Peace be within thy walls

Written as an agglomeration of thoughts and reflections over several years, with influences from a visit to Guernica in July 2017, the organists and choristers of Guildford Cathedral, school chapel talks given and received, stolen days of late summer sun in Weymouth in September 2018, climbing the Worcestershire beacon, and canonical conversations:

A piece for International Peace Day on the concept of peace, and what it means to choose to be at peace.


Peace is a choice. It cannot be imposed, and it isn’t found by chance.

It is still. There is an hour to go before Eucharist begins. Glacial white walls are blank thoughts, gently splashed with honey-golden sparks, where the early morning light peeks in through the dusty rain-stained windows, adorning the soft arches with a gilded halo. A soft breath, and a floating whisper are the only hints of life in the nave. I stop and sit in a comfortable spot, just behind the pillar, 3 seats from the aisle. I experience that craved paradisal, divine moment; there is a warmth that enfolds, though the blankets of icy winter months are now gone.

Gently, slowly, the choir begins to rehearse: “O, pray for the peace of Jerusalem, ye shall prosper that love thee. Peace be within thy walls, and plenteousness within thy palaces.” Howells. Music can seem so sure, so reassuringly peaceful. But I cannot help but question: where is this foretaste of promised celestial peace? I begin to cradle peace in my hands. This is a strange thread which binds us together, yet fragile, frayed.

Peace, where are you?

The Nobel Peace Prize is one of the most renowned global awards, given to an individual or organisation promoting peace. In October last year, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons was laureate of the Nobel Peace Prize, “for its work to draw attention to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons and for its ground-breaking efforts to achieve a treaty-based prohibition of such weapons.” It may seem ironic that the now President of the United States, Donald Trump, was nominated for the same prize, a President who has threatened, not obscurely, the ‘total destruction’ of North Korea in retaliation to the nuclear threat posed should de-nuclearisation not take place. Are ‘peace talks’ between the countries lasting? I suspect I may not be the only one to have have doubts.

For, despite the work of the Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, we are far from such prohibition. Indeed, at several points over the last few years, we may even seem to have been at the threshold of nuclear crisis. For those who lived through the Cold War period, the feeling is all too familiar. Historical sites remind us of broadcasts our parents heard, warning about possible nuclear attack, what to do and where to go. Is this history? I certainly cannot answer definitively, in the way I would like to.

Nuclear war does not weigh alone on the world at the moment. We are under threat from supremacist politics. We are lost in conflict over a no-deal Brexit. Party turns on party, man on man. We are victims of barbaric terrorism; the inquest into the Westminster attack goes on. The Salisbury and Amesbury poisonings remind us that peace is threatened as we live out our lives on a quotidian basis.

In many ways, we may seem to be far from peace. And peace may seem far from us.

So, we suffer trials with peace not only as a society, but as individuals. Every day I try to seek a moment for that inner peace I so desire. Perhaps it’s turning off the alarm and lying in the stillness and blackness of the morning, the blankets wrapped around me like a cocoon, holding me as I live, breath by breath. Perhaps it’s a stolen moment in the cloister, watching the sun cast the radiant solstice on the sky, buildings becoming silhouettes against a sky which fades from a burning red, to a halcyon blue. Perhaps it’s the sand, still warm from the September sand, running in rivulets through toes hastening towards water, so still in the shelter of the bay.  Perhaps it’s receiving someone else’s care, reassurance and time. Perhaps it’s the feeling of reaching safety, or the anchor of safety in a sea of fear. Perhaps it’s the feeling of a pen in hand, and night ahead. Perhaps it’s choosing love despite the pain. Perhaps it’s the feeling that no words will ever suffice to describe a feeling. Perhaps it coming from climbing to a peak in gale force winds, being battered and blown, shouting and not hearing, to resting with a cup of tea in front of the television, whilst outside it grows dark, the wind continually roaring outside. Perhaps it’s holding a hand, sharing a smile, or laughing with each other. Perhaps it’s sharing a story with someone else. A second: a breath, a blink. A momentary escape from such a world as ours, which daily descends into a deeper political spiral. It’s so important to my day.

But it is easy to say ‘find time for peace.’ It is much harder to do, especially today, where the joy of modern technology brings a daily battle between a sense of peaceful detachment, and the attraction to news that can be with us in an instant: Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, Instagram, Snapchat. We are never more than a tap away from what we want to know. So, are we never more than a button press away from turning that phone off, and taking a moment for peace. But that peace is all too often thrown away. The addiction to knowing everything in a moment is unrelenting. We want to share, we want to find fulfilment in being known. On average we check our phones 150 times a day, and are online for 31 hours per week. When a notification pops up, we respond instantaneously. Having been in a girls’ house makes it all too clear: when the boy she likes is not texting her back, she is constantly checking to see if she has missed something. Is he online? Is he ignoring her? Why hasn’t he responded? It’s been 2 minutes since she sent the text. Social media has the force to bring so much good: introductions, foundations, common ground. I know it well. But from time to time, it takes its toll. It is a vicious cycle.

I stumble through the noise, trying to find some peace. A stranger in the crowd, I lose myself.

Both on a personal, and worldwide scale, today’s populations are never at peace.

Yet Christ promises: “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you” (John 14:27). What is it he left? What gift did he bestow? What peace do we know? What peace do we find? In my world, your world, our world, where is peace?

Perhaps peace is an equilibrium, difficult, between the various languages, cultures and outlooks, the different situations and the millions and hopes and desires in the minds of civilisation. It’s a wide-ranging, desirable and unclassifiable concept. Indefinable. In its exchange it demands of us understanding, tolerance, humility, reconciliation and strength. But if this is so, peace is an energy deeply rooted in ourselves; a tool we choose to use, and to give to others. Peace is about how we choose to balance in a world that pulls us apart.

