m #goingsolo to Paris. The following weekend I’m heading to Cambridge, with a night out planned in London. Working hard is great – but I sure play hard too.

And at the end of the day – if my day didn’t go so well, my bed will still be waiting – and the affair with sleep can begin again, until I reach a new day and a new lease of life. But far better to have your bed as a prize, than your weekend life. With a bit of optimism, sometimes the weekends you thought would be the hardest work and require you to get out of the cosiest bed, turn out to be the greatest fun. I think somewhere, there’s a lesson for all of us.

Seventeen.

On Monday 9th January, I turned 17. It went unnoticed by most people at school – and let’s be honest, who wants to have their birthday on officially the second most depressing day of the year, when everyone gives up on their New Year’s Resolutions, and realises that in less than two weeks Trump will be President? Not me. I wished that at least it would snow on my birthday, as the forecast had once predicted, so that I would be able to get a day off school, and do the things that I love doing (i.e. having a massive lie in and eating lots of chocolate).

But it didn’t snow on my Birthday. It rained. And that was pretty much how I felt too. I had spent my weekend in Liverpool and suddenly it was Monday, my Birthday. But somehow I didn’t want it to be that day. Liverpool was still casting a shadow over me. A tiny part of me wanted to be 4 again, and having a jungle party, with friends and cake and playing pass the parcel and musical chairs. But 99% of me wanted to forget about the whole Birthday thing, and just have a normal Monday. Because I believed that Birthdays don’t really signal excitement when you get older, like a new year, it was just another day. And if anything, birthdays are a reminder that you’re growing up, and you’re not a child anymore. You have to make big decisions, work hard, get the grades, and find a career. At 17 you can’t stand in a swimming costume in the Church hall and play ‘beach’ volleyball (yes, when I was 7 I wanted a beach party. In January.) because it feels like any spare time you have you should be reading around your subjects, working on and refining essays or playing scale upon scale upon scale. You’re staring at the whiteboard, the clock is ticking, and the pixels merge into one, as you have an acute sense that time is passing. You’re not 16, you’re 17. You’re grown up now, and life has to go on. It felt like being 17 comes with a lot of pressure. You need to succeed in everything. You need to work out what you want to do. You need to plan your life.

And don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I didn’t enjoy my Birthday this year, opening presents from family, and eating cake (made by my Dad – seemingly a real saga as he had never made a cake since he tried to make Mum’s birthday cake in 1992 and it had exploded all over the oven…of which the upshot was that I didn’t know whether on returning home, I would receive a cake or not. The answer was that I did, although it had taken all day to make, and he’d had to practice his design several times. It was chocolate (he knows the way to please a girl) and with rich chocolate icing piped into the shape of a steering wheel (it took me a while to realise it was a steering wheel – I thought it was a tree). But he need not have worried because it was perfect – and what was better was that no one else liked the chocolate icing, so for the rest of the week the cake was mine to eat).

It was just different this year, because I felt the pressure that I am actually growing up and I need to start being an adult with a plan. This time next year, I will have received my university offers. This next year is crunch time. And I didn’t want everyone at school to know its my Birthday, because I just wanted to get on with work while I’m there. I wanted to do my usual thing of practising at lunch time, and singing in choir after school. I didn’t want to get up at some ungodly hour in the morning to open presents, and then feel exhausted for the rest of the day. I would have rather have a normal day, get home, do my prep, eat dinner, and then open presents and watch half an hour of TV as a Birthday treat and get a good night’s sleep. Because then Birthday and normal Monday worked simultaneously. Everything I needed to get done was done, and Birthday happened on the side.

But that wasn’t really me. That 1% of me, that was me. I am a people person, and I enjoy having fun. But the 1% of party me was being lost by over-pressured 99% boring me.

I’ve been 17 for two weeks. And to be honest, they’ve been two long weeks. Jam-packed full of lessons, music lessons, homework, practise, rehearsals and safeguarding talks (I told you that you grow up at 17). January is the time that everyone comes to the realisation that A level mocks are approaching, and by Easter the syllabus needs to be finished, so we can prepare for actual exams in the summer. Everything seems to be approaching a bit too fast, and everyone seems to be juggling a bit too much. And it’s so easy to think of all the things that I should be doing, all the things that I could be doing. The reading, the essays, the revision, the vocab, the listenings, the competitions, the debates. But at the same time, something I realised when I was doing my GCSEs was that I need to breathe. And that breathing space is something I’ve increasingly realised that I can’t forfeit, but I have been forfeiting again this past term. So often I have things on at break times, and at lunch, and after school. So I needed give myself time before school, in a quiet space, to think.

