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.

Advertisements

My week: THE NORTH

Over the summer, I received 2 exciting emails. One was about speaking at Lambeth Palace, the other about working for a week at the Vindolanda/Chesterholm fortress site just off Hadrian’s wall. Vindolanda is the site of some of the army barracks and associated accommodation and trade for the battalions in charge of manning Hadrian’s wall, that is the wall that separated the civilised Roman Britain, from the barbarian Picts. The first fort was built in AD 80, from wood, knocked down and rebuilt several times over. There have been nine forts since built, all on the same site, creating an environment justly fit for archaeological excitement  – 9 distinct layers chart the progression of a Roman Britain over 300 years, and with them the archaeological finds that have stunned the world: the Vindolanda letters. This year was its 30th anniversary of being open to the public, and the 1900th year since Hadrian became Emperor, in 117AD. So, it is an exciting year for the site, and as you can probably tell, I was stupidly excited, and accepted the week, without a second thought to where I would stay, or how I would get there. It didn’t matter, I thought – if worst came to worst I would make a camp on the wall, and walk in every day. I mean, if the Romans had done it, couldn’t I?

Well, clearly not. Firstly, I was chucked out the girl-guides (though I’m now a Brownie leader – but let’s not dwell on that perversity), and although I had attempted several times ‘camping’ in the tent in the back garden as a child, I never made it through the night without being scared off by the shadow of a fox, enlarged to monstrous proportions by torch-lit canvas. Secondly, I had avoided DofE at all costs, and would have no idea where to start with routes, poles, sleeping bags, stoves or anything, really. Thirdly, I suspected my brother was angling for the trip too, so that he, who has managed to make it in a tent, stay in the Scouts, undertake a week-long survival trip in Scotland, is undergoing Silver DofE, and reckons himself to be a more musically talented version of Bear Grylls, would be able to enjoy the Northumbrian countryside, the way it should be. Putting him and I in a tent together for a week, in the rain, would be anything but peaceful. Fourthly, though I could not have known it, but could have guessed, storm Brian was on his way. And if my brother and I have learned one thing from playing ‘Brians of Britain’ (a to and fro verbal exchange of naming Brians in Britain, sad I know), it is that I do not want to be in a tent facing anything that shares its name with Brian Blessed or Brian Cox. I would either be rudely awoken by a sudden boom, or would be bored to death about stars. And either of those things could have happened in a tent next to Hadrian’s wall – or, more likely, this Brian would have blown us off the face of a hill, we would have rolled in canvas, and landed wet, bruised and distinctly miserable in a muddy bog.

So we had to look for accommodation. We looked at cottages, B&Bs, hotels and everything. But it was half term, prices were up and availability was low. We let it rest for a while. And we received the kindest of offers to stay around 40 minutes from Vindolanda, in the home of the parents of one of our Cathedral friends, the father of whom is a priest, and the mother of whom is the RS Chief Examiner. So, it couldn’t really be better, just a shame that, it being October, and the dreaded holiday preceding A level and GCSE ‘practice papers’ (because we can’t call them mocks because, oh no, that’s just too scary for poor little children), neither J or I study RS. But, suddenly the issue of accommodation disappeared, and for that we were inexpressibly grateful. Despite Brian and the biting wind, and the rain, it looked like there would be a bit of sunshine: it looked like we would have a hot shower, and a bed. The tent went back in the attic. It was at this point that my father decided he was going to come to; with no obligation to sleep in a tent, he was in. And he’s meant to be a Scout leader.

And so, as the academic half term drew to a close, I was increasingly growing in both excited anticipation, and nerves as to what was ahead. The realisation set in that I was giving up the whole of the first week of October half term, during which I should probably have been revising or writing essays or practising cello or something along those lines, to go to bordersland, cold, windy, wet and 7 hours’ drive away, to work with people I’d never met, to do daily presentations on bones (which I knew nothing about), and to stay with people I’d really never met. What on earth had I got myself in for? Well, sometimes, you just have to take a leap into the unknown, and you find your way.

But literally finding our way meant going north. And very north. We decided to drive, it was going to be the easiest way not only to get from home to where we were going to stay, but from the house to Vindolanda. And the route looks somewhat like M25, M1, A1, A1M, A68. And you can’t go far wrong, all the signposts have ‘THE NORTH’ written on them in huge letters.

The North/South divide is quite a big thing in our household. My Mum is from Liverpool, she definitely sees herself as Northern. So does my brother, except he’s always lived here, down South. My Dad is definitely a Southerner, though his family hail from the Blackburn area. And from the number of times I received the comment ‘yeah, the presentation was good, but you’re like, well posh like, ain’t ya,’ you could probably glean that I am a Southerner. So that’s a 50:50 split in self-identification under one household. A couple of years ago, we all took one of those online quizzes which you know are rubbish, but are quite fun to do – How Northern are you? They’re about the only thing that pops up on Facebook these days. Anyway, I took the test, and I got Guernsey. That’s how far South I am – off the scale. The rest of my family were probably as expected, Mum North, J midlands ish and Dad in the south. But they all managed to stay in England. So I always get teased for being a posh Southerner. Which is probably fair, but gets incredibly annoying.

So for me, going anywhere north of Watford, is north. I realised pretty soon that we were going to be not just north, nor North, but NORTH. My brother carefully took pains to remind me that, yes, we would be NORTH, seeing as Hadrian’s wall was built to keep out the Picts, the Scots. I’m not stupid, I said. And then he brought up the time when I was about 10, doing a whistle-stop overview of British history, and proudly told my parents that I’d learnt about Hastings’ Wall. It took them a while to work out that I meant Hadrian’s Wall. Clearly, I got over their teasing a long time ago. 

But our journey raised serious questions in my mind about the North/South divide. I mean, I’d think that once you’d got to Manchester, you’d be quite North. Nope, the signs kept on with THE NORTH. Even when we got to Newcastle, we again followed signs to THE NORTH. So where is THE NORTH? It is just a fictional place? At what point does North become South, and South become North? Clearly not Watford. Scotland? And if on the way home, the signs to Manchester also are labelled THE SOUTH, are Mancunians southerners too? If so, my Scouse family can’t accuse me of being a Southerner anymore.

