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.

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Ready to be 18?

Written on New Year’s Eve… and posted today because these last couple of days have just been a bit of a blur with family, New Year appointments, travelling and facing the reality of work!  

Today is the 31st of December. New Year’s Eve. And tomorrow will be a New Year. 2018. Today is also interesting, because it is the only day that scientists reckon in history that everyone who is an adult was born in one century (the 20th), and everyone who is a child was born in the following (21st). Random fact, I know.

But that fact hits home for me, because it means that I am nearing the end of my childhood. In just a couple of days, this millennium baby will be 18. A scary thought for me as well as you. Adults have always been who I’ve looked up to. And now I am going be one, and for a while I’ve struggled with the question of whether I will capable of the burden of wisdom, assertiveness and self-belief that seems to magically be present in the adults in my life.

At the end of the school term, this was really worrying me. I was sat in my House, probably looking a little forlorn, in the process of finding snippets of the Christmas story in the Greek NT for translation later in the day, when my tutor came in and asked me what was wrong. Nothing, I said. It’s not important. But it is, he said. You are worrying about something. And I just said it: I’m not ready to be an adult. I don’t want to let go to the innocence and protection of childhood. I want more time.

And he said: So let’s make it stop. For two minutes. Let’s think about your last year of childhood. And let’s think about whether you’re ready. And so we reflected on this last year, what has happened, and how it has changed me.

Learning to drive: At the beginning of this year, I couldn’t even contemplate getting in a car. When we had been in America in 2015, staying with our friends from Mississippi, I had been scarred by them physically pushing me into the driver’s seat of the hire car and telling me to drive around the driveway of the property. I couldn’t do it – I was shaking and terrified that I would kill someone. They said I’d be perfectly safe. Their son, one year older than me, was driving by himself aged 16. So could I. But I couldn’t, and there were tracks through the grass to prove it. So suffice to say I was terrified that I would be learning to drive. I did want to, the freedom afforded would be worth it. But getting in the car for the first time was scary. And so it went on. Each time I learnt a new procedure, I was convinced I’d hit someone. Then I passed my theory test first time. And my driving did get better. And I became more confident on the roads. And I drove to school every day, and home again. And then I failed my first test. I was ok about it – 1 major and 1 minor. My driving was safe, I just made a stupid mistake. I’d try again. I failed again. And that time I was mad with myself. Old thoughts of failure came raging back, and I could feel myself getting more and more agitated, and frustrated and angry. When I got home, both my parents were out and just sat in my room and cried because I thought I had failed. I had failed myself, and I had failed my instructor, and I had failed my parents. It would be 2018 before I had any chance of passing with the new test regulations. And I didn’t know what to do to stop myself from drowning in this dangerous thought whirlpool I recognised so well.

I remembered that when I failed the first time, I read a book that one of the Canons at the Cathedral had sent me. JK Rowling’s Very Good Lives: The Fringe Benefits of Failure. And so, I took a deep breath and opened it. Unlike the first time, I don’t think I read much of it. I just had to look at it. I knew that someone had sent me that book because they believed in me; I wasn’t a failure. And I knew I had to get back in the driving seat. I’m going to take my test again. Of course I hope I’ll pass. But if I fail, I’ll find the book again, and I’ll be OK.

I was changed because I saw that in the grand scheme of things, people love and appreciate me for who I am, and not whether I can drive or not. I was changed because I picked myself back up. And I have been changed, because I am beginning to understand what it is to succeed in failure.

Being operated on: Being operated on was a big thing for me (background to the operation is here). I had never had an operation before, and I was very scared, because the operation I had did carry risks, not only that, with my blood condition, I could have had a dangerous bleed, but also that it might not stop the nasal aspect of the condition, it could actually make it worse, especially as by working on both sides of the nose, they left me with a very thin dividing cartilage which might collapse or be easily perforated. And to save you more gory details, the operation wasn’t going to be as easy as it should have been. In the pre-op meeting, the nurse could tell I was nervous, as we went through all the major risks of surgery. And I just broke down and said: I’m scared. I took down that barrier of pretending that I am not afraid. And it has let me live for 6 months without being admitted to hospital with major blood loss.

And I was changed, because I admitted I was scared, and I let myself be vulnerable.