How can we live peacefully? Perhaps all we can do is start by being at peace within ourselves.

Giving a Chapel talk, I once described personal identity as a Rubix cube: different categories of our identity are like colours on a Rubix cube. All the six colours can be all randomly mixed up, just like parts of identity are in our personalities. A mix of our different identities shapes our thoughts, speech and actions. In reality, there are far more than 6 parts to selfhood. But whilst each part cannot ever be mutually exclusive, when we think about our identity, we can attempt to categorise it into sections and focus on one particular type at a time. Either way, discordantly mixed up or harmoniously separated, it still makes a cube, oneself, it is just that one identity is clearer to conceptualise than the other.

Perhaps when we seek to be at peace with ourselves, it is like the constituent parts of our lives are in the process of being shifted, from the thick harmonious texture of jumbled multicoloured faces, to the pure, vulnerable, yet powerful, melody of distinct sides. Sometimes the solution is easy. Sometimes it takes far longer. Perfect peace is a moment of transitory solution. How long does it last? How long does a Rubix cube stay solved? Not long at all. A brief, intangible, ephemeral but innately transcendent time. Something, someone comes along, and suddenly we return to a state of melted and busy reality.  Yet somehow, when we choose, we can return to that moment, or a similar, if we are willing to choose to work for clarity, for harmony; if we are willing to choose to work for peace.

Again, it is easy to say, and harder to do. Indeed, though I see its necessity, it’s a concept that I, in my own way, struggle with. When I came out of hospital I didn’t know where to turn. I felt like my world had been flipped upside down, like all the colours on the cube were irreparably jumbled, squares had fallen off, and the colours were blurring one into another. I felt as far from individual peace as I have ever done. I frequently asked the question: who am I? I didn’t feel like I was myself anymore. I felt defined by my condition, and I lost that sense of peaceful equilibrium. I couldn’t find the peace to reflect, to think, to work through my own identity. I had lost peace with myself. I couldn’t understand how Christ could leave us peace, and yet that I could not grasp it in those dark weeks.

We all fight battles, where peace seems very distant indeed.

Now, as I sit here, toying with peace, I think that Christ gives us the power, the energy of peace. He does not tell us how to use it, or reassure us that it is always evident in the world. He could not give us tangible peace. Instead, he gave us the tool for reconciliation, and for forgiveness. We are the artists: we have to make it ourselves.

So, I had to seek out peace for myself. I had to take those moments to be still, though all I felt like doing was shouting and screaming. I had to hold on to peace in torment. I wanted to make war with myself. Sometimes I still do. I had to, I have to, consciously choose peace, forgive myself, and reconcile myself to my future. Sometimes I fail. I am headstrong, foolish, selfish. I believe those days too are allowed, because they provide a striking foil to the days I chose peace. It is not complete failure, but a lack of equilibrium. The days I do find peace are the days I find plenteousness; the days I am able to flourish again. We may not be at perfect peace every moment of every day, but we should aspire to strive, daily, for moments of extraordinary celestial peace, in the ordinary and mundane world around us. We should be the artists, write the score, illustrate the page.

Following the Skripal poisonings, a flock of 3000 origami doves flew through the Cathedral, some inscribed with messages, and prayers for peace. Breath-taking, and uplifting, ‘Les Colombes’ spoke of the choice of peace and solidarity, in torrid moments of despair. It was particularly striking to see the doves’ reflection in the baptismal font – a reminder that even when we look down, peace from above is never far away, reflected all around us. Look, and you will find it. Choose peace, and flourish. We cannot solve world peace alone; we can only live at peace with ourselves, and so encourage others to choose peace. We can be those flock of doves, flying through life, with grace, with hope, with peace.

We harbour our own Christ-given inner peace, though the world around us may seem peace-less. It is Christ’s peace that we must strive to live out in our lives. We must find peace, use peace, and seek peace. We must pursue peace, in the darkest of night. We must be a peaceful people. We must rest in the assurance that Jesus gave us this peace to use in the world, and pass on to others, living at peace with everyone. Yes, he didn’t tell us how. How is different for everyone. But however we find it, with that divine peace, we will never let our hearts be troubled, or be afraid.

Go forth into the world in peace; be of good courage; hold fast to that which is good; render to no one evil for evil; strengthen the fainthearted; support the weak; help the afflicted; honour everyone.

Peace be within thy walls, and plenteousness within thy palaces.

May the peace of the Lord be with you.

 

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Extraordinary in Ordinary

Three things before we start –

Apologies for the stupidly excessive amount of times the words ‘ordinary’ and ‘extraordinary’ are used. I hope you don’t get lost. I admit, I lost myself a few times. So please “bear with,” as my brother would say.

And huge credit to Canon J for reminding me of the jigsaw analogy – it is one I seem to be using a lot at the moment to explain life. I will never forget the bobbing conversation we first had after sabbatical when you explained it. It really helps, and not just me.

Finally – thank you to all those special people who make my ordinary extraordinary, and who share with me in extraordinarinesses day by day. You know who you are. 


We’re back in ordinary time. Though I missed it in somewhat spectacular fashion (I don’t do things by halves!), Easter is over. Pentecost has been and gone. So it’s ordinary time again. It has the capacity to sound rather bleak. Ordinary, in fact, or how the word ‘ordinary’ has come to be used. And whilst it is principally a measured and numbered time, it definitely has the capacity to drag on. When you get to the 21st Sunday after Trinity, there is no doubt you feel older. Or I do anyway. But ordinary time charts an extraordinary life. So ordinary time has the capacity to be a time for learning, growing, appreciating. And for every individual, the ordinary might just have the power to become extraordinary.