You can tell I got quite caught up in all of this, and the arguments that we had in the car over the divide were vocal, to say the least. Thankfully I was sitting in the front, and J in the back. No-one got hurt, although he did have the power to deny me my share of the we-might-get-stuck-forever-on-a-motorway-so-we-need-snacks Maltesers. And I’m not the happiest of people if I am denied Maltesers. So eventually we shut up, and turned to Melvyn Bragg for entertainment instead. Although, entertainment is potentially not the right word. If I had had to last any longer than 49 minutes of a woman get confused between Poland and Prussia whilst supposedly lecturing on the Congress of Vienna, I might well have fallen asleep.

After about 4 hours, with a stop at Leicester Forest East for a share in their mouthwatering cardboard sausage rolls and over-priced coffee, we arrived in Thirsk, our stop-off point on the way. I think I have mentioned the inhabitant of Thirsk before. His name is Jo, he was my father’s history teacher, he thinks he is living 200 years ago, and he also thinks he is a dog. Suffice to say, it is a very weird experience to stay in his house, excluding the fact that he used to teach my Dad – my teachers would be imprisoned if I were invited to stay at their houses. It is a four storey house, with a basement housing the kitchen and pantry, for the servants, the first floor with the dining room, library, and study, the second floor with the bedrooms and bathroom, and the attic with the servants quarters. The Victorian bell system is still in place, and there is a coal hole.

Titled Miss Catherine, and quarantined in the Library to read ‘improving literature,’ something I don’t mind too much, Jo set to in preparing us a feast of mushroom soup, followed by stew and boiled potatoes, and baked apples, followed by cheese, followed by port. The Churchwarden was coming round for dinner, and we had to impress. The fear of a Churchwarden’s disapproval was such that everything had to be perfect. It is one of the things that I feel I have missed growing up in a Cathedral – I have never experienced such angst over a Churchwarden. Are they really as bad as all that? Perhaps Cathedral politics are worse.

J was put in place as the footman and general dogsbody, hanging up the washing (on a line in the garden, in October, after spending quite some time working out how a prop worked) and I was told to look pretty, be charming, and I might find a good Christian husband. You can guess how I feel about that. You learn to smile, nod, drink, and retire early to bed. Conversation that night ranged from the failure of the local building contractor to fulfil the agreement on affordable housing, to the local fracking protesters, to the state of the gravestones in the Churchyard, the poor range of vegetables in Aldi, and the deterioration in local refuge collection. All very important I’m sure, but not particularly stimulating topics of conversation. I managed to extract myself from the Library around 23:00, and after a battle with the wooden shutters, and failing to extract any hot water from the tap, I fell into bed.

I occupied the guest room, a sad room, frozen in time. It was a nursery, the walls cheerfully painted yellow, with stuffed toys on the shelves, and classic novels, and paintings of dogs and pigs on the walls. Jo never had any children. It is a room that sings of the longing for a child, and the pain of impossible dream. I feel incredibly guilty to draw the sheets, and sleep in the bed of that child, whose image dances in my dreams.

I woke with a start when I realised it was 10 o’clock, and texted my Dad to work out where everyone was in the house. It would not be acceptable to cross the hallway in my pyjamas, a young lady improperly dressed. But it was a necessity to reach the bathroom and take a shower. Like a spy I crossed the cold floor, and dashed in and out as fast I could. Dressed, I made my way downstairs to the dining room to take breakfast. We were all thinking one thing – it is manageable to spend a night in the Doghouse, but how quickly could we extricate ourselves, and get back on the road? Clearly, we still had a long way NORTH to go. We managed it after lunch. Hastily saying goodbye and receiving woofs and grunts in return, we bundled ourselves into the car and went onwards.

We were back on the A1M, and discovered that Dad had brought his rock album, and 80s rock is what you need when you’re really sick of motorways but still have an hour and a half left to go. Our next stop was a little village about 13 miles from the Roman town of Corbridge, our home for the next week. We were met by copious amounts of tea and three different types of cake to choose from, all handmade. We were never to go hungry again. Dinner was roast chicken, with roast potatoes, sprouts, beans, carrots, cauliflower, broccoli, parsnips and the nicest gravy ever. There was chocolate pudding with ice cream and thick Jersey cream for pudding. A similar pattern occurred each day. Tea and cake at four. Roast beef, ham, lamb. Sticky toffee puddings, profiteroles, meringues and roulade. And cooked breakfast every morning. It was delicious.

Every day, when I came back from working, and the boys came back from walking miles over rugged moors, battered by a biting wind, and lightly dusted with rain, there was a splendid feast awaiting us. It felt like home. Added to which, I had my first experience of an electric blanket. As the nights drew to a close, and the coldness set in, you didn’t have to do the wriggle-around-under-the-covers-to-get-warm dance, the bed was already comfortingly warm. I don’t think I will ever look back. Electric blankets are life changing.

I had my first taste of radish (watery, peppery, unharmful). I ate chips and cheese and gravy for the first time (mushy, wet, less attractive). I saw a sheep-dog ‘come-bying’ for the first time. I thought that only happened in episodes of James Herriot. I found confidence, and by the end of the week I ran half-hourly workshops, allowing children to hold 2000 year old animal bones, telling them about what we can learn from anthropology and archaeology. People thought I was much older than 17. I walked along Hadrian’s wall, dressed to all intents and purposes like a Michelin man, with hat, scarf and gloves. It is mighty cold up there. I saw enough rainbows to last a lifetime, the sunlight catching the drops of rain on the wind. I saw the sun rise, its rays cutting under the black cloud, and casting an ephemeral light and warmth over the hills. I saw the stars. I went book shopping. I realised that my imminent study in the secret lives of flower ladies would have to include northern flower men. I drank about a gallon of tea. I met thousands of people, talked with hundreds of visitors, and slept the best I have slept in a long time.