Athens: In April, I was able to go to Greece for the first time. As an aspiring Classics student, this was AWESOME. I was soo excited. We visited all sorts of Classical monuments, from the Parthenon (obviously), to the Roman forum, Hadrian’s library, the temple of Olympian Zeus, Sophocles’ prison, the Panathenaic stadium and more. We ate lots of ice cream, wandered all over, and even had cocktails on the waterfront at Piraeus, and watched the sun set behind the Acropolis, painting the sky with flaming pink. What more could you want? Well, this trip didn’t just confirm to me that my UCAS application would not be in vain. This trip showed me the cross-cultural community that exists in faith. The last day that we spent in Athens was Palm Sunday, and to be honest, I missed being at the Cathedral, despite the eternity that is usually spent singing All Glory Laud and Honour whilst trudging around the entirety of the Cathedral, only then having to do the awkward side swapping to get back on the side you were seated on as you approach the nave. And I wasn’t in a very good mood. But it is evidently a custom in Greece to hand out orange blossom and real palms to passers-by on the street. Christ’s coming was everywhere. And throughout the next few days, and the rocky emotions accompanying them, I was repeatedly struck by the inescapability of faith, and the wordly body of faith that transcends a single heart, Church or country.

I have been changed because I realised that I couldn’t escape God however hard I tried, and that He would never escape me.

Ypres: Just after we went to Athens we were lucky enough to tour with our school Chamber choir to the Ypres Salient, notably singing masses at Ghent Cathedral, in St Martin’s Cathedral Ypres, and St George’s English Church Ypres, and performing at the Menin gate, and at various CWGC sites. It was a great opportunity to see the world with friends, meet new people, perform and hang out. Ice cream and chocolate featured heavily; unfortunately we were too young to join the staff in Belgian beer. We were also able to go to the cemetery where my great great Uncle, who was killed in the First World War, is buried, and leave a cross and wreath. It was a personally touching moment in the frenzy and chaos of a choir tour. But for me it was a difficult couple of days, coping with the emotions of being in a place that evokes so much sorrow and yet so much hope. It was difficult to share a room with 5 other girls with one bathroom. And it was difficult to get up there and perform, often very exposed, in buildings I wasn’t familiar with to larger audiences than we ever have when we sing in England. I have always been a nervous performer, but the tour took nerves to a new level. But I got through every performance, and by the end our conductor even said that I smiled sometimes. And at our last performance, singing at the Menin Gate Ceremony, I was able to sing with strength for the men we were representing, to smile and to talk with pride with visitors who had come to the Ceremony from across the world. One woman burst into tears when I was able to converse with her in French about our school and why we had come to tour. It was a very special evening.

Coming back to England, the performances that stacked up were more high-profile and exposed than I had ever done, with an evening at St John’s Smith Square singing Duruflé’s Requiem, soloing the Pie Jesu, followed by performing alongside Tenebrae and playing in our quartet for weddings. But each time, despite only being able to think ‘I can’t mess this up. I can’t mess this up. I can’t mess this up,’ I survived, remembering that night at the Menin Gate. And each time I got a little bit more confident. It was a massive achievement to be able to sing Darke’s In the Bleak Midwinter at Nine Lessons and Carols in December in front of the whole school. And for once, I am excited as to what the New Year of music making holds, especially upcoming performances at the Cadogan Hall, and competing in the Barnado’s Youth Choir of the year competition in March.

This year the nerves didn’t beat me. This year I was changed, because I learnt how to channel nervous energy into music that captured people’s hearts.

Doing the impossible: Two years ago, I was told that taking an A level early would be impossible. Taking AS Greek would also be impossible. I would have no lessons, no teachers could fit me in. I would have to juggle the work on top of 4 other A levels. I would not be given compensation, I would not be given curricular help. I wouldn’t get study leave. And ultimately it wouldn’t be worth it, because I couldn’t give it the time. But I wanted to challenge myself.  Whilst taking my GCSEs, I took French AS. In September, I saw the head of MFL again. What can I do, I said, to convince you to let me take the A2 in June. Nothing, he said. It’s not possible. So I took my timetable to the Head of Academic Studies. I want to do this. Show me how we can fit in time, to make 5 A levels possible. She did it, warning me to stop if it got too much. And slightly nervous, I knocked on the door of the U6 French class, and said that I would be joining them for the year. And so it began. That afternoon, I went to the Head of Classics, and we started Greek. Let’s do this, she said. And so my Lower Sixth year was characterised by never-ending lessons, my free periods occupied by French, and with Greek lessons before and after school. I was so tired, most of the time. But it was worth it, in August, when I received the results that proved everyone wrong. I did it, and I am now taking a second year in Greek. Looking back, I probably did cause myself a lot of unnecessary stress, and I sacrificed a lot of myself and my energy to working late into the night for two exams. I should have taken my Deputy Head’s advice, and stopped when it got to much. I would sit on my floor at night and ask why I was doing it. I would pray for guidance and rest. Looking back, I probably should have thought a bit more about what I was letting myself into before I jumped in headlong. I should have taken more time for rest. But, having often leant on God, I had managed it. And even if I hadn’t, my attitude to results had definitely changed.