As much as the last few months have shown me that every day we are gifted is extraordinary, it’s difficult to remember. Now as I settle back into life, back into school, into exams, and slowly back into myself, I find that I am slipping into a new ordinary. I have new routine into which each day fits and becomes ordinary. It’s different than it was before Easter, it has to be. But it’s still kind of ordinary. And it certainly feels like it will become more natural as each day passes. I find it harder each day to find extraordinariness.

So I woke up yesterday to what I thought would be an ordinary Saturday. I hit the alarm at the luxurious time of nine o’clock – it is, after all, finally, half term. And I rolled out of bed and into the shower, not quite literally, but close. I checked my bloods, gave my first dosings of medications, and about an hour after waking, finally got around to eating breakfast (don’t tell my DSN!). It was Shreddies, if you’re interested. I told you this was going to be a pretty ordinary day.

I settled down to work and my desk soon turned from a blank canvass of a space into brain flow carnage. Paper covered every inch of wood, and, of course, decided to take flight onto the floor, into the garden and under the sofa, as soon as I opened the door to get some fresh air. Highlighters merged colours with bleeding ink. Arrows, asterisks and splashes of colour showed my exploding thoughts, linkages and patchy knowledge. I stepped back when I finished for the afternoon and was quite astounded by the chaos I was able to create. I am ever close to trusting in my family’s belief that ‘every space I inhabit is messy.’ Being legal types, they made me sign a document in 2015 that affirmed it. But I guess they can’t complain. Under the proviso that everything I am currently doing is ‘revision,’ most things seem to pass familial scrutiny, including eating a square of dark chocolate every once in a while: cocoa was a key export in the triangular trade originating during 17th century Stuart Britain, so it definitely counts as sensory immersion in the Stuart economics course. That’s my argument at least. Don’t you agree?

An ordinary day. I got in the car to go up to the Cathedral (it’s technically down geographically, but never mind), and it was a pretty ordinary drive, dodging weekend drivers and enduring my father’s regular exclamation: “what did he do that for?? Look where it got him… nowhere!” Suffice to say he’s not very good at channelling road rage. To be honest, hitching a lift was really just an excuse not to get the train, since my Dad had to be there anyway. So I suppose enduring road rage is sort of part of the package. And who knows – maybe I’m as bad when I drive…

I don’t know why, but I didn’t talk at all whilst we drove. I guess I just wasn’t really in the mood. Going back to places where I felt more than comfortable ‘before’ is even harder with an ‘after’ identity that’s still piecing itself back together. I hate that divide, but it’s sort of the only way I can think of to describe this. Whatever this is. It’s like before there was a jigsaw puzzle that before was almost complete, and so you could see life’s picture coming together. But now the jigsaw puzzle has been mauled, or trampled on, or broken up by someone frustrated that all the pieces of sky were the same colour. The edges are still roughly there, or at least they are the easiest bits to put back together. The boundaries of life are roughly in place. It’s the rest of the picture that’s missing or jumbled up. All the pieces are lying topsy-turvy on the floor. The picture isn’t clear anymore. You hope all the pieces are still there. But you don’t know – there could be one that’s missing. You don’t know when or if the picture will be complete again. It’s the feeling that the world has shifted under you, and you’re not quite sure where to stand, or if you are about to embarrass yourself in a spectacularly un-elegant mudslide. They are the same places, but you’re not quite the same person. I’m still trying to find where the ‘after’ person slots back in. I’m still piecing back the jigsaw puzzle.

I needed space.

So as soon as we parked up I headed to the gardens, sheltered by the body of the Cathedral itself, and shadowed with the wooden cross, the golden angel flying high above. They are the same gardens I used to play in in the transience of past summers, hoping desperately that the choristers would take 5 extra minutes, so I could have 5 extra minutes chasing the other siblings round and round, with the final strains of evensong just ever so slightly lingering as the sun slowly waned and the night crept in. The tufts of grass find a beautiful luminescence at this time of year, trapped daily between bouts of sweltering sunshine and scattered showers. It was the same grass where I would sneak a sandwich, or picnic with the other families enduring a three-service extravaganza of a Sunday. It doesn’t happen anymore, but the same gleaming grass is still there. And it harbours the same attraction to the child inside of me.

And, with an hour to spare before evensong, I took my books. Rather ordinary. It’s exam season, so I’m rarely anywhere without a book and a pad of paper to jot down any unusually inspired ideas, plans or thoughts. In fact, think my consultant was a little surprised when I came for my bi-weekly assessment this week accompanied by a hefty volume of Tacitus. But you never know about hospital waiting times, and I’ve found that a historian who is characterised by his ability to politically psychoanalyse is a great match for the joys of sitting on an inconveniently placed plastic fold-down chair that is unimaginably uncomfortable (who designed those things?), waiting for a delayed appointment to be drained of yet more blood or infused with some new IV goodness, watching doctors, nurses, paramedics, patients, assistants, relatives, children, the elderly, wheelchairs, beds and trolleys trundling past down clinically sanitary white corridors, long, maze-like and dingy. And when other spare time allows, the ducks and the adorable golden and fluffy goslings in the local lake are becoming ever well-versed in Ovid, Propertius and Tibullus. It is somewhat less awkward learning the erotic Amores in the shaded woodland than in a public space. The ducks don’t seem to mind anyway.