And yesterday I came back SOUTH, storming back down the motorways, fuelled with monster shepherd pie, and with no need for cardboard service station offerings. We munched our way through some kind person’s Christmas gift of a box of chocolates that we still hadn’t eaten and had surpassed their ‘eat by’ date by quite some time. We sang our way through Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Sailing to Philadelphia and How to Save a Life. We listened to an hour of the ‘Drowned man’s inn,’ read by someone for the BBC who has a poor French accent for someone reading Maigret. We got stuck for an hour on the M25. Because, after a week of peaceful escape in beautiful countryside, each respectively doing what he loved, and indulging in food so good the sides of our stomachs are still recovering, what better way to be plunged back to reality. London welcomes you home, with open arms. The fumes, the chaos, the busy-ness, the traffic jams. No sheep in sight, no cake on arrival, no electric blanket.

Take me back, please.

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

SE1 7JU

SE1 7JU. That’s the postcode for Lambeth Palace, the residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Why on earth do I know that? Because it’s been stuck in google maps on my phone for the last week. Every time I put my journey plan into National Rail journey planner, some trying-to-be-clever-and-failing-miserably algorithm came up with a new convoluted way of getting from Waterloo to Lambeth Palace. Being a 20 minute walk, or a hop on the 77, I thought I had it set in my mind. But on Monday, said algorithm decided it would be better for me to go from Waterloo onto the Bakerloo line and get off at Lambeth North and take a 7 minute walk. That seemed stupid. Tuesday’s answer was to get on the Jubilee line to Westminster (which takes you under the Thames), only to then get out and have to walk for 13 minutes across the river again. If it was possible for journey planner to lose its mind any more, it just had. By Wednesday, and ever more confused, I resorted to the reassurance that I could just meet Canon J at Waterloo, and we would go together.

I had never been to Lambeth Palace before, as my frustration with Google maps and the TFL would probably indicate. Over the summer, I received an intriguing email from the Dean, asking if I would consider talking at Lambeth Palace about being a young person in a Cathedral. I said yes, of course. It is hard to say no to a personal request from the Dean. But between July and September I had kind of forgotten about it. Results day, starting school, learning to drive and all general chaos of a new school year had taken my thoughts off it.

This time last week I realised that I had agreed to speak at Lambeth Palace, and I had not a clue about what I was going to say. I received a guest list, which included the likes of Bishops, Council Chairmen, QCs, MPs, several current/previous Lord Lieutenants and spice (see here for definition), Livery Company representatives, and City professionals worth millions. What on earth could I say that was going to make a difference to such people as these? As I sat, approaching Waterloo, the thought suddenly dawned on me that I had done absolutely nothing to prepare answers to what I was going to be asked. I think I actually dropped a Tyrells vegetable crisp because my hands started to shake so much. And believe me, you don’t want to drop a Tyrells vegetable crisp. Not only are they the kind of ridiculously-expensive-but-we-put-them-in-the-cafes-at-stations-because-we-know-you’re-so-desperate-that-you’ll-buy-them food, but who wants to waste a bit of guilt-free snacking? I mean vegetable crisps – surely they can’t be bad for you…?! But perhaps approaching Waterloo shaking couldn’t have been a better situation. Sometimes, but admittedly only sometimes, it is better to feel underprepared. That way you cannot stick to the safety of some formulaic, emotionless words. What you say will have to come to you at that moment, from your heart.

As agreed, I met Canon J under the clock at Waterloo. 16:00. About 3 hours before go-time. We jumped straight on a bus, the 77, despite the journey planner’s assumed authority. I think I was probably very quiet for quite some time. I had thoughts running around in my head. How was I going to feel when I walked into Lambeth Palace? How would I find talking to important strangers? Would anxiety be my shadow? Would what I said be of the right standard, and be appropriate to the audience? Would I like any of the canapés? Please tell me they weren’t going to be soggy. When would I get time to learn a table of Greek correlative pronouns?

It helped to sit by the river, watching pigeons divebomb into the murk and resurface like doves. Watching boats trundle past. Admiring the Houses of Parliament. Catching melodies from the conversations of tourists as they walked past, awe inspired. There was a gentle breeze, it was warm. The sun poked through the clouds, the light making the soft waves of the tide glimmer momentarily. Patches of blue appeared from behind an October cloud.

Then we went to enter the place itself. A small door was sheltered in the corner of the famous façade. The heavy knocker boomed as we entered, and with us the breath of years of history. To be in a place were the past and present mingle so inextricably is an experience that will always silence you. Here was a place where you could feel God’s presence. A place that has housed religious turbulence, religious politics, religious war. But a place that guards the beating heart of the Church of England. A place which seemed to welcome all. A safehaven in a claustrophobic city. Immaculate gardens, fig trees, old wings, new wings, rebuilt wings. Intricate portraits, extraordinary light fixtures and rich hangings at every turn. The door open to a grand staircase leading to the Palace itself. It is hard to describe something so simultaneously daunting, comforting and awe inspiring. It was an inescapable feeling.

I felt privileged and humbled to be there. To walk in the footsteps of so many world changers, world leaders, world thinkers. To feel that heart beating. Walking in, I felt so small, and yet so significant. I felt so afraid, but so at ease. I felt alone, but in company. I felt so confused, yet very calm.

I could feel myself getting more and more nervous through a briefing that truly demonstrated the importance of this event. Everything seemed somewhat hinged on an interview I would do that would hopefully mean something to people. Hopefully was a key word. Who knew what was going to come out? Chatting to familiar faces eased away a portion of those nerves. And Evening Prayer waved away a few more.

It was a joy to worship in the Lambeth Palace crypt. Carved into the earth, its arches support the weight of centuries of prayer. Nooks and crannies in the stonework provide space for thought. Plain and light, it channels the intimacy of faith. Candles flicker on the altar, and through their holey casing, they cast flickering bubbles of light onto the wall. Reverence and humility as they kneel before the altar. The carpet is soft beneath the feet, the walls cold to the touch. The silence of holiness breathes its way into your lungs. A basin of holy water. Remembering baptism, confirmation, life. The cross and pain and hope. The Bible, laid open on the lectern, speaks words of comfort to closing hearts. The rhythm of psalms, the praise of the Magnificat, the closure of the Nunc Dimittis. The prayers of all, lifted to heaven, float along the curvature of the ceiling. It feels safe. It feels like home.