And so I was changed, because I realised that with prayer, motivation, and lots of hard work, the impossible is always possible.

Becoming a prefect: In May, I was made a School Prefect. It’s a job that involves many menial tasks, running around the school, as well as managing behaviour in lunch queues, tuck shop queues, rugby matches, in corridors, and during breaks, and acting as a secret spy network for the Head. Someone’s been feet away from a plate being dropped from the third floor window of one of the male houses, we know about it. Someone’s suspended, we know about it. Someone’s being bullied about it, we’re their shield. Someone’s looking under the weather, we’re there. Someone needs someone to talk to, we’re the closest shoulder to cry on. Someone looks sad, we’re a bit of sunshine. Someone is jeopardising their livelihood by not crossing at the zebra crossing, we have eyes in the back of our heads. And that’s why it such a rewarding role. You are daily on the front line of issues, disagreements, break-ups, inappropriate behaviour, successes and failure. You’re the link between pupil and teacher. You lead the school, but you walk with the school. You share in laughter and tears. And I’ve been able to hold people’s hand and say I’ve been there. This happened to me. I’m here today. I got through it. And they squeeze my hand back. Thank you. It’s so simple. But it can be hard too. When I first got the role, I sat down with my Housemistress. We talked through what I would find difficult being a Prefect for the School. I said that I would probably find time commitments hard. Sacrificing lunches and breaks to stand in freezing weather, in the snow and rain, to shout at 16 year old boys who are jumping on each other in the canteen queue wasn’t exactly something I was looking forward to. I liked to have every minute possible in my control, either to work, or to take time out. She acknowledged this but said she didn’t think it would be a problem. You have a gift for giving of yourself when you have nothing left, she said. I think you’ll manage. Here’s what I think you’ll find toughest. Giving too much. You are too compassionate. You bear everybody’s problems, and sometimes you forget that there will be problematic times for you too. And she was so right. It is such a privilege to stand beside pupils through the good times and the bad. But I have had to learn to say no sometimes. I can’t humanly cope with stretching myself between 5 places. I have had to prioritise and put my health, work and primary duties first. And say no to things that other people can, and are willing to do. And in doing so, I’ve been able to spend more time doing the things that I love within the school, acting as Librarian to the Choirs, serving in Chapel, leading Debating, singing in choirs, playing in quartets and orchestras. I do as much as I can, and say no to things that don’t matter. But my door has always remained open.

But I have been changed, not only because I have learnt the joy of sharing in compassion, and being a face of light in darkness, but because I have had to recognise the balance between giving freely to others, and giving too much of myself.