But whenever I go to the Cathedral, it’s normally Greek. Rarely anything else strikes me as having the right gravitas. And if I want to work on my translation, the Greek Bible feels very at home there, as I hide, tucked out of sight in the library, beavering away to the sound of organ practice, or tourists wandering and wondering what lies beyond the solid door. But I wasn’t in the library yesterday. It was too claustrophobic, too dark and too serious. Besides, Thucydides was charting the battle of Pylos, with its precipitous headland and rocky terrain. It was much more fitting to be out in the gardens, atop the hill with its views down onto the town below.

And I needed space.

And I hadn’t been feeling anything particular all day. And it would have been a completely ordinary hour to anyone else. But suddenly, sat there, on a bench in the garden, a bush shading me from the sun beating down, but still feeling the all-encompassing heat in all its glory, and with the blue sky traced not a single whisper of cloud holding my gaze, dreaming to the strikingly familiar soundtrack of children racing down the hill below, and the students sunbathing, and the birds singing joyful hymns in the budding branches, a wave of extraordinariness struck me. I can’t really describe it in a way that it merits. Except that this was a moment I wanted to capture forever. Just a single moment with all the sounds and heat and scents of summer. A perfect and extraordinary moment in an ordinary minute.

I felt so grateful to be in that moment. Grateful to be alive. Grateful for summer. Grateful for faith. Grateful for the chance to have a moment of silent solitary stillness. Grateful for hope. Grateful for youth. Grateful for strength. Grateful for survival. Grateful for the world’s beating heart.

Those moments are truly extraordinary. When you feel like all the darkness and the light and the pain and the hope just align for a single second. When you feel like the world is yours to share in. When you feel like there is a split second of ultimate peace. When you feel like all you can do is love.

Slowly, the moment melted. It dissipated before my eyes, as another dog walker turned my gaze, a child’s shriek struck me unaware, and the pages of Thucydides started to flap incessantly as the breeze picked up. And I too seemed to melt back into the ordinary routines of working. But that feeling of extraordinary power didn’t seem to leave me. And it’s still there, locked away in my heart or mind.

I can tell I was still in a haze even 10 minutes later, despite returning from dreaming to studying, since a gentle and quiet “hello” half-startled me and I jumped, much to both of our amusements. But I think the unconscious haze that followed, as I held that moment close, is indicative its beauty. It was a moment that shrouded me so completely; I was so perfectly in tune with my own thoughts to the extent that, for that one moment, I could transcend the earth’s pain.

It is the extraordinary moments like that one that you come back to when the world throws you, knocks you back and winds you. Moments which change you. Second by second.

But change takes many forms. Sometimes it comes all at once. In fact, I left school on Friday, a time tinged with so many bittersweet emotions. I’m ready to leave. So ready. But there is a part that tugs me back. It’s certainly a big change, and therefore overwhelming. Yet it seems pertinent, since, as I write this, it is my headmistress’ departing words to us that echo in my mind, that we shouldn’t feel the pressure to have to be glorious, and live an extraordinary life. “There is nothing wrong with living an ordinary life well.”

For me, it’s definitely not about living an extraordinary life. I’m about the most ordinary you get, with rather ordinary hopes and fears. But living an ordinary life well, that’s more like it. And I think it’s not always the big changes that make the difference. It’s the ability to discern the changing extraordinary second hidden in the ordinary minute, and cherish those extraordinary moments, that make a day lived well and that make an ordinary life extraordinary. In that sense, there is no better thing than living an ordinary life well.

And sometimes there are those rare hours and days when there are so many extraordinary moments that you just want to capture them all and hold onto them in your heart forever. So, what had been an ordinary studying Saturday became an extraordinary one. For that moment was just the first.

The second was like, namely this. The same bench, the same shade. The same sun, the same breeze. The same golden angel and same shadowing cross. The same blue sky, the same striking green. But two people. Two people who chose to cast books and stress aside for a few hours of just being, and enjoying living (and pizza 😊). The picture was quite ordinary: two people sitting on a bench in the sun, quite alone in that part of the garden, but not really alone at all, talking about the weather, the week and the future, laughing, and commiserating. Yet however ordinary, there was a similar wave of extraordinariness to the feeling I had experienced alone. Although, this time, the moment seemed to harbour a greater profoundness. Because it was not divine for me alone. It was the extraordinary shared.

I lay in bed later. In fact, you won’t be surprised to hear I lie in bed most nights. It is distinctly ordinary. But somehow this, again, was extraordinary. It was characterised by thoughts different to my usual angst-filled reflections on A levels, or mental essay planning. None of my usual cares seemed to cross my mind. The window, cracked half open, let in just a subtle coolness to the overwhelming heat of the room. The curtains waved, and beat ever so softly against the pane. The birds were still singing though night was swiftly dragging at the sky. But their tune was no match for the music the day had brought. I closed my eyes from the ticking of the clock and just listened to my breath fade into nothingness, arms wrapped round me in a sure embrace. I wished I never had to leave that moment.

Ordinary time is measured. It drags on. Watching the clock is a reminder of how, in the grand scheme of things, there is so little time we have left to spend together. I have lived for 9,672,480 minutes up to this point. That’s 580,348,800 seconds. I’ve roughly spent 2400 of those writing this. And probably more by the time you read this. So how many of them have actually counted? I don’t know. Ordinary time drags on.

But sometimes, in ordinary seconds, extraordinary time is found. It doesn’t feel measured. It is both ephemeral and lasting beyond the confines of time. It changes you. It counts. It is what we hold to. It is how we move through the pain. Everyday, we must try to search out extraordinary time in an ordinary second. To hold onto it. To cradle it. To come back to it when there is no one to turn to.

Though I share something of this with you, deep down, in my heart, I know no words, no language, or music will ever be able to describe the true sense of extraordinariness. Maybe it is foolish to even try to write it down. I can only ever go part of the way to acknowledging the love of it. The rest you’ll have to feel for yourselves.

