So, since you last heard from me, I’ve moved. I’ve moved 5 and a bit (inevitably a lot, once you factor in the traffic situation that is the M25, which tends to resemble more a car park than a motorway – can you tell I’m enjoying not living within its confines any more?!) hours North, well actually NORTH, to Durham, where I am currently studying for a three-year undergraduate degree in Classics, nicely flavoured with hints of theology and archaeology. I’m not one for bland soup – and the same applies to my degree; I’ve taken every chance I can to broaden its standardised remit and push the boundaries of Classics into other spheres. It’s one of the reasons I chose this degree in the first place, but this is perhaps not the place for a rambling tangent on interdisciplinarianism, though anyone who knows me would probably not be so surprised had the same not followed hence. I spare you, for today.
Neither do I really want to talk about the whole process of getting here, results day and all that jazz. It has been an absolutely weird year for me, I lost a lot of confidence in myself, and my whole experience of exams and results was caught up in emotion directed towards other ends, so completely different than I had both expected, and experienced before (here, here and here). I will revisit the ‘getting here’ bit at some point, because I think I did learn some really important lessons from the process, and have completely undergone a change of mindset about the role of education in the formation of individuals, which I do think is important to share. But I’m not completely there yet. So, I spare you, for today.
Finally, neither (isn’t this a wonderful unintentionally devised example of praeteritio?!) am I going to share with you – just yet – my first experiences of Durham and university life. That said, reflections on my first month at Durham are very much in the works and ready to present themselves as soon as that month mark has been breached, in just over a week’s time… watch this space!
Therefore, the million dollar question just has to be: what on earth are you actually talking about? M would confirm, should you not be able to gather from the above, that I have a rather good line in talking and not really saying anything, using the English language in a way that makes sense, but has little direction. So for his sake, and for yours, I shall endeavour to get to the point!
I want to talk about something that has actually been on my mind for quite a while in various different guises: leaving. It is inherently tied to the beginning of a new chapter, and perhaps that’s why, in the liminal phase I’ve been in over the last few months as I have moved on from known things, and into a whole new way of life, and as I’ve lost people close to me, it’s been on my mind so much. And it’s not just been me. For, if it’s not a pain for ourselves, it’s the pain of watching someone else go. I’ve watched others move jobs, move houses, move on. For me, it can all be different: leaving a place, leaving a person, leaving a job, leaving a lifestyle, leaving an identity. Each is tied up in it’s own emotion. Each we may have control over, and we may not. Each comes and goes so frequently that, in a way, perhaps leaving should be seen as a fundamental aspect of life. We all do it. And each is also the same, in the sense that, in whichever scenario, there is always an underlying knot of pain, inextricably woven in with perhaps joy, anticipation, or peace. Sometimes it’s temporary. Sometimes it’s forever. There’s a wrenching pain as well as dawning hope. You’ve felt it too.
I have been trying to grasp a series of intangible emotions by defining them within areas of questions:
- How do we navigate knowing that we will face loss? Does knowing we will say goodbye make the process of loss easier, or harder?
- How do we cope when that control of knowing is taken out of our hands? Does sudden loss prevent a preceding period of pain? Or does the lack of control render us more broken?
- How can we process loss when it arrives, or during a period of farewell? To what extent do we choose to share our grieving process, in whatever degree it manifests itself, or do we protect our privacy?
- We inevitably move on from loss – but how, with who, and when?
I don’t have answers to any of these; all I’ve found myself debating over the last 6 to 8 months. In differing scenarios, I’ve approached the same questions with different responses. Truly, there are no answers. But perhaps that’s part of leaving, or loss: knowing that however we respond to these questions is right in its own way. Some days we feel black and blue, distant from acceptance. Some days we are just full of the joy that has been, so ready to accept one farewell and another hello. Some days we are a mix of the two and we ride our own wave storm of joy, fear, excitement, pain, confusion, anxiety. Nothing should be negated.
For me, one of my biggest processors is writing. You know this – you’re reading! Me sitting down and writing is usually an acknowledgement that there’s something going on I need to work through. I’m bad at bottling things up; frustrations, emotions and thoughts get mixed up in each other to the extent that I struggle to then unpick them. So I write. I also read what others write. So today I don’t have answers to the questions. But I have a few words. Each is accompanied by a short explanation, or associated thought. More than anything I hope it just opens up your thoughts on leaving and loss. Maybe these questions are ones that are on your mind too. Maybe the only the only step to an answer we can get is just acknowledging the questions, as and when they come. We have to ask the questions; who knows what, by asking, might be given in return.