Community Holiday: This week was probably the stand out week for me this year. It is one of the greatest things that our school is able to do, to host 20 children with disabilities ranging from high functioning Autism, to Cerebral Palsy, ADHD and Down’s Syndrome, and to provide a team of student volunteers, assisted by medical and teaching staff, to care for them 24/7. I use disability in the loosest possible term. Because although some of these children were wheelchair bound, partially sighted, provoked by the smallest movement, or the slightest change in environment, had no verbal capacity or no concept of social conventions, they were some of the happiest and most able people I have ever had the chance to work with. Each of us was paired with a child to care for overnight. I had no idea what to expect, and I was in for a tough week. My night time child was mid-teens, with ADHD and Asperger’s. She came from an incredibly difficult social background, and arrived  with little other than the clothes she came in. For a week with activities ranging from high ropes, to muddy trails, swimming, the beach, a theme park and a boating expedition, she had one spare shirt, and a towel. It was heart breaking to see how scared she was of the shower, revealing to me that she has a bath once every other week. And when we tried to bathe her, she wouldn’t let anyone touch her. She was a runner, and I spent a large portion of my week chasing after her down the corridors, as she sprinted away from medication, meals and bedtime. And during the night, she would wake up, screaming. I ended up having to take three nights off, just so that I could get some sleep. It was certainly difficult. But seeing her smile in the morning made it worthwhile. And whilst of course I remember the big moments from the week: ice cream on the beach, seeing Aladdin at the theatre, the pirate ship at the theme park; it is the smaller moments I remember most fondly: after spending an hour in the dining hall, successfully managing to coax a child into eating a single meatball, followed by an empty plate 10 minutes later, or getting a child to sit in the sing-song ring for the first time. It was a week full of smiles, laughter, and the greatest joy. To see the children’s faces light up was incredibly special. By the end of the week, I had built a connection and a sense of trust with all the children. It was incredibly hard to say goodbye. And whilst the week faded into joyous memories, the abiding peace that I felt having sung Kumbaya to the children at the end of each evening is something I still hang onto.

I was changed because I was forced to lost myself and my inhibitions in giving of myself for a week. I was changed because I could make a little girl who had nothing experience everything. I was changed because I couldn’t communicate through words, but had to communicate through showing love. And I was changed because my appreciation of the value of life, and what is to truly live, was transformed.

Lambeth Palace: In the middle of July, I was lucky enough to have just come back from the beach, had taken a shower, and was just contemplating the bubbles in the boiling pot of spaghetti, when my phone flashed with an email from the Dean of the Cathedral. I can remember that moment vividly; I think because that email, and everything that has happened since, was completely unexpected, completely humbling, encouraging and so completely scary, it has become imprinted in my mind. I was invited to be interviewed and speak at Lambeth Palace about my experience of being young and in a Cathedral. I have to admit that, at first, the stubborn part of me thought about saying no. I didn’t want to be dragged out again as the ‘token young person.’ But I knew this was an amazing opportunity, and something made me reprimand myself for thinking as I had. I had to go, and clearly, from babbling on here too much, I have a lot to say. And it was a day that I will never forget.

But what was perhaps more affecting for me than actually what I said, or what my heart said, was the response I had following the evening. I remember being on the bus back to Waterloo, and I did feel slightly in awe of what I just had the opportunity to do, and I had a lot of thoughts and prayers buzzing around in the back of my mind. But what I was not expecting was the torrent of messages, tweets, hugs, calls, emails and letters that I received, and all the conversations that arose. I felt such divine love. I was so completely overwhelmed. I didn’t realise that people had been so touched and affected by what I had to say. In sharing my experience of faith, and my journey, I could spread the word of how faith has saved me. In faith, I could touch people. I know that the conversations and opportunities that have arisen from that one night are not over. I keep receiving new reminders of how transformative sharing and serving can be. My thoughts are continually racing. I don’t think it would be so far to say that whatever indescribable glorious thing I experienced that night, and the ongoing friendship and fellowship,  has been utterly life-changing in how I see the future unfolding. And I know there is so much more to come.

I was changed, because I allowed myself to openly speak from my heart and share who I was, and who I have become in faith. I rejoiced with those around me, and have felt such connection to so many more. I acknowledged the indescribable glorious thing.

And somewhere in the midst of the speaking, in the frenzy of the following days and weeks, I was changed because I heard God calling me.

This year I was changed. In so many different ways. In ways that I could never have predicted at the start of the year. Changes that arrived on unexpected days, in unexpected places, with unexpected effects.

My tutor and I sat there. Me in tears. His eyes gleaming with his own appreciation of the significance of everything I just told him. And he said: I think you know what I’m going to say. You are already adult. And to be honest, what I’ve learnt is that the secret of adulthood is knowing that you’ll never really feel like one. You’ll never want to let go to the protections of childhood, because the nature of adulthood is incredibly scary – you are getting ready to venture into the world alone. And you need the strength to be able to thrive. But since I met you, 4 years ago, you have continued to grow in strength and love. You’re continually changing, you’re learning to find that strength. You’re ready to take on this world, and fly.