This ordinary time, find the extraordinary moments. Share the extraordinary. Make the decision to live, and love living. Hold onto the extraordinary in the face of the ordinary. Look to the extraordinary when the ordinary overwhelms. Who knows, this ordinary time, you might just see for yourself the extraordinary person I know you are, and continually called to be.

cathedral

Composing: Onwards, Soldier

Thank you – to everyone who has reached out to me and offered their support. To those I know, those I’ve lost contact with, those I am yet to meet. To my friends, my family and M. To the world that inspires me. To the music that lifts me up, tosses me around and makes me cry. To crying and being OK with it. To words, and their potential power. To escaping this world through composition. With you all, I am doing better every day. 

It won’t come as a surprise to you that reading and writing are my refuges when times get hard. There’s nothing I like to do more when in pain, physically or emotionally, than to curl up on a sofa with a blanket and a cup of tea and read or write. I can stay there for hours and hours and not know it until I happen to glance at a clock. It’s a realm of worlds to escape to, to find yourself in, and to learn from. There are days when I feel like I’m reading about myself. There are days when the text seems so foreign I find it hard to relate. I laugh. I cry. I’m inspired. I’m frightened. I escape.

But it’s often writing I turn to when things are hardest. I didn’t have much of a chance in hospital. In fact, I couldn’t even hold a pen to try to write. But that didn’t mean I didn’t write. There were lots of words going round in my head – too many, I was told. “Why do you look so pensive?” one of my Doctors asked. I didn’t have a reply, because I know when I’m writing, it sort of becomes a state of being. A sort of all encompassing energy that fills the soul and provokes, encourages, and makes you pensive. I’m probably an awful bore when I’m in a writing mood, sitting or lying somewhere, and messing about with words in my head until something seems right, like it perfectly captures a specific mix of emotions at a specific moment. Sometimes it doesn’t fit. Then I tweak, and try again, until it’s perfect. Then it’s transcendent. Then it hits the paper, and becomes real. It’s hard to describe if you’ve never experienced it.

I have always found music powerful. Anyone who has sat beside me regularly at concerts and services will account for my spontaneous tears during works that hit me somewhere I wasn’t expecting. There is always some melody, some harmony that binds me so intensely to the music. So I’ve always thought that words were inferior. They could never have power alone. But a conversation I had a couple of months ago made me realise that words can have power too. A different power, but one nonetheless. Words in a line can be like notes on a stave – each is placed specifically, with purpose, with precision, to give a special emphasis. Each line, each stave, contributes to a work that introduces itself, builds, reaches a climax, fades away, reflects upon its themes, and comes to a conclusion. Both have the art of composition.

It seems first wrote about this at the end of March, but it was only on clearing out the notes on my phone earlier today, having just spent a while writing, that I came upon it, a musing I had profoundly (!) entitled ‘Composition’ :

I’m watching you and the notes spinning around in your head

Until one stops you, and holds your attention. I see it in your eyes.

Like the key in the lock, it’s the one that fits.

I don’t think you can see me standing here. Or maybe you just don’t want

To talk today. That’s OK. I understand.

The strands of music floating in your mind almost seem to sing before you.

I can almost feel the joy of your music before you even reach me.

We don’t need to talk to feel it.

Now – your anger, the desperate beat of the drums, like thunder in the night.

Now – your pain, that distant violin. It’s far away, a secret voice.

You’re trying to hide it, but struggling to keep in tune. It’s OK. I understand.

Now – a hint of joy, a skipping flute, climbing higher and higher into a bubbling of laughter.

And now – the righteous organ, steady, steadfast. The assurance of your love. Powerful.

Each phrase is just one thought, in one second, in one day.

Will you sketch out your daily symphony today?

Not today, I feel. But maybe tomorrow, today’s loose thoughts will weave together,

Into a music that will stir up a whirlwind inside every longing heart.

 

And I? Well I think my composition is less measured than yours.

There’s nothing official about it. No rules. No bars to confine my notes.

Just the pen in my hand, growing sickly warm, and the paper,

Scrunched up to hide the truth. It’s my pain, raw and bitter.

It’s my hope, lasting but renewed. It’s my faith, constant yet terrifying.

Maybe somewhere you’ll find my love in my words.

I’ve just scribbled them down, words streaming out like screams or laughter or tears.

It’s done for today. Too painful to carry on. Maybe I’ll also try again tomorrow.

Do my words have melody and harmony?

Do I consider each one as you do your chord?

Is there contrapuntal movement or fugal themes? I don’t know.

Maybe you can see something I can’t. But for me, well I forget what I’m writing.

I toss words about, no structure, no plan.

They’re special because they’re the words written on my heart –

Streams of words, each one just one thought, in one second, in one day.

 

But maybe you feel like that too. Maybe you and I are more similar than we think.

For we’re both composing, you and I. We both sing.

We give it our joy, our pain, our stress, our anger. We give it our love.

It helps us to love in return. To serve. To appreciate. To grow. To learn.

Words and music, they can dance alone. They can dance together.

So I’m standing here, thinking about my words, and your music,

And knowing the gifts that they are, and the gifts that they’ll bring.

And I’m hoping they’ll change the world, recompose how things ought to be.

Clearly, written word as having the power, like music, to convey something that is beyond the spoken is a preoccupation that my mind has been dealing with for quite some time without me realising. And it’s a preoccupation that has not left me since leaving hospital.