So, sitting in Chapel yesterday, I made a promise to my 17 year-old self that 17 would change me. I wouldn’t sit by and ignore my Birthday as just another Monday, even though that’s how I saw it on the day – because I saw that the pressure was creeping in at me again. I was becoming lost in boring over-pressurised me. I saw that I was close to breaking again. And so I decided that I would use 17 to change me to be a better person. I would take what I’ve learnt and once and for all I wouldn’t carry on working for the sake of working in itself. I would be me. And thankfully, working hard comes with being me. But I would be me first. I would prioritise that space to think. I wouldn’t break with the pressure, I would cope with it, and use it to propel me forward. I would get through this pressurising crunch time in my life with a smile. I would use my gifts to help others, to work hard and to be kind. And perhaps there my vocation in life would truly call to me, and I wouldn’t have to pressurise myself into deciding exactly what I want to do, when and where. Because I don’t think most adults do have a life plan. I think their goal in life is to be happy, and to feel fulfilled. And giving into pressure isn’t going to do that for them.

I came to the realisation that this is the happiest I’ve been at school since about 2011. I’ve re-found who I am again, after all these years. And that’s what a bit of breathing space can do. And this person is the adult I want to be – even though I don’t know what my life plan is, I’m happy. And there’ll be tears in the future, but I know that I’m going to try more than anything to be me. And me means more smiles, more laughter, more joy, and less stress and tears. It means listening and thinking, and letting my vocation come to me. And  I hope that when I’m happy and breathing, I’ll take life in my stride, and my footsteps will write my life story, wherever it goes with no plan at all. And that’s just fine with me.

An empty hospital bed

I am writing this as I travel home on the M6, stuck in the traffic jam outside Lower Peover (yes that is a place). The fog and frost are just starting to descend down, and the headlights make the drizzle sparkle before it hits the bumper of the car in front. The light is fading, but the moon is not yet visible in the sky. Perhaps it is covered by a cloud.

Unfortunately, our New Year did not start so well as I had hoped. On New Year’s Day, 1 week ago, we received the call that my Grandad had been rushed to hospital and was undergoing surgery to stop serious bleeding in his abdomen, and would be subject to further testing to work out why this had happened and then relapsed. It’s painful when you live far away from your family, that you cannot just be there instantaneously when they’re ill. You want to be at the hospital to hold their hand. But that’s how the world works. So the following week has been filled with telephone calls between my Mum, Uncle and Grandma, trying to keep up with what is happening. Grandad was hospitalised and put on several drips, having his blood tested every 2 hours to try and work out why this bleeding kept happening.

This weekend, my Mum and I travelled North to be with him in hospital and hopefully to take him home. Having packed my rucksack with chocolate digestives, double deckers, chocolate coins, half a toblerone, a colouring book, Guys and Dolls CD, and Greek and Latin vocab lists (all the essentials for 10 hours in the car), we left London at 8 o’clock on Saturday morning, stopping at Stafford for a sausage sandwich (much needed!).

I was half anxious and half excited to go. Anxious because my Grandad is very sick, in my mind during the week I kept catastrophizing what could happen to him and I’d heard stories about people catching all kinds of harmful diseases in hospitals like MRSA. However I was also excited. This excitement not only stemmed from seeing Grandad but the fact that I had never actually been to visit anyone in hospital before. My nose operations had been in our local private hospital, I had visited A&E when I fractured my wrist, and I may have visited my brother in hospital when he was born, but this I don’t remember! So I was semi excited to go to a hospital properly for the first time (and procrastinate doing prep because I wasn’t at home), but of course I just wish the circumstances had been different.