One by one, we trickled in. We each found a place, and took our seat. The Community of St Anselm, robed in the chaste white, bore the cross of each around their neck. The silence spoke to each in harmonies of unique frequency. Words jarred as souls burst from the confines of psalmody. But slowly we found our rhythm. The need for individualism, fears, the unknown, was blended into one single voice. In faith, we were one. No matter how fraught the day had been, how busy the tube, how dirty the air, how noisy the street, how rocky the path, the voices of all, yet one, brought us home.

On leaving the Crypt, I had my first chance to ‘eye up the opposition,’ so to speak. But I had to remind myself that this wasn’t a battle, there was no opposition. We all wanted the same thing. They weren’t ferocious lions. I wasn’t being thrown into a pit. They were ordinary people, who wanted a human story. And that’s what I could give them.

A story of a girl who lost herself, time and again. A story of a girl who was bullied into stereotypes, quotas and who never saw herself as good enough. A story of girl who was jealous, angry and bitterly hurt. A story of a girl who didn’t recognise what was around her, until she grew up. And then she saw a community who had saved her, who had found her, and who continue to bring her home. A people who care, value, love and pray. A chapter who know without knowing, give answers without her asking questions, who understand what she doesn’t understand herself. A Cathedral which harbours the best in people, which offers a place for grieving and a place for rejoicing. She saw the melody of humanity, the chords of stability, the key changes into despair, hope, renewal. She saw the coda, the triumphant plagal Amen. This was a story of a girl who’s life had been changed because of a pile of bricks on a windy hill.

This was the story I had to share. This was the story I couldn’t let die. Because there are lots of girls out there. There are lots of boys out there. At the end of the day, there are so many people out there. They all have the same story. And I can only hope that 5 years down the line, graduated from University, probably grappling with unemployment, mortgages and general adulthood, that this little girl will reflect. She will say, that is the place that brought me home. That is the place where I was found, and where I found myself. That is the place where I found God. That is the place to where I will always return. And looking around her, she will see the stories of that day, the people that will continue to be saved by a single step into God’s home. She will never feel alone there.

It may just seem a pile of bricks. But it is a community. A people. A salvation. A livelihood. It gives value. It gives hope. It gives light. Its where God speaks. Its where God sings. And its where, sometimes, if you reach out your hand into the golden light, you think you can touch heaven. Your heart is full of faith.

I sat back down on the sofa. I had felt the tears brimming pressing at my eyes as I spoke. And whilst it would have been no weak thing to let those tears fall, I held them in. I looked up and saw eye upon eye smiling. Eye upon eye filling with their own tears. Hand touched hand in an undeserved applause that seems still to echo in my head. They understood. They saw it. I felt it.

And as I manoeuvred my way around the room to the wine, I grabbed a chocolate brownie and popped it in my mouth. Unlike the spontaneously combusting hoisin duck cones, it was exquisite. The layers were defined: biscuit, cake, ganache. The firm base, the lasting taste of the middle, the heavenly sparkle on top that captures your heart. That’s what people need. Not the basic biscuit. But people want the lasting taste, and sparkle. The emotionally affecting part of a brownie. The emotionally affecting part of an evening.

Slowly I worked my way around the room, talking, engaging, debating, informing. I was overwhelmed, I still am overwhelmed, by the response I received. Everyone seemed so affected. I didn’t mean it to be so. All I tried to was to be honest. To speak my heart. I probably stayed too long, drinking wine, eating brownies and talking.

We took pictures. I don’t like having my picture taken. But it is a snapshot of a second of an evening which will stay with me for a lifetime. My memories of Thursday night will transcend a single image. The conversations I had following ranged from carved mice, to Universities, to discerning vocation. My thoughts and prayers have not stopped racing since.

As we left to hop back on the 77 to Waterloo, where to my sheer delight every single train seem to be delayed by over half an hour, I felt privileged and humbled to have been at Lambeth Palace, and to share my honest and unrefined story. I felt overwhelmed that I had walked in the footsteps of so many world changers, world leaders, world thinkers. I had felt the heart of the Church beating at its very core. Walking out, I still felt so small, and yet so significant. I felt so afraid, but so at ease. I felt alone, but in plenteous company. I felt so much more confused, yet still so very calm.

I hope it will not be another 18 years before I have the chance to step inside the walls of Lambeth Palace again.

 

 

As a lamp shining in a dark place

I love school. But it isn’t always easy. Those were the words I said to a member of staff last week as I tried to express how I was feeling.

Coming back to school after the summer has always been something I’ve looked forward to. It is exciting to revel in the September sunshine, laughing over whichever teacher decided that growing a beard over the summer would make them look far wiser. There are always new people to get to know, new routines, new activities and new licks of paintwork across the school site. You are excited to go to lessons, for maybe the first and only time in the year. You are eager to find out the curricula you will be following, and who will teach you what. The boredom of long summer days is over and each year you discover a new passion, a new talent, a new energy.

It was strange to think that this would be my last ever first day back at school. After 14 years of school, this would be my last. But I was ready for it, excited about this transitional year, seemingly between childhood and the big wide world. And what is more exciting than being an U6th former, the oldest in the school, finally being able to walk across the quadrangle whose paths have been barred for 5 years? Believe me, it is most convenient when the bell starts ringing before lessons and you still have half a cup of tea to drink and prepare your books. Suddenly taking the diagonal of the Quad enables you to drink that tea, and have all the right books, and make it to your lesson on time. Awesome.

And being in U6th comes with many new responsibilities – time management is key when you are simultaneously editing the school magazine, being Chairman of the Food Council, secretary to the school council and Choir Librarian, organising school debating, becoming the barricade between 300 ravaging hangry teenage boys and the canteen counter, monitoring the tuck shop queue, making sure 20 girls, who normally stay up far later, are in bed by 21:30 and then somehow still having the energy to apply to universities and keep up with 4 A levels.

Life sure is busy. But I enjoy all the responsibilities; these past 3 weeks have been fun, getting involved in new areas of school life, and seeing the work that goes in behind the scenes to ensure that the school runs as it should. And whilst I am currently in a love/hate relationship with my personal statement, I am finding the process of applying to university incredibly exciting. My teachers are all lovely, I have the majority of my Classics lessons on timetable for the first time in ever and the work is stimulating and engaging.