One of the hardest parts of dealing with my diagnosis and life since, has been knowing how close I was to dying. They told me, when I left, that if I had left it another hour before being taken to A&E, my chances would have been far lower. When ketoacidosis takes hold at critical level, it takes hold fast. And indeed, I wrote about Graham, and his death in my last post. To see someone die is horrible. To be surrounded by death, and feel it close, is something I never want anyone to have to experience.

I had to find a way of writing about it, dealing with the ‘what ifs’ that have been bothering me. What if I had died? What if I had left the people I love behind, some without ever telling them I loved them? How could I bear the pain? So I wrote. And since, I have better escaped the thoughts. It will take a lot longer to put this behind me, if I ever can. But I’m hanging on, surviving through composing. I can only hope my words are some way to be as powerful as music. They made me cry, at least. But then again, I find tears are quick to my eyes today.

Onwards, soldier, to the end.

At last, Night is come. How softly, sweetly

Her footsteps tread upon the earth

Which was my transient home! And O, how

Tender her voice, singing Peace, and proclaiming that

I am come through the wilderness, the darkness

apprehended, though yesterday I knew not where to turn.

For here is the Way; I trace it, written on my heart.

And I am heading onwards to the heavens, to the height of

Those gold tipped mountains, sustaining the

Last remaining rays of light and calling me home.

My tears flowed fast when I slipped away, as

Dust through your fingers, too terrified

To stay to hear the anguished cry when you saw

Life’s heaving breaths shallow into stillness.

But here is the Truth; a sting oppressed by comfort:

There shall be neither death, nor sorrow, nor crying.

So, it is time now to go onwards, to the stars, to the radiant

Stars, to bathe in celestial light, relieving me of

My tired breast, heavy laden with day’s

Cruel toils. And so, I walk, placing step by step,

Gaining strength from some invisible spring of life. And

I perceive how great a war life is to be fought; how I was marked

To fall at the very height of battle. And oh – how I have fallen!

But somehow, I traverse the valley, by a gentle breeze

Lifted beyond the weeping grey clouds that at present beset

Your heart. Do you see, my love, that here I am

Free? There is no longer need to mourn; it is

Here, with Love, that I am called to be.

For here is Life; I know Him well.

Like a balloon with no air

This was incredibly hard to write. It is a collection of thoughts that struck me whilst I was in intensive care over Easter Weekend and the following week. It is incredibly hard to read, now. Thankfully, I am doing much better now. Today I am proud to say that I have not cried – not even one tiny tear. I have smiled today. Today I am doing better. There is a long way to go, and I’m definitely not the same as I was a couple of weeks ago, but today, for the first time, I’d be OK with saying that I’m fine. Not great, but fine. 

But sometimes life throws a curveball at you that’s completely unexpected. It winds you. Leaves you flat on your back. Destroys your confidence. And leads you to rebuild yourself, changed. And it is ok to feel angry. To feel powerless, guilty, upset, destroyed, broken. But you’ll get better, with time. It takes time, faith, and a lot of people that you love. Together, you’ll find a new way of living. And the sun will slowly come out again. I am confident that I will live every day to the full, knowing that no day is ever taken for granted. Life will be different, but it won’t be any less worth living, and loving.  


How are you today? They ask as if everything’s normal. Like they expect me just to say that everything’s fine. Because that’s what we do in Britain. We say everything’s fine. We say everything’s fine, but inside, nothing is really fine at all.  So I say I’m OK. And instead I ask whether it’s still raining outside. Because I can’t see the sunshine anymore, the streaks strained through the dust onto the sanitised wall. Yesterday there was a bit of sun. Today, they say, there’s none at all. Black clouds.

I could have told you that. Because I wasn’t really commenting on the weather.

Today I’m not fine.

I feel like a balloon without any air. A dying balloon, a mockery of its former self, sagging away in some dark corner, the life slowly seeping from it. The symbol of a joy that once was. Because everything was going great. The balloons were out in life. The spring time blossom was in full bloom. The sun was shining. I had just visited the University where I hoped to go in September. I had healed a broken friendship. I had made new friends, found new love. I was performing again. I said yes. I felt optimistic about my A levels. I could see a vague shape to the next months. It was like my life was full of shoots emerging from the soil, each on the brink of bursting into a new flower.

But it’s not the same anymore. Now those shoots have withered. Now I am like a balloon without any air. Now the black clouds are overhead. Thrown by a violent storm off the mountain I have climbed, I feel crushed, crumbled, curled in a ball in the pit of mud at the base. Winded, struggling to breathe, I stand and fall. I don’t have the strength to climb any way back up today. In fact, I don’t know when I’ll be able to take another step. My shadow laughs at me from the peak, veiled by the dark night. Ignore it. Move on. She’s just the shadow. The last remaining bit of who I was. Where I was. On top of the world. But she is laughing at who I’ve become, a withered drooping plant. She’s stirring up a storm. I cannot face climbing the mountain again.

How are you today?

Today I am struggling to be fine.

Would you not feel the same, if they told you that you had been dying? If they told you that your body had been eating itself for weeks? If they told you that you were in a critical condition? If they told you that your life would never be the same again? It’s critical ketoacidosis. You’re in intensive care. And you’re not going anywhere. When you do, you’ll be in chains.  Going back uphill. It would be easier just to give up now.

The nights are the worst. They bleed me. Poke me. Measure me. Drain me. Revive me. Feed me. Pity me. They look at the TV above my head. It tells them more than I ever could. I can’t move my head. I don’t have the strength to pull up the blanket, but I can’t stop shaking. Please help me, I scream. But no one can hear the screams. They’re trapped, circling incessantly inside my head. I can’t reach the call button. It mocks me. I’m thirsty, but I cannot drink. I can’t speak – the words don’t come. The nights are the worst. Alone. Dark. Scared

I don’t know who I am anymore. Why me? Why now? I am defined by numbers, units, doses, needles, carbohydrate counts. She’s the girl who almost died, they say as they walk past. Ward round. Judgement. They all stand there. Looking at me. Like an animal in a cage. The only one under 65 in intensive care. It shouldn’t have happened to her, they say. I look away to hide the tears. Because the pity doesn’t help. They can’t change it. They can’t do anything. The pity in their eyes kills me.