As I watched him leave the room, still clutching the Greek NT, I sat in silence. It was a profound movement of stillness and self-awareness. I realised that I did change this year. I grew in resilience, in openness, in wisdom, in empathy, in perseverance, in failure, in success, in leadership, in trust, in vulnerability, and a lot in faith. And so, sitting here on New Year’s Eve, I’m not so scared anymore. Adulthood is not about perfect wisdom, life-experience, maturity. Adults still fight battles with self-belief. But I think adulthood can be about taking your childhood, and, acknowledging how you have been changed, finding the courage to fly.

“We are both the authors of our own stories, and the heroes of our own destinies… A new year is just another day. And the dawn of each and every day brings equal hope. We never know which change we make will be the one that will twist our story for the better, but I can bet you that it won’t always be the change you make at the beginning of the chapter, at the beginning of the year, but the one that comes on an unpredictable page, on an unpredictable day. So take every second, every word and relish it. Have courage, faith and make changes each and every day, even when you are afraid to do so, and you will live your life to its full capacity. You never know – perhaps your story will be read for eternity.”~ Me, one year ago, A New Year Hope

When I wrote this a year ago, how little I knew that it would come so true. The best plot twists this year have been unforeseen, shocking, scary, and emotional, but all utterly life-changing. And so, with myself as my own author and my own hero, I am once again ready to take each day as it comes. I can’t wait to experience more unexpected life-changing moments in 2018, and I’m so ready for all that this next crazy year is going to throw at me – from finishing school to leaving home.

And although I never thought I’d say this, I’m so ready to be 18. Bring it on!


My thanks go to all of you for supporting me throughout this year. It’s been one of up and downs, but I have been so touched by all your prayers, emails and messages. You are all amazing, and the love I have felt has been so overwhelming and has lifted me up in darker days. I give my love back to you, and wish you too all the best for this new year ahead. May you continue to love, laugh, and live.

To me, to you

I was privileged to have a visit a couple of weeks ago from Hannah from ‘Hello me, it’s you‘, a charity that aims to help give teenagers a voice, normalise mental health issues, and offer hope. It was a moving visit. They have collated letters from a wide variety of contributors, all of whom have experienced mental health struggles in some way or another, which give advice to their younger selves. It got me thinking about what I would say to my younger self. I am 17; this is a letter to my 13 year old self. Thank you Hannah, for giving me the impetus to write this. 

Hello me, it’s you.

You’re sitting in the toilet cubicle, in the bathroom. You’re getting changed for sport there, because you don’t want to change in the locker room, with all the other girls. They are so much thinner than you. They are so much prettier than you. They are so much better than you.  You’re sitting on the toilet, with the scissors in your hands. You are staring at them, like they are going to bring you some kind of relief. But they won’t. The tears of blood won’t weep away your pain. Put the scissors down. After a while, you will.

You might have saved yourself the physical scar. But every time you stopped yourself, you carved a deeper scar in your mind. Putting down the blade doesn’t make you feel ok just like that. You still don’t feel good enough. You are still wracked with guilt that you weren’t good enough, you aren’t good enough. You thought you had ticked every box you defined yourself by, unmatchable grades, honesty, modesty, the rest. But you told them your secret, and they punished you. You were being honest. But this was how they repaid you; not even your grades could save you. There was no seat for you anymore. They filled it with another, thinner, sportier, perfect girl. And you are the leftovers. You’re not enough.

You go back into the changing room. It’s claustrophobic, it smells, there are clothes everywhere, girls shouting, taunting, screaming, throwing paper planes, beating their lacrosse sticks against the wall. Someone has rubbed your books with rotten banana, the black skin is sitting in your locker. Your perfect books, which never had a cross in them. You feel dizzy, you feel your heart beating faster, faster, you are shaking, there are those pains in your stomach and you think you are going to fall and you know you have to leave but you can’t because that would be showing you are weak. So you are sitting,  waiting for them all to leave so you, and Mr A can be alone, and sort some things out. You want to pick up the scissors, but you don’t want to go back there again.

You see, Mr A has been in your life for a long time now. Those symptoms are Mr A’s way of telling you that he’s coming round to stay. Right now, you think you are alone with Mr A. You don’t even know he has that name. He’s just this thing that’s inside your head, and you know he’s there but you can’t really describe him to anyone. He’s like an indescribable criminal that is blackmailing you, robbing you of your smile, your sparkle, your life. But you can’t tell anyone. Because that would just make him stay. You think if you forget about him, he might go away. After three years of trying, you’ll realise that Mr A is like any guest. He’ll come and go as he pleases, and you can’t really control it. But when he comes, there are rules. And by the time you are ready to leave home (and not running away, properly leaving home), you and Mr A will, mostly, respect each other, and each other’s rules.