But if I’ve learnt anything over my 14 years in education, it’s that people come before work every time. The most significant reason why a new year at school is exciting is simply because there are so many new people to get to know. It has been great to get to know the new Head, new teachers, all the new year 9 girls in my house, to mentor new choristers and be a face that people know that they can come to for help.

And, at the end of a long day, with a hand that feels like it’s dropping off from the amount of writing it’s done, there is nothing more rewarding to hear an 11 year old whisper to her friend, ‘I want to be like her when I’m in the sixth form.’ Then when you turn to approach her, having heard, though she didn’t mean you to hear, she blushes slightly as you look her in the eye, squeaks a ‘great thank you!’ in response to ‘How was your day?’ and then smiles as she walks off to the Lower School, in some kind of awe that I actually asked her how her day went. If students see you like that, then you know you’re doing something right. Yes, they admire you for all the crazy things you do, the work, the positions of responsibility, the captainships and assemblies, but they admire you more because they feel like you are person they relate to. You engage with them, and that makes all the difference. People want to feel like you care about them.

In that sense, the first few weeks of term have been great. But somehow, even among 1000 other people on site, the first few weeks have felt incredibly lonely.

Being an U6th former means you are the face of the school. You walk into assembly each morning. 720 pairs of eyes stare at you. Everyone knows your name, even if you don’t know theirs. Everyone knows what you look like, what you do, what you don’t do. Gossip spreads like fire through the school. Suddenly, a girl you maybe spoke to once in year 10 seems to know something about you, giggling as you pass in the corridor. You know something is going round. Something that is probably not even true. The next week, someone tells you what the gossip is. It’s hurtful. Never would be true. It shows people don’t know you. People who knew you would never believe that. Then you find out who started the rumour. Who is seemingly forming clique after clique to oppose you. Things teachers don’t see. Everything becomes a competition. Nothing you do is right anymore. You spend your life looking out for others.

You spend your life in prayer to be there to help people when they need it. You give more when you’ve got nothing left to give. But suddenly, there is no one there to look out for you when you need it.

It feels like no one understands, no one gets you. There are so many other teenagers who spend their Sundays in Church. There are so many other teenagers who don’t spend their Saturday nights drunk, having sex, and throwing up over a stranger’s toilet seat. There are other teenagers who learn Ancient Greek and Latin. But not here, not now. I’m the weird one. For now I am all alone.

It is so hard to walk into assembly, with 720 pairs of eyes staring at you, knowing that you feel alone. 5 years ago, the rumours, the competition, and the catty girls would have broken me. Now, I sail on. I hide the pain, carrying on being there for those who need me, busying myself with the duties assigned for me to do. Sometimes it gets too much and the pain and hurt bubble to the surface in a night of tears. But I get up each day, I smile, I delight in the joy I can bring to some, and I ignore others. I try to love my enemy. I hold out the eternal hand of friendship to those who need to take it. I pray, praise and seek guidance. I look for the day when I will go to University, and there will be people who share similar values. I cling to faith and family. I have an acceptance of myself as I am. I sail through.

And just when things get too much, divine fate drops someone in the way to pick me up. Someone who understands that it is more than ok for your way of acting to be different from the world’s way.

A conversation with my step-grandfather in the car, waiting to collect my brother. The car lights are off, the rain dashes the windscreen. How do I find living in London? Busy. Isolating. He gets it. We’ve never talked like this. He has so much love to give. I never let him give it before.

Sitting down with friends after evensong. They know something’s wrong before I even say. Work issues or people issues? People issues. I try not to cry. I fail. But it doesn’t matter, because they’re there. Their prayers. Their support. They lift you when you fall.

Days off school. To rest, to sleep. To see. Friends drop by, on their way to fly back to Jackson, Mississippi. A little laughter. Brownies. Alain Ducasse chocolates brought from Paris. Their son my closest confidante, a freshman in Swarthmore. Philadelphia’s a long way away. I know, I said. But technology is both the cause of my pain, and a degree to its relief.

I have felt so alone the last three weeks. I’m not going to pretend that bullying disappears in a cloud of smoke. I’m not going to pretend that it doesn’t still affect me. There are malicious people out there. There are still some pains that people can’t share. But there are so many that are relieved. Unlike before, there is a net that catches me. That gives me the ability to bounce when life throws me down. I am so grateful that. I continue to do my best to be as a lamp shining in a dark place. The day will dawn. The morning star will rise. And until then, through the darkness, my candle will not burn out.

When you’re weary, feeling small,
When tears are in your eyes, I’ll dry them all.
I’m on your side, when times get rough
And friends just can’t be found.
Like a bridge over troubled water,
I will lay me down.
Like a bridge over troubled water,
I will lay me down.

When you’re down and out,
When you’re on the street,
When evening falls so hard,
I will comfort you.
I’ll take your part, when darkness comes
And pain is all around.
Like a bridge over troubled water.
I will lay me down.
Like a bridge over troubled water,
I will lay me down.

Sail on silver girl,
Sail on by,
Your time has come to shine,
All your dreams are on their way.
See how they shine!
If you need a friend,
I’m sailing right behind.
Like a bridge over troubled water,
I will ease your mind.
Like a bridge over troubled water,
I will ease your mind.

 

Results Day 2017

I spoke about my emotions about results last year, when receiving results for the first time: AS results and GCSE results. Today I reflect on receiving some A level results, and how my outlook on exams and results and ultimately myself is in the process of drastically changing – an outlook I was only beginning to realise this time last year.

So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.

Isaiah 41:10

I had a horrible time at school between the ages of 10 and 13. I hated it, I hated myself and I had a very bleak outlook on the future. I didn’t want to do anything other than work. I knew I’d be safe in the library or alone in my room. As the Dean would say, like Peter, I was afraid to ‘jump out of the boat.’

Talking to a counsellor over the course of the last two years, I’ve realised that for a long time, I’ve had an astronomically unreasonable fear of failure and letting people down, probably originating from that time at school. The only person I should be afraid of letting down is myself, but I ignored myself, constantly fearing that I’d let my teachers down, let my parents down, let my friends down. I thought that everyone expected me to be perfect. But I never realised that every day it was me who expected myself to be perfect.