We were taught from a young age not to trust the food we were served by my Grandparents. I remember the time for example, we were served pastries which were burnt on top, but frozen underneath. I guess that’s what happens if you grill frozen croissants. Similar to the time when the sausages were black on the outside, and raw inside. So fuelled on a safe Staffordshire sausage sandwich and a couple of chocolate coins, we arrived at my Grandparents’ house, exhausted from a 4 hour journey (pretty good as this journey goes, but still exhausting). We were unexpectedly greeted with semi cooked salmon and watercress (is it just me who finds this a bit of an odd combination?) pie and chocolate log. Thankfully anything that has come straight from M&S and is put straight in the oven is usually safe. But somehow, given the reason for our visit, I didn’t really feel like eating.

We made it to the hospital for visiting hours. I experienced for the first time the conflicting atmosphere that lingers in a hospital that I’ve heard others talk about. There are whispers of pain, suffering and loss. There are glimpses of hope, the smiles of the discharged, and the balloons celebrating the birth of a new baby. But the discarded trolleys in the corridor, the scars, a distant scream, and the smell of hand sanitiser were just a few of the things that made me feel slightly uncomfortable. A reminder of the pain of human suffering. A corridor that seemed to go on forever, devoid of life and the vacant eyes of the nurses who walked past made me want to turn around and leave. I didn’t think a long wide yellow corridor could make you feel like that. But I had to get to ward 3D. And when I opened the door of Grandad’s room, I immediately saw an empty bed. And the catastrophized situations that had been plaguing my thoughts for the week resurfaced.

And then I looked up and saw him, round the corner, sitting in an armchair reading his kindle. He looked awfully frail, pale and hurt. But it was him, and he was there.

The remainder of my time in the North has been spent sitting in various very uncomfortable chairs, talking, playing Trivial Pursuit (I forgot that I had the travel version buried – beneath the food – in my rucksack) on hospital bed tables which wheel themselves away every time you place a card down, watching BBC news on repeat, marvelling at the menu (which I am reliably informed does not give a true representation of the food received), eating chocolate digestives and toblerone to make up for the poor menu, travelling between the hospital and my Grandparents’ house (with squeaky nylon blow up mattresses and nylon sleeping bags so that every time you turn over it either rustles or sparks) and working out where a prescription could be,  lost in a ‘pod’ system, when the ward say they’ve sent it, and the Pharmacy say they haven’t got it.

And now I’m back in the car travelling home with Grandma’s packed tea of turkey sandwiches (it’s not unlikely that the Turkey’s left from Christmas) and more chocolate log (also probably left from Christmas). I’m hoping we’ll stop soon to pick up a packet of crisps and make the essential ‘facilities’ break. It’s been a whirlwind trip, but one that I felt I had to make. My first trip to a hospital, but more importantly a chance to be there for my family. Life is fleeting. Our candle can blow out at any moment. The atmosphere I felt and the tears, pain and anguish, that struck me in the hospital reminded me all too well of that fact. It reminded me that it is important to go whatever distance, despite their Russian-roulette dinners and sparking beds, to be with your family and to share in the good times and the bad. Because family is something that at times we wish we could choose not to have, but the love of our family is also that which we cannot live without.

I am so grateful that this afternoon Grandad has been able to go home, to be in his own environment and have some peace. We don’t know what the future holds, but right now the candlelight seems a little brighter than it did a week ago, and that’s all we can ask for.

This poem just sort of came into my head when I was reflecting on what might have been, and the feelings that I went through on seeing that empty bed. I felt like I was too late, like I didn’t have a chance to say goodbye. These were my honest feelings. And I’m sure they are feelings that many people go through on a daily basis. So here it is, a simple and honest poem dedicated to all those who feel lost in grief at the beginning of this New Year:

Where you lie no more

There is an empty hospital bed,

The covers thrown aside,

Still warm from where

You lay.

With silvered cheeks I wrap

Your coat around me,

Eyes fixed on where

You lay.

Sirens scream all around;

Too late to find the

Frail body where

You lay.

Whispers linger of your pain; my broken

Heart is pierced again. I breathe

My last of the air where

You lay.

There was an empty hospital bed,

The covers thrown aside,

Still warm from where

You lay.

For anyone studying English literature, this poem was designed to be shaped like a heartbeat, symbolising the poet’s liveliness contrasted with the death of the one she loved.