But for now, you and he are in a war, raging in your mind. And you think he’s about to explode, and you can’t tell anyone. It’s easy for me now to say that you were wrong. That you could tell. But I remember how you were feeling, shaking in front of that rotten banana.  You couldn’t tell someone. You were the odd one out, not them. They’d never believe you anyway. But the people who mattered already knew you weren’t right. They didn’t know what, where, when, why or how. They didn’t know about Mr A or about the bullying or about the murderous perfectionism or about the scissors. But they knew something wasn’t right. Because you used to smile with your eyes. And right now, your eyes are black voids of pain. While you are sitting there, with your eyes closed, waiting for the shouting to go away, and fighting with Mr A to shut up, they are already planning to come and save you.

One week later, you won’t have to go to school anymore. Not for another five months. And even then you wouldn’t be going back there. But you will have to go back for your final speech day. Prizegiving. Where that perfect girl will take your seat, and your parents’ seat. And you will be crammed into the back of the regimental Chapel, Mr A’s hands on your neck, suffocating you, whilst she took your seat. You will think that you will never be good enough again, no matter where you were going.

You will move school, and you will think that everything is better. For a year, you will be perfect again, the same star in a new sky. Shining brighter than everyone else, and filling every space with your light. And it is partly true, you will regain some of your light. But not all of it. And it won’t stay that way. Because you will think running away to a new school means running away from your self consciousness, and from your imperfections, and from Mr A. You will forget about him. You think he will forget about you too. But he won’t. He will come back, with the others, and his friend, Mr D, so much stronger than before. And, aged 15, you will be struck by a wave that winds you, and you will be a whale beached on the shore, unable to swim. You won’t even want to get up in the mornings. You will experience bullying for an innumerable time. You will be irritable. Then silent. Then burst into stupid tears at the smallest things. You will lose all your friends, and no will understand. The closest person to you will tell you simply that clever people are always lonely, and you’d just have to get used to it. You’ll try to keep it to yourself, the emotions clashing, and bubbling, and exploding.

But there’ll be one difference that time. You will sit at the table and you will cry and cry. You will realise you are not, and would not be perfect. You will realise that you are incredibly lonely, and you just want someone to give you a hug and tell you that it will all turn alright in the end. And you will realise that Mr A had become inseparable from Mr D, and together they are binding you. And you won’t be able breathe and you will feel dizzy, and you will almost collapse in pain. And you will touch the scissors. But she will come in, and see you, and you will say: I’m not ok. And that will be you at your most vulnerable, and at your strongest. You will say, I’m not ok. And, in effect, you will say that you need help.

And she will give you a space to talk, where you won’t feel judged. She will give you a counsellor, a support team, daily meetings. She will give Mr A his name, because you didn’t want to be shut in a box labelled ‘Anxiety’ for the rest of your life. She will help you to control Mr D, Mr A’s Black Dog. Because having a relationship with Mr A will be so much easier. Everyday you will just have to rank yourself and Mr A, 1 through to 10. Gradually, you will move from 1 to 8. Gradually you will build rules for Mr A. Even by age 17 you’ll never push yourself above an 8. But you’ll still working on it. Gradually you began to see a true light, and find a true sparkle.

And while all this bullying, anxiety, loneliness and pain is breaking you, you will be saved. Saved by your school, for sure. But saved by something all together more wonderful, indescribable and heart-wrenchingly beautiful. You have just been confirmed. You believe, sure you do. But I think you’ll really only need to test your belief, and learn to BELIEVE in the next few years. Because you won’t be on this journey alone. You’ll soon come to realise that the place you feel most at home, the Church, will become more to you than just a place. It will become that place where Mr A has been, and Mr A is, and Mr A will be, but it will also be the place where God is, and will be forever. There will be times where Mr A takes over; you’ll wobble emotionally, and religiously. But you will always find God again, and you will be able to do anything with Him.