Today I’m not fine.

I’m the one who’s angry. Angry that I can’t break free from it. Angry that it’s me, and it’s here. Angry that I can’t seem to see past the night. That I will have to fight to survive every day. Angry that my entire future has seemingly been defined with the blink of an eye. Angry that I didn’t see it coming. That I don’t remember anything. That I will face medical complications for the whole of my life.

I’m the one who’s sorry. I’m sorry this has happened to me. To us. That you will always be worried about me. That every night there is a chance I might not wake up. That you will always have to ask ‘what if?’ That you lay awake last night, not knowing. That we will never be able to escape this. That I cannot eat without counting the cost. That life has to be planned to the second. That my life is like a rollercoaster ride of highs and lows, and that I can’t stop screaming.

I’m the one who’s scared. Scared of what could happen. Scared not of if, but when. Scared where I’ll be. Scared who I’ll be with. Scared that they won’t know what to do. I’m scared of going home, because then it’s just me and the monster all alone. Scared of going back to school and facing all the music. Scared that everyone will walk away. Scared of coping with exams and medication at the same time.

How are you today?

Today I refuse to pretend I’m fine. Today I am like a balloon without any air.

And I’m so sorry. I’ve been so caught up in my own whirlwind that I haven’t seen that you’re hurting too. This makes you angry too. It makes you scared. And yes, it is different for you. You can’t understand my fear. I can’t understand yours. But deep down, maybe both our hearts are grieving for the girl that was. She’s gone, we both know that. It’s a new girl who’s lying here, on this bed. They’re similar. But something’s changed. Hold my hand, please. Let us be together, alone in our fear. This is all my fault. I am so sorry.

They say I can do anything, I just have to find a new way. They say there’ll be light eventually. They say September is a long way away. I might still get there. But they don’t know that the man in the bed opposite me died last night. His name was Graham. They don’t understand that Death was here last night, so close I could have reached out and touched him. Right here. There was a sustained bleep and the anguished cry of his wife and children. That’s how I knew he’d been taken. It could have been me. Do you see? I close my eyes. The darkness can hold me for a bit longer. It seems fitting for this morning. Shut the curtains please. I don’t want to face the people today.

Do they realise it could have been me? They don’t know. You didn’t see. Whether you live or die here seems equally possible. It’s like walking on a tightrope with your legs shaking badly. Like you’re waiting to fall. And you don’t know who is going to be there to catch you. Or if there’ll be someone to catch you. No one could stop Graham from falling.

Darkness please hold me a little longer.

How are you today?

Today I am like a balloon without any air.

T1D

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.

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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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

My Weekend: My First Show

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An empty hospital bed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where you lie no more

There is an empty hospital bed,

The covers thrown aside,

Still warm from where

You lay.

With silvered cheeks I wrap

Your coat around me,

Eyes fixed on where

You lay.

Sirens scream all around;

Too late to find the

Frail body where

You lay.

Whispers linger of your pain; my broken

Heart is pierced again. I breathe

My last of the air where

You lay.

There was an empty hospital bed,

The covers thrown aside,

Still warm from where

You lay.

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

Words are very rascals: a reflection on modern carol services

Words are very rascals. Little did Shakespeare, I imagine, guess that 400 years after his death, a girl would open her blog on a foreign and inconceivable invention of the ‘internet’ with his words. Or that these words would have spoken so true throughout those 4oo years.

I have always said that personally, words are my weapon against the world. Every time I sit down to write, I choose my words. I use my words. I can choose to be hurtful, humourous or honest, by simply putting words in a certain order. Everyone chooses their words. And mostly, people can imagine what effect those words are going to have. Certain words are likely to provoke certain emotions. When I was most hurt, I hated words. I hated that a sequence of letters, a single word, hurled at me could, like a grenade, explode and cause me to come crashing down. But words don’t have to divide and destory, or create friction between people who should know better. Words don’t have to act like bullets of pain which fire deep into the heart of the receiver and send a throbbing reverberation around your whole body. Though, often, when we speak about words, this is the reaction they have provoked in us. Words can and predominantly should be music, music that lifts our hearts, gives a voice to our deepest and most silent emotions. Music that brings people together, that comforts and heals. Writing words down can be a healing process all on its own, something I have very much learnt since starting this blog. And speaking words can act as a relief, as if someone has quite literally lifted something that had been weighing you down. Saying what you truly feel can cause you to hold your head a little higher, in the knowledge that you are no longer bottling something up. And repeated words can be a music that when repeated, bring a rhythm and consistency to our lives, like a recurring theme in a movement of a symphony.

Words can hurt us. Words can comfort us. And words can bring us home.