That constant pressure wore me out, to the point where I was so self conscious, so self deprecating and so self abusive. I felt so anxious about anything, and would panic all the time. I had to stop doing ordinary things like debating and playing or singing in recitals because I was so anxious that people were looking at me, and judging my imperfections. I thought I was a failure to them. That was when something had to change.

It’s taken me years to see that no one can be the dictionary definition of perfection.

I saw that I actually let myself down a long time ago, and never noticed. I’ve been damaging my self esteem for longer than I can even remember. I never took time to congratulate myself or be pleased with myself, or more importantly, time to reflect on failure. I was never good enough, there was always something else to do to be perfect.

So gradually I’ve had to deconstruct that self-induced pressure in my mind. And it doesn’t go away instantly. Although it was fading by results day last year, there are times this year when that anxiety has come back in full force. I can’t click my fingers and be free of fear. Events like my breakdown after reading at Easter suggest that perhaps the fear is still there more than I would like it to be. But I can manage it. I’ve become more comfortable with doing justice myself, saying no when things get too much, and not being afraid to let others down to heal myself. Ultimately I had to realise that others’ opinions don’t matter so long as I was proud of myself.

I’ve become such a different person inside myself this year. I am more independent, more confident. I laugh. I finally want to do other things. I want to get out. I want to be there for people and not just find friends in grammar tables (!).

But this year I knew that I’d found the exam period harder emotionally, because I had had to let go of the damaging work ethic that I clung to for comfort during GCSE. Some nights I didn’t work at all. No night did I work after 11. It was hard to break the cycle that I’ve set for myself and I still felt guilty that I could have done more. But I knew had worked as hard as I both physically and emotionally could and should.

The run-up to this year’s results day would be the ultimate test of managing fear of failure. Last year I let myself back into that castasrophising mindset. But this year I felt internally strong enough that no matter if I got Us, I wouldn’t panic, because I wouldn’t let myself, or anyone else, down.

I was in a slightly strange position of it being my third results day, but I’m not leaving school. I was just receiving one A level French grade that I’d taken early, and an AS which doesn’t even count for anything since I’m taking a 2 year A level alongside it. None of it really mattered. If the worst came to the worst I’d retake French. But probably not. So I didn’t really have anything to be nervous about.

Deep inside of me, there was that niggling fear – I felt like I had to prove something to the school, having been allowed to take A level French early, causing havoc with the timetables as I attended half L6th and half U6th lessons, and because my head of MFL thought I was stupid, and would end up getting a worse grade. I did not want to let him down.

But I tried not to think about it. The decision I took to do A level early was ultimately mine. I am confident enough now to trust in my own decisions. Whatever was going to happen results-wise, it was the right decision at the time, no matter what the HOD thought.

I remembered last year, when I got no sleep for my first results day, panicked about everything and had a massive argument with my parents about whether I was allowed to have my phone in my room overnight just the once so I could see my results before my parents logged in on the computer. I had to be the first to know. But I lost that argument.

I felt much calmer approaching results day. I tried to come out of my exams, both internal and external and forget about them. What happened in that room, happened. I couldn’t change it, and I’d worked hard. I didn’t even remember it was results day this week until people started asking me about it at the Cathedral last Sunday. But it still didn’t panic me as much as I thought it would.

The inevitable knot in my stomach only hit me late yesterday afternoon. I was sitting out in the garden drinking tea and chatting with my Father’s old history teacher who thinks he’s a dog (that’s another story…) and he asked me how I was feeling about results. At least, he said, it couldn’t be any worse than when he was at school and all the results were written up on the blackboard where everyone could see them. No, I replied, probably not.

The old feelings started to creep in at the corners of my mind: guilt over whether I had done enough work, worrying about what would happen if I didn’t make the grade I wanted and the general aura of panic. But I kept myself calm, and having company around at home really helped to escape dwelling on the finality of results. I had been worried about having both Mr Fyles and my grandparents over on results day. If I didn’t do as well as I’d hoped, having a house full of people with no quiet space to think felt a bit much. But in the end it was what I needed to distract me.

I stayed up really late last night, chatting and laughing, baking Clafoutis and discussing the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, as you do. I was exhausted when I got into bed at 23:00, the upside of which was that I slept all the way to 05:30, which I was pretty proud of. I dozed for the next hour, thinking over different scenarios, but I was surprised that I was not panicking about them. I had not fought about electronics this year, and kept my phone in my room. But I didn’t look at it until 06:43. Obviously there were no results, they were only published at 06:54 (I mean it was meant to be 07:00 but someone must have decided to be nice), but that was still pretty good going.

Last year I understood that I wouldn’t let others down, no matter what I got, I was loved. But I still don’t think I saw that I hadn’t let myself down. There were still things that could have been better.

Today I did feel a sense of pride when I saw the letters on the screen. But I felt more proud of myself for taking another step on the way to self-confidence and self-assurance. I will never again let myself down like I have done for the past 7 years. I have bullied myself, and pushed myself too hard. Today I am proud of myself for being a happy person, and not a list of grades. I didn’t work every night. And that paid off.

I had a pancake again for breakfast.

~Take time out in stressful periods. It seems counter-intuitive at first, but it is restoration that allows your body to keep functioning.

~Trust in your faith that whatever happens, you will walk with God in the next phase of your journey. It may seem a diversion, but there’s no doubt that some twisted way you will reach your real intended path.

~Don’t be afraid to talk to people about how you’re feeling in exam periods or leading up to results. There are loads of people out there who want to support you. They may be able to identify the origin of the problem, and then work it out with you. Write it down if that’s easier, it is for me. Screw up the paper afterwards if you have to.

~Be strict with yourself and your heath. Make sure your wellbeing comes before any stupid letters on a screen.

~Be confident, laugh, have fun make decisions that are right for you. Do all you can, physically and emotionally, and that is all. That way, you can never let yourself down.

Thank you to everyone who supports me, and helps me to see myself for who I am, and not the boxes I tick.

In the shadow of the Cathedra

As I’ve mentioned before, writing poetry is one way in which I cope with emotion and pain. I’ve found it especially helpful in the last year, during which time one important place in my life has undergone a significant amount of change.

I first wrote this poem around Easter, when I was struggling with faith and the future, and have since redrafted it several times, reflecting on how I’ve changed since that point. It focusses on the point after I stepped down from the lectern holding back tears. There are moments where I still feel like I am at the destructive part of the poem, seeing everything I knew tumble and burn, feeling lonely, far from God and incredibly vulnerable.