Your relationship with Him will grow and grow and grow, to the point that there won’t be a day that goes past without you seeing a glimpse of his presence in the world. In the sunlight, bursting through the trees. In a chick as it finds itself in the wrong egg. In the soft breeze as it whispers through the trees. In snatches of music. In the comforting embrace of a warm bed. In the frost as it smokes. In a laugh. In a smile. In a tear. You will learn what it is to experience transformative prayer.

And you will be called into His service. You will live out God’s love in your own life, wherever he calls you. You will hold a hand. You will lend a smile. You will laugh and cry with people. You will serve. You will testify. You will speak. You will share. But you will be there. Because you will come to understand that the loneliness you are feeling right now is nothing unusual. And though you might still struggle, you will understand that the love you experience can make others’ lives better. You can give them the love you are searching for right now. With God by your side, you will inspire, you will love, and you will be.

I don’t know why, but you’ve never been good at talking to your parents about how you’re feeling. Yes, I’m talking to you, who still hasn’t told her parents that she’s spending her lunchtimes in the library to avoid people. You who haven’t told them that you need them. Because you don’t know how. You still find it hard at 17. I mean for goodness’ sake, you will take to writing them letters, because it’s easier than talking.

But at the Cathedral, you’ll find a family you can talk to. An angelic host. Clergy, Virgers, Stewards, Choir Parents, Choristers, Lay Clerks, Organ Scholars, Congregants. Friends. People who love you, and care about you and your family. Sure, you’ll have your run-ins there. But you will also find your voice again. You will share in their joys and sorrows. And they will want to share in yours. You will be ok with going to have coffee and talking about scary things, without feeling scared. You will be supported and uplifted. They will bump into you in random and unexpected places – on the street, at the station, at a concert, at school. They will talk with you, pray with you, light candles for you. And they will enable you to shine like the star that you are hiding away behind the facade of books.

It will all start with you saying: I’m not ok. And sometimes I wish that you would have said it earlier, because you knew it all along. But you said it at the right time for you. And so I guess that’s ok too. And every day that you continue to say: I’m not ok, I am proud of you. And every day that you say: today I feel good, I am proud of you. And you and I both know that there will be days when together, we will sit in front of that locker and fight with Mr A. But there’ll be other days when he will be visiting other people, and you can breathe.

You will still have Mr A days. Though you sometimes still get breathless and dizzy, you will sometimes just be angry, or extremely tired, or unproportionately emotional. You will feel sick, and you will get that sharp knot in your stomach. Those days will be tough. There will be weeks that test you to the maximum. You will feel incredibly lonely. But you will know that you’re not alone. You will never be alone. You have faith, friends, and family. And each day that passes, you will show your strength. One day, you and Mr A may even have a day where you will stand, hand in hand, and smile. You’ll say: we’ve got this. You and I, we’re OK today.

I know that you probably didn’t read that all. It all seems a long way off, and you don’t believe me that things will get better. So if you didn’t read anything else, remember my these pieces of advice for you, to get you through the next few years. And remember, I’m still learning too. You and I, we’ll be learning for a lifetime. And I bet we’ll never find one right answer.

  1. Don’t be afraid to talk. Talk to your friends, talk to your family, a teacher, a co-worker. Say: I’m not ok. And go from there.
  2. Stick to your own values: honesty, compassion, kindness, selflessness, modesty, fortitude, reverence, patience and trust. Learn to be ok with you Catherine-ness, and celebrate it.
  3. Take it one step at a time. Don’t try to run before you can walk. Don’t run away from the problems. Acknowledge they are there, and take each day as it comes. Try and make one small change a day and in a week, a month, a year, two, you’ll see how far you’ve come.
  4. Cherish the memories you make with family in the moments they happen. We all know families aren’t perfect, but you have a good one. When you feel able, tell them how you feel, write if you need to. Look out for them too.
  5. Don’t be afraid to try new experiences. You know that there will be occasions/weeks that trigger Mr A but don’t let that make you say no. You can try, who knows, you might even have some fun! By doing this, you will have some life changing experiences.
  6. Don’t be afraid to voice your opinion, and speak up for what you think is right. Sometimes people need to hear a new voice.
  7. Embrace your inner nerd, it will make things easier in the long run. And there are lots of normal people who like Classics too.
  8. Pray. A lot. For your friends, for your family, for the world, for you. They all need your ongoing prayers.
  9. Say thank you. Give praise for everything you have got, and how far you’ve come. You’re awesome, and the world around you is too.
  10. Serve others. It’s where you find your greatest joy. Listen to others. Be there. Give more than you receive. Love.