It’s so hard to watch you go. It’s killing me to say goodbye. Though you may not return, there’s a candle that burns, right here inside all of our hearts. Fly away; I’ll see you again one day.
~ Ellie and Sophie Bokor Ingram Georgia’s Song
This is an extract from a song which was written by one of the girls in my school house, following the sudden death of their family friend, Georgia, from a brain aneurysm in December 2013. For me, it is a raw recognition of the pain of sudden loss. There’s a powerful sense that we hold on to memory after loss, but also that this will also fade one day: a candle burns out. When we face sudden loss, especially in terms of death, it is perhaps the knowledge of celestial encounter that brings a peace beyond understanding, whilst simultaneously not detracting from the pain and grief.
May the road you travel now be safe;
May the sun light every path.
May the moon so shine beneath your feet,
When dusty tracks grow dark.
May I forever feel your strength;
May I ease your deepest fears.
May my voice sing anew Love’s sure song,
When faith is drowned in tears.
May my life so grow and flourish;
May yours be bright and true.
May we part but never perish,
When waning days are through.
A prayer on the Wey (2018)
This is a short reflection I composed when sitting by the river one afternoon, principally a farewell to a someone moving on. But on thinking about it, there are wider themes of loss present: temporary blindness to faith, loss of light, ending of the day, and even loss of life. There is an ultimate vulnerability, and with the subjunctive rhythm, it emulates a prayer in its hope and nature of request. There is no promise, no certainty, no tangible comfort. But there is a comfort that opening our thoughts, sharing our hopes with something beyond the tangible, is in itself a means of travelling through loss.
THE LORD WILL WATCH OVER YOUR COMING AND GOING, BOTH NOW AND FOREVERMORE. ~ Ps 121
I’ve waved goodbye so many times.
I ought to be swift to go.
Yet still I sit and mourn this day
That will not come again.
How hard it seems to leave this place
With its tender heart and soul.
For you, to me, are more my home
Than any house has been.
And though I know that through the night,
Languid days will hold me still,
I cannot help but feel so far
From each and every day.
Now moments fly, the months still pass,
Years befall like summer hours.
How little time we have on earth:
Let’s reap it, you and I.
I do find it interesting reading my work back, many months from when it was first written. For me this poem has an inherent complexity, and raises the question of whether the voice is bidding goodbye to a place, or a people. In fact, the two almost seem to be one. Perhaps this is a nod to the nature of farewell to a place or institution. It is not always farewell to the building, the garden, the view, the place. It’s the people that are there, the feeling that it gives. The sense that when I am here, when I am with you, I am home. It’s easy to say “I’ll miss this place.” I don’t think it’s always what we mean. Whether temporary, or eternal, we often mean, “I’ll miss you, the people that show me home.” We reap the gifts a people give us, bring us, and draw out of us. This is what we leave.
The title Adieu builds on a further complex. It literally means ‘until God’ and is therefore usually a final farewell in French. Perhaps this is the sense that builds through the first three stanzas. But it’s certainly not the mood of the final lines triggering me to ask: do we actually leave a place? I doubt we do. We are woven in its story as it is woven in ours. We are one body of people – the final jussive perhaps indicates that even apart, or alone, we are very much still together.
SURELY I AM WITH YOU ALWAYS, UNTIL THE VERY END OF THE AGE ~ M 28:20
Farewell. So long.
Whatever you say is hard;
Parting is no sweet sorrow.
It all means the same.
The end. The end.
Said a thousand times.
Thank you. Thank you.
Keep in touch.
Oh, I know, I wish too
I didn’t have to go.
But that I do.
That I do.
Goodbye to here,
Goodbye to now,
Goodbye to you.