Certain words mean a whole host of different things to different people. For me, there are a whole host of words that symbolise Christmas; ‘cockatrice,’ as I have mentioned several times before is simply one of these words. And in truth, it’s not really the cockatrice so much as the whole service of Nine Lessons and Carols that means for me that Christmas is coming. Sitting down with my family on the Sunday before Christmas to a traditional service of Nine Lessons and Carols and hearing about Adam and Eve ‘walking in the cool of the day,’ Eve being ‘beguiled,’ the rod that will come forth out of the stem of Jesse, Elizabeth being ‘barren,’ Joseph of the ‘house and lineage of David’ going to be ‘taxed’ with Mary, his ‘espoused’ wife, being ‘great with child.’ Shepherds being ‘sore afraid.’ The world which saw Jesus and ‘comprehended him not.’ These are things which I can recite because they have been a part of my life for so many years. These are the things that bring me home, that symbolise Christmas. It is the part of a Christmas tradition that fosters a growing warmth in my heart, brings forth the joy of the season, and makes the world sparkle for a few days. But more than these words from the Nine Lessons, personally, it is the Bidding Prayer, said at the beginning of the service, that epitomises what Christmas means. It is a time for joy, for everyone, a time for remembering those who are no longer present on Earth, but rejoice with us in heaven. It is a time for drawing closer to God personally, nationally, and globally. For a unity and concord that has no boundaries. For a love that touches each one of us.

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Beloved in Christ, be it this Christmastide our care and delight to hear again the message of the angels, and in heart and mind to go even unto Bethlehem and see this thing which is come to pass, and the Babe lying in a manger. Therefore let us read and mark in Holy Scripture the tale of the loving purposes of God from the first days of our disobedience unto the glorious Redemption brought us by this Holy Child. But first, let us pray for the needs of the whole world; for peace on earth and goodwill among all his people; for unity and brotherhood within the Church he came to build, and especially in this city of … and diocese of …And because this of all things would rejoice his heart, let us remember, in his name, the poor and helpless, the cold, the hungry, and the oppressed; the sick and them that mourn, the lonely and the unloved, the aged and the little children; all those who know not the Lord Jesus, or who love him not, or who by sin have grieved his heart of love. Lastly, let us remember before God all those who rejoice with us, but upon another shore, and in a greater light, that multitude which no man can number, whose hope was in the Word made flesh, and with whom in the Lord Jesus we are for ever one. These prayers and praises let us humbly offer up to the Throne of Heaven, in the words which Christ himself hath taught us…

These words are the ones that mean so much to me. The words that have true power within me. To show me the true meaning of life at Christmas. The words that never fail to bring me closer to God. To bring me home.

But this year it was different. Of the 3 Nine Lessons and Carol services I attended, none followed the traditional pattern. None began with the bidding prayer. One, advertised across town as a ‘traditional service of Nine Lessons and Carols’ was a modernised service with 8 lessons. This weekend I felt lost. It didn’t feel like Christmas. I stood up and read from a pulpit an unrecognisable fifth, formerly sixth, lesson. I felt nothing. The words were honest. Sometimes honest can be best. Sometimes it can help us see a new perspective. But these words did no such thing. They had no poetry. They had no music. They were flat. And everyone knew it. All readers stood and read with no conviction, looking surprised as they read that the shepherds were ‘terrified’ and not ‘sore afraid.’ And any musician will tell you that creating music requires utmost teamwork, and working together. The exquisite music of the service did not marry with the readings. We have Tudor words, Medieval words, French words in music. Yet in our readings, in the modern and blunt words of God we had nothing. It simply didn’t work. Christmas lost its sparkle. Christmas is about magic. The power of God to bring the conception of his own Son on Earth. This magic was gone. I felt as if I was back in primary school, the words so dummed down that they lost any meaning at all. I wanted to go home and cry. This wasn’t Christmas. I’d lost the season that I so loved.

And so had the whole congregation. We felt deceived once again. This was our Christmas service, our ‘traditional service of Nine Lessons and Carols’ gone, with the wave of a wand and replaced with something that made us feel like we were walking in a winter blizzard, lost, cold, angry, and the harsh wind provoking salty tears to tumble from red eyes fighting back the pain. We were as grey as the night sky above us. No stars, no sparkle. No Christmas. And from the conversations after the service, it sounded like there would be no congregation next year either.

And then I was angry. Why should I feel so upset about words? They are simply words on a page. Letters in a formation. They shouldn’t affect me. Why should they make me feel so far from the God I usually drew closest to at this time of year? Surely, the love of God transcends the words used to communicate this love. But I came to this conclusion. I am growing up, and the world is changing. Part of this is my fault, I’m not good with change. I want to live in my childhood bubble and have nothing change. I want the words to comfort me, to bring me home. But part of this is also the world’s fault. People in command who change things without asking what their people really want. People who don’t listen. People who don’t see value in words that connect us to generations gone before, that spark the feelings of comfort and joy. People who live in the present, and forget that Christmas is not just about present mirth, for present mirth hath only present laughter. People who don’t understand what those words mean for generations of us. People who are driving away their congregations and fuelling greater anger and divisions in a community that just needs to heal. People who only see change and who don’t see the value in what we already have. Christmas is about the aged and the little children. About those who have gone before, who rejoice with us on a greater shore. The world has become full of people who lose what Christmas truly is.

And sometimes I want to scream at the world. I’m only 16. There’s nothing I can do to change the decisions that have already been made. I know that whatever words are spoken I’ll always have God to walk beside me. But 4 days before Christmas, I’ve lost my sparkle and poetry, and I need to world to know that. I felt ashamed to read those words on Sunday. I wanted to be a rebel for my congregation. To stand up and recite the lesson I knew in my heart. The ones written on my mind that made the sky light up with Christmas joy. But I couldn’t do it. I didn’t dare. Because I respect decisions that have been taken. Because I don’t want to hurt anyone.

Words are rascals. They have the power to make us laugh and cry. These words I write are my weapon against the world. I may only be 16, not on the electoral role, a nobody. But I have a voice, however insignificant you see me to be. I want to the world to know how I feel. I need the world to know how I feel. Because I’m lost, and I hope that writing these words help find me again.