I love you. You are enough. You matter. And I think, though you might not recognise me right now, you’re going to learn to love me too. And if you can’t quite manage that right now, put your fingers around the cross you bear. And know that He loves you.

See you on the other side of 17.

Cx

Don’t lose the words that make you sparkle

This post includes the writing I could decipher from pieces of screwed up paper which I chucked in the bin, and my Matron salvaged, and gave back to me with a post-it-note saying ‘you are gold dust, don’t lose the words that make you sparkle.’

I wouldn’t call them poems, because they are in a natural and unrefined form and don’t really even make sense. They were words that purely come into my head and get scribbled down incoherently (some at unseemly hours in the morning), but as such, on reading them back, they form an interesting picture of what I would call an iridescent November. But so that I might remember how I felt this November, and so that you might perhaps gain something from the plight of a Catherine this St Catherine’s Day, they are no longer pieces of paper, screwed up in the bin. 

1. The tree

 

I’m heading home. But I don’t know where home is.

All the footsteps blur in the mud.

O fire tree,

You stand on the hill, alone,

And the darkness is rolling in from the west,

Dashing pink and purple across the empyrean canvass.

The stars are veiled with the urban smut.

Your flames burst from your branches.

They burn with ignited passion.

They lick at your unyielding frame.

Will you be my guiding light?

Yesterday I trembled, seeking shelter

Under layers of thick protection.

But now you scorch my heart.

I take off my shoes and stand

And listen. Still. A small voice.

A voice of calm. Can I wait here

To hear what is you call me to do?

I don’t want to have to walk again

In the darkness.

2. The box

In a square box with four straight sides,

She is a circle that tries to break free.

She almost fills the space, pressing

On the midpoints of each line.

She is so close to being there;

She is so close to being them.

But there is still some space left in the

Corners. So she can breathe, some say.

But she cannot breathe. She has to

Fill those little spaces too. She has to

Let them know that she can do it.

She can be everything they want her to be.

And she hopes that they will believe

In her. But she knows they will not.

Because in a square box with four straight sides,

She is a circle that will never quite

Fit the mould.

3. The bird

Life gets better, he told her once.

She always has, she always will.

She turns her head. A shrill cry ex rostro.

The taste of freedom is so sweet that it

Clings to the air, leaving a tang of

Future pleasures under grey skies.

But there is still so much time before

It will be real. For now, she waits,

Has a taste, longs for more, doubles

Over with the pain of hunger.

When will the holy feast be spread

Again, regal, on that golden stuff?

She does not know. But she will

Keep her eye open. Searching.

Looking. Longing for freedom.

For she is a fledgling, and soon

She will fly.

4. The different girl

Do you know what it is like to be lonely?

To walk into a hall of people all alone,

To sit down all alone, to eat all alone.

Do you know what it is like to feel

Detatched from the world in which you live?

Isolated.

Laughter fills the air, and dances up to the rooftops,

But in her head all is silent,

Because she’s different.

The girl whose face is naked,

The girl who prays at night,

The girl who

They call the traitor, the betrayer.

She did something inconceivable to them,

Her own. Her own no longer.

For telling the truth, for being honest,

This is what she receives.

Perhaps all she wants is someone to laugh with,

Someone to share her stories with,

Someone to be with.

Perhaps she can find someone in her own

Imagination to talk to. Perhaps in her own stories

People would care.

5. The invitation to interview

I walked up the stairs that night

Not expecting to find anything at all

Out of the ordinary.

I’d left my room as I wanted to find it:

The files were all upright on the bookshelf

And the books were piled high, in

Alphabetical order within genre, naturally.

The bed was made, and my blanket,

The voice of home, was tucked under the

Statutory sanitary bed-sheets.

The sash window let in the wisps of the

Cold November air which the folded pieces

of paper were trying so desperately to keep out.

I pulled down the blind, to shut away outside,

But the moon reaching the window bars drew crosses

On the blind. I wasn’t ever alone here.

It lay buzzing, vibrating on the desk, as if someone

Was trying to call me. I picked it up.

The email. Invitation to interview.

 

It looks like I’ll see the Christmas market

In Oxford this year.

 

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.

 

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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! 🙂