A thousand times:
A thousand goodbyes (2018)
This is a much lighter reflection, written as I sat rather amusedly entertained by watching conversations unfold in July between someone leaving, and the people they would go on to leave. It is a sly social pleasure of more than a few people I know, including myself, to ‘people watch.’ And this was just one of those occasions, the voice of the poem almost commenting on the events from afar, until it strikes them that after all that extended period of farewells there is a true and final departure. You probably recognise the situation; this challenges Shakespeare’s famous thesis on lovers’ parting in a context that brings back a seriousness and a finality beneath perhaps disguised overtones of a temporary departure.
Every night we die a death.
But tonight, I can’t help dying a little more than most.
Now, the end.
Each second that passes, each moment that ends,
Is over. I cannot get back the time.
Each second stabs a new pain.
Each second, a last.
Before, I was terrified to be here.
Now, it terrifies me to leave.
Choice seems forever out of my hands.
The passing time is my knell.
I hear it. It calls me
To sleep. To close my eyes,
To turn away from this day,
From the dust of this earth,
From this transient place.
I have no choice.
I must go.
This is death to you.
Every night we die a death.
The Last Night (2018)
As sort of touched on, my relationship with leaving school was different, by far, to what most people experience. I basically didn’t go back to school after Easter on a full time basis. I chose what I wanted to do and what I didn’t want to do. In a lot of ways, it made the end of term, and saying goodbye far easier. It had become a gradual process, and by the time I had to say goodbye goodbye, the sense of school I was saying goodbye to was not what I would have previously envisaged as ‘school.’ But in some senses it prolonged the process because it felt like every time I was in school, there was usually a reason, and usually that reason was because it was last time I could do something. It did begin to feel like every minute of every day I was in school, there was something else I was leaving. It was also a unique position where the choice to move school was not my own; I had simply reached the end. Up to that point, every school I left, I left of my own accord. I had no control over the circumstance or the timing. Leaving in these ways is a very different kind of pain.
I did have some brighter days as I was leaving. I had the urge to want to capture everything I knew I had taken for granted for each of the days of the almost 5 years of my life that I had spent in that place. One of those moments I captured in the following poem, which perhaps challenges how we view the memories we hold in the places and the people we leave. When it’s time to go, how do we look back on the time we’ve had? This poem makes a little more sense if you know the East window in the Chapel of St John the Evangelist at my old school:
This was an eagle who had watched over me, every day I walked into that Chapel. And I often, in my last days of the last weeks, when I was in school, found comfort in just sitting in the Chapel and just looking at this mind blowing window, with all its intricacies and colours. How was I negotiating knowing I had to leave, in the face of his majesty? It was that painful mix I spoke of earlier. There was pain at loss, regret at mistakes, and gratefulness for the gifts received. But there was also an overwhelming pride and privilege to stand there, and leave, head held just slightly higher than the 5 years previously, when I first walked through those doors. I walked out a completely different woman to the girl who walked in. More than anything, standing before the eagle reminded me of the strength of faith in the unknown. Over the course of the time I left school there were tears. But not at the end. By the end, I had a sort of peaceful strength and acceptance. I knew there was more to come. I was painfully grateful but vulnerably optimistic.
I stand before the eagle today;
I hold his surly gaze in mine.
Both of us seem to drift astray,
Feeling earth and heaven align.
Who gave him the strength to soar,
Bearing earth’s grief in blue,
Yet stretching, by name called for,
To bring heaven to earth anew?
Why cannot I soar like he, and
Surpass this place of tears?
Why do I collapse to bended knee,
Sunken by worldly fears?
I never noticed your strength before.
I never thanked you for your grace.
I only ever asked for more.
I only strove to win the race.
Now life here is through,
And I must say goodbye.
It is now I realise what I never knew:
Those who run cannot fly.
I ask for your forgiveness,
For the days I could not see,
For the days I was lost in self,
And understood not how to be.
I ask for reconciliation,
For the times I did you wrong.
This is my last oblation,
The imperfect cadence to my song.
For there is no way unblemished
To tell you of the pain.
Or to tell you how I perished,
When I treasured earthly gain.
And how regretfully I weep, and sigh
To know that, on this day I go,
Is the first day I saw you fly, and
Truly knew the gifts you bestow.
But I plead: give me strength to rise again,
O majestic eagle bright.
Help me to break this binding chain,
And not struggle through the night.
May I fear not the world unknown,
And might your strength beside me be,
As, with wind and torment blown,
I travel across a stormy sea.