But more often than not, now I feel more able to take a step back and turn to God in my vulnerability and not simply close myself off, but work through that same pain and destruction in prayer. The feeling that everything is tumbling down doesn’t just go away, but I’ve learnt that it’s about how we react to it that is most important.

In faith, I think we must choose not what is often the easiest option, turning away, but instead choose to turn aside, to pray and seek with God how we can be beacons of light in surrounding darkness, and how we can rebuild in love.

On reading the poem, I feel like you can sense the original anger that flowed out onto the paper when I first wrote it. It feels disjointed and doesn’t quite fit. It is quite different to some of my more lyrical poetry. It is raw and brutal and full of hurt. At the same time, it is a poem in two halves: there is a point during the poem where I saw a different way of looking at change and pain, and I began to see a more hopeful way forward with God. Whenever I read it, I find myself thinking, how am I looking at things today? With anger or with faith? With pain, or with hope?

I struggled to name this poem, but settled on the place in the Cathedral where I felt most comforted as a little girl. I used to sit up between the Quire and Sanctuary at evensong, beside the Cathedra. There, with the sun casting rainbow reflections on the marble floor, I would feel most loved and as if I could do anything with God. It is still one of my favourite and most comforting places, though I little get the opportunity to sit there.

In the shadow of the Cathedra

The walls are weeping

With the sound of our tears.

The walls are shaking

With our bitterness.

 

Foundations tremble

With our stifled cries of anger.

Bricks like tears tumble,

Becoming rubble.

 

It is like watching a car

Crash in slow motion,

Each of us failing to

Push the brakes,

As we travel blind towards

Our time of death.

 

Is the moment of

Impact is passed?

Only our carcass remains.

We wait for the

Final bones to go up in

Flames.

 

It is hard to see when

The asphyxiating

Asbestos of our minds

Will ever be chipped away.

It has already

Killed my trusting heart.

 

Love can rebuild. But

Where can love be found?

A world devoid of love

Leaves my childhood home

Flat on sandy ground.

 

My house has many

Rooms, says the Lord, my

God. But standing here,

I see no room for

Me.

 

Yet I cannot close

My Heart to you. You

Weave yourself back in.

You hold me.

 

I know there’ll be

A day, when my heart

once more will weep with

salted tears.

 

I’ll look to you again:

The Lord on high, my

God. And, alone, I

know I’ll find you then.

 

May I be penitent,

Seek forgiveness,

Be slow to judge,

Be open to forgive.

 

May I find strength in You.

May I speak the truth.

May I heal the wounds

We made for ourselves.

 

On your rock may I

Rebuild my house,

My heart, my hope.

 

Cleanse our hearts, wipe from

Our eyes the tears. Show

Us the place where pain

Is no more.

And make us once more

One in you, O Lord.

Devonshire Whispers

Sometimes going to a boarding school is portrayed as the worst thing in the world. Certainly, as a 6 year old girl who read incessantly with a torch under the blanket, Enid Blyton didn’t always portray Malory Towers as the ideal place to spend your teenage years. But it’s not as bad as the fictional trope. And the massive perk (the perk that gets you through the 10 hour days) is the looong summer holiday. The summer holiday of every teenager’s dreams – 9 weeks, 63 days, 1512 hours of freedom.

We broke up from school last Saturday (01/07/2017). Jerusalem and I vow to thee my country reverberated in the quadrangle as unrestrained (and really quite flat) boyish bellows burst the walls of the Chapel. Smiles, music, joyous tears and piles of cream cakes dissipated into an idyllic summer’s day. The last of the days.

And taking the opportunity head on, we wolfed down the cakes, bundled up our books, and waved a polite yet brief goodbye to the Masters of our houses. We bolted down to Devon, as fast as the A303 would deem possible, nodding at Stonehenge as we ambled past. Last year revealed to us the merits of a pre-season extended weekend in St Ives – this year we were headed to Torquay.

It was the first time that I had visited Devon, and it didn’t disappoint. Ice cream, scones, beaches, sunshine in abandon, complemented with a fully functional frequent bus service (take notes TFL!), popcorn fuelled films on the sofa, and a squishy double bed on my own floor (oh the luxury!) where a hairpin could solve the greatest of world crises: an unfixed showerhead. Trains whistling by the window offered just a distant memory of commotive* reality, cut out by closed curtains.

And the annual summer mini-golf championship loomed. Mini-golf: the fiercely competitive sport where only those who make friends with Moai will conquer. The courses framing our house, in Babbacombe, Torquay and Paignton, offered perfect spots to wage war. A three-day event. A summer sun beating down on us, albeit with a touch of breeze-whipped cloud, signalled that the battle to end all battles had begun. Traversing pirate-infested waters and jungle terrains, the championship reached its ultimate conclusion: I won one, my brother the other two; a recipe for retributive revenge.

But even the threat of mini-golf fuelled vengeance and the sharp sting of a lingering jellyfish scarcely broke through the golden days of page turners on pebbled shores. Schools of silvered fish jumped out of an azure sea into beds of salted chips. The horizon melted in blue surrender as a city busy with labours left untouched the beaches, inviting in the foreign four. A glassy sheen broke under a dusty foot, and at last the water reached out, sucking us deeper into the depths. Seagulls dived, creating arcs of triumph, cleansing the shore of all evidence of human presence. Twisting footpaths gave way to hidden marvels, whilst a battered wheel revolved in a steadfast silent splendour.

Enduring the sickening bumpy coastal path, I passed through village upon village, with thatched homes spiralling round a crumbling churchyard, the local inn sign squeaking on its aged hinges. But there was no sign of a crumbling community. Each man for the other, the foundations still firm below an aging surface. The flowers bloomed in boxed adornments, injecting a myriad rainbow of life. And as the coastal path veered away from a glistening sea, it remained never forgotten, the taste of sea air tickling every sense, the laughter and companionship pushing us onwards.

Onwards to Exeter, where a majestic carved cathedra sat enthroned by ornamented stonework, harbouring elephants, porcupines and owls alike. Where the whisper of a rotting man was drowned by gleeful exclamations of crowds of children following a thrilling and bloody murder trail. The briefest of prayers; a silent pause. The energy of visitors pulsing. Wonder. Awe. Excitement. An echo of plainsong. The aged. The poor. The helpless. The cold. The hungry. The oppressed. The sick. The mourners. The lonely. The unloved. The aged. The little children. Us. Together under one roof, sharing in one faith. Making our mark, buying our little brick. A miniature Cathedral in the shade of the larger, put together by the people. Insurance, ensurance, assurance for the future. People poured out onto a humming green, lost amongst stalls, but forever bound together in God.

Then back to the A303, leading now to an old sagging unmade bed, the stench of unwashed clothes swamped by piles of unread books, and a little lamp flickering over a well worn sofa. Home. The Devonshire coast faded into a London reality. But the hope, the sun, the warmth, the faith remain engrained in my heart.

Now the true summer holidays are here. The homework, the vocab, the UCAS application, the pre-University reading. But 5 nights in Devon paints a masterpiece the art of perspectivisation** and whispers from Devon linger in my mind and my heart, clearing the next few feet of a rocky path: the summer, a time for laughter, love, hope, sunshine, faith and community. A time for trying to heal that which divides us. A time for finding a warmth to purge the cold. A time where work comes second place.

 

moai

Mini golf conquerors must first win over the Moai

 


*Commotive = a mixture of commotion and commuting in an adjectival form; the typical adjective to describe work life in London

**Perspectivisation = the noun of the verb ‘to perspectivise,’ see here

1 year :)

I can’t believe that it has been a whole year, to the day, that I started this blog. 57 published posts later, I’m still here, going strong. The power that I have found to express hope, anger and confusion through these words has truly surprised me. And it seems like so much has changed in a year, and yet so much has not changed at all.

I set off with high aspirations, aspirations I needed to encourage me when I first started this venture. Aspirations that included posting every other day, covering all aspects of my life. Aspirations that were completely unrealistic. Throughout the course of this year, I have dabbled with different ways of writing, from sharing my poetry, to diary entries, creative pieces, letters and just prose. I have dabbled with the regularity of posts, from multiple posts a week, to nothing for months, to once a week. Though mostly this irregularity was down to personal circumstance at the time, recently I have enjoyed having a sense of freedom – I am reconciled to myself that it is perfectly OK to write when I need to, and not to fulfil some kind of quota. Indeed, with exams, personal issues, terror and disaster building one on top of the other, I never felt like there was a right time to write, since But I felt nothing.

But in a way, the change from these unrealistic aspirations to a liberty and acceptance of time working to its own agenda reflects a wider change that I feel has gone inside of me over the course of this year. A month ago I described feeling like a completely different person, and that was scary and crazy all at the same time.

Nothing of my personal situation has really changed. I am still just a teenage student working towards exams, living in a modern pressured world. I still have the same fears, I go through similar times of frustration, stress and anger. This time last year I had finished my GCSEs, and was working for my Mum in the City. Today, three days after I finished my A/AS exams, I spent a day working for my Mum in the City. The same commute, the same office, the same tasks to be done. I still show reluctance to do my chores, shamefully maintaining the excuse that taking out the bins is ‘men’s work.’ I mean isn’t that what our own Prime Minister advocates?! I am a hypocritical feminist. But really I’m just your average teen, working hard, present on social media, being grumpy at home. So maybe nothing has changed at all.

But somehow the world seems different. Or rather, my take on the world seems completely different. Am I older, wiser, more worldly aware? Am I beginning to see the world from an adult point of view? Am I finally no longer a child? Well yes, probably. Have I become more confient? Am I finally rebuilding the person I used to be before 2011? Yes, definitely. Is it because I’ve reached a point where my friends, both boys and girls, support me, rather than bring me down? Yes.

But equally, this difference is a spiritual one. It is a connection with the Almighty that has grown and grown. It is an acceptance that my faith is an indestructible part of me that shapes my actions, attitude, and speech. It will forever be me, as I am given life through it. It is an openness to God that lifts the burden of pain, terror, anger, stress and fear. It is a clarity of mind that seeks the light and overcomes darkness, striving for peace both personally, and for the world. It is a channel of communication that is never closed, a burning passion, a God that allows me to cry, and to laugh, to fight, and to be conquered. It is a God that speaks to others through me, whether I consciously recognise it or not. It is a spiritual vocation that is omnipresent.

Even if I may have wanted to this year, I haven’t been able to let go of my God. Because he never once let go of me.

Fear thou not; for I am with thee: be not dismayed; for I am thy God: I will strengthen thee; yea, I will help thee; yea, I will uphold thee with the right hand of my righteousness. Isiah 41:10

We’ve gone through so much of my life together this year – from the funny parts, to the angry parts. But the first post I ever wrote was #Believe, a reflection on the Mars® advertising campaign, and the nature of belief. I mentioned my belief in God, the keystone of all belief. Maybe there was something in me right then that knew that this blog would ultimately become a message to the world about my Christian belief.

Belief grows, so strong that it can be scary. Belief can seemingly diminish, be challenged and appear to disappear completely. But this is part of growth- as I said last month, belief is ultimately a journey. Suffice to say I’ve had complete ups and downs over this year – and they’re all documented here. I have had such a rewarding evening reading over some of my past posts, reliving emotions and experiences, and I am so glad that I made the effort to write everything down – I now see from where I have come, and where I hope to go. I am understanding my path to unshakable belief. I am understanding belief from a whole new perspective.

I have changed so much this year. A huge part of that is the support I have received from writing this. So thank you. All of you. So much.

I would like to end this first year by re-asking the questions I was pondering at the end #Believe. In some ways, I am closer to finding the answers. In other ways, I wonder whether my answers will always be on a course of change, as my belief grows and develops over the next few weeks, months and years.

What does it mean to really believe in something?   What do you believe in?  What would you like to believe in?   What stops you from believing?

And perhaps, one more question that has impacted me greatly this year:

How does it feel to believe?

Keep the answers for yourself to aid your own personal belief. If you would like to share, feel free to comment down below, contact me on Twitter on @christiangirluk, or through the contact page.

Here’s to year 2! 🙂

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.