He soars; he melts into flame.
I turn away; he burns.
But softly, slowly, I hear that my name
He calls, to earth I must return.
Although today my time is over,
I know our story is not done.
I came here, to seek for closure.
I go, in vain. I am not gone.
An Eagle’s Farewell (2018)
THERE IS A TIME FOR EVERYTHING… A TIME TO BE BORN AND TO DIE, A TIME TO PLANT AND A TIME TO UPROOT ~ Ecc 3:1-2
The untraversed world is a boundless ocean,
On which my little boat rocks gently, softly;
Waves lap round in swathes; they offer comforting embraces.
The world is rocking me to sleep tonight.
The waters, calm, hold me, carrying me
Onwards to a brighter place; they
Speak in whispers of a promised land.
But I will wake, and not be here.
I will weep, and not be held.
I will turn but not see the way.
I will seek but not find again this temporal peace.
Tomorrow’s path is not as sure:
The storm will strike;
The wind will wound.
The still waters in the harbour of youth will
Vanish, and like tears, dissolve into the mourning dusk.
Life will toss me, tear me.
It will break me, bruise me.
“What was danger?” I used to ask, when
The world was painted with a silvery kind of
Love, which made even pain sparkle, shimmer, shine.
Is it only now that I hold it? Danger is all around.
Danger is the terror that slaughters innocence in fright.
I was sure that I would reach the gold-kissed sky.
Now I fear, recoil, retreat.
I’m afraid to feel alone.
I’m scared to travel on.
What happens when I fall?
Can my boat traverse this ocean safe?
Is there breeze enough to sail strong,
And yet winds too weak to smash the
Hull that speeds? It cleaves the foam-tipped depths.
Tomorrow you force me to journey on, your
Call burns me, consumes me; unrelenting, unceasing, unstayed.
But you have no words to smooth my way.
How well I know I have no choice. I have no choice.
Here I am, dying to rest; this is my boat.
And the unknown world is as a boundless ocean,
On which my fragile boat sways, in tumult, in pain;
I bleed strength from the drowning wave; there is no final consolation.
The world will shock me into sleep,
On the shore (2018)
This is another fairly complex set of emotions and a poem that charts a progressive individual thought process. From the beginning, the voice of the poem acknowledges a sense of fear towards the unknown world. But it is only as the poem progresses that this becomes an almost debilitating reality for them. The beginning of the poem is mirrored in its ending, except there are stark differences: the world will shock, and not rock. A promise of comfort is lost in no hope of consolation. The waves are drowning, and not still. This is someone caught up in that very depth of grief and pain. It is the part of loss which hits you like a stab wound, winds you, and is difficult to surmount. The ocean has connotations of stillness, but its depths and scope are simultaneously dark. There is no promise for this time of returning to a state of calm. Sometimes we have to acknowledge that this is how we feel.
There are stages of grief and loss. But it is not simple enough to say that we move from stage to stage; sometimes all the stages are mingled and mixed, and we feel differently at different times. Sometimes we can step back and look on almost amusedly, other times we are fragile, angry, pained, confused. But all of it is somehow OK. And perhaps we just start by saying yes to whatever it is we feel. Perhaps we go on by gently asking those questions, and considering our momentary responses to them. Perhaps we sleep by letting go of the individual internal whirlwind: by asking for help, by talking it through, by writing it down.
We leave, we are left. Then we breathe for as long as we need. We question. We grieve. We hope. We begin.
THEN I SAW A NEW HEAVEN AND A NEW EARTH, FOR THE FIRST HEAVEN AND THE FIRST EARTH HAD PASSED AWAY, AND THERE WAS NO LONGER ANY SEA. AND I HEARD A LOUD VOICE FROM THE THRONE, SAYING, “LOOK!…HE WILL WIPE EVERY TEAR FROM THEIR EYES; THERE WILL BE NO MORE DEATH, OR MOURNING, OR CRYING, OR PAIN, FOR THE OLD ORDER OF THINGS HAS PASSED AWAY. HE, SEATED ON THE THRONE, SAID “I AM MAKING EVERYTHING NEW.”
FOR HE SAID TO ME: “I AM THE ALPHA AND THE OMEGA, THE BEGINNING AND THE END.” Rev 21