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.

Advertisements

To me, to you

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

Hello me, it’s you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See you on the other side of 17.

Cx

SE1 7JU

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

In the shadow of the Cathedra

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the shadow of the Cathedra

The walls are weeping

With the sound of our tears.

The walls are shaking

With our bitterness.

 

Foundations tremble

With our stifled cries of anger.

Bricks like tears tumble,

Becoming rubble.

 

It is like watching a car

Crash in slow motion,

Each of us failing to

Push the brakes,

As we travel blind towards

Our time of death.

 

Is the moment of

Impact is passed?

Only our carcass remains.

We wait for the

Final bones to go up in

Flames.

 

It is hard to see when

The asphyxiating

Asbestos of our minds

Will ever be chipped away.

It has already

Killed my trusting heart.

 

Love can rebuild. But

Where can love be found?

A world devoid of love

Leaves my childhood home

Flat on sandy ground.

 

My house has many

Rooms, says the Lord, my

God. But standing here,

I see no room for

Me.

 

Yet I cannot close

My Heart to you. You

Weave yourself back in.

You hold me.

 

I know there’ll be

A day, when my heart

once more will weep with

salted tears.

 

I’ll look to you again:

The Lord on high, my

God. And, alone, I

know I’ll find you then.

 

May I be penitent,

Seek forgiveness,

Be slow to judge,

Be open to forgive.

 

May I find strength in You.

May I speak the truth.

May I heal the wounds

We made for ourselves.

 

On your rock may I

Rebuild my house,

My heart, my hope.

 

Cleanse our hearts, wipe from

Our eyes the tears. Show

Us the place where pain

Is no more.

And make us once more

One in you, O Lord.

Devonshire Whispers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

moai

Mini golf conquerors must first win over the Moai

 


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

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

You shall grow not old

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

James, Uncle Jim, Jimmie,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your great great niece.

 

JamesRanson3

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

 

 

JamesRanson2

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

 

A New Year Hope

I have been taking a break between Christmas and New Year, to spend time with family and friends who have been visiting. And as much as I should probably have found the time to write, having people round is pretty exhausting. It shouldn’t be, but somehow it is, because you feel like you have to be on your best behaviour all the time, when really all you want to do is stay in bed, all cosy in your pyjamas, and eat chocolate. And just when I thought I could do exactly that, I woke up this morning to the realisation that I had a whole pile of stuff that I probably should have done, and haven’t. But as a break from writing essays (and to further procrastinate doing more), I thought I’d write this. I hope you all had a peaceful and joy-filled Christmas and New Year.

I guess I should start by saying HAPPY NEW YEAR!! Welcome to 2017. A new year, and for many, an opportunity to truly make a new start, with New Year’s Resolutions, ambitions, hopes, and goals. Here’s to all of you who left the house yesterday with your yoga mat at 7 o’clock in the morning, to the men who arrived at the gym to find no free lockers, and no free exercise machines, to my Dad who will no doubt return from the supermarket in 10 minutes with bags full of kale, and courgettes – here comes the week of spiralised vegetable pasta and kale… Here’s to all of you who set a New Year’s Resolution, and an extra cheer to anyone who hasn’t already broken it.

But as much as I applaud the efforts of over half the population to make a change at the beginning of 2017, is the New Year really about losing weight, doing more exercise and restricting your calorie intake? Perhaps a new year is simply a flaw of the Gregorian calandrial system. In reality, a new yeaaaaaaaar is simply another day of another month. And as much as the 1st of January seems like a good time to set new goals and resolutions, it is just another day.

In the chaos that is life, it is hard to think of January 1st as just another day. We need a way to categorise time, to fit it into manageable chunks of 365 (or 6) days. If we just had endless days, we’d lose track of time altogether. Because as far as we know it, life is eternal. The universe will go on to infinity. Perhaps we see infinity as the number of stars in the sky, or the number of grains of sand on the sea shore. But if we tried hard enough, we could estimate a number for both of these. Infinity has no number because it has no limit. Inifinity is a concept over which no one can have control. And therefore it is a concept which is both scary and mind-boggling. But as human nature has progressed, we each grown a desire to know the limits, to be able to put our finger on concepts like infinity.  Perhaps Pope Gregory XIII saw this, and found years as ways to cope with infinity, to categorise it, and to take control from the fear of the unknown. And as such, 435 years after the Gregorian Calendar was introduced, January 1st is the beginning of a new year -2017.

But just as infinity is organised into years, our lives are too. Perhaps we see each year as a new chapter in the book of life. And this is why I find it sad that so many people only remember to make a change on January 1st. If we only made a change at the beginning of each chapter, how boring would our book be? Our life would be predictable. The book would not be gripping. If we were reading it perhaps we would put it down. Because the best books are those that are unpredictable, those with unpredictable twists and turns, that delight, frighten and inspire. Each page is a new story in itself. And in the best books the reader will never know what effect the next word will have on how the story will play out.

So what am I saying? I am aware that I have probably confused you a lot..! Am I against making New Year’s Resolutions? No. Not at all. I make New Year’s Resolutions at the beginning of each New Year. Because a new year is like a chapter in a book. And when an author is writing a book, at the beginning of each chapter, they reflect on what they want the characters to achieve, each of their goals and aspirations. They decide how each character’s motive will impact on their actions over the course of the chapter. But we are both the authors of our own lives and we are the heroes of our own story. So at the beginning of this chapter, this year, be an author. Think about what you want to achieve this year, your goals, your resolutions. Think about your end goal, your life purpose, and how your actions this year are going to help you to achieve this.

But in the back of your mind remember this. January 1st 2017 is just another day in an infinity. Therefore, have courage to take your own decisions and make changes throughout the year. Because every second in life is like another word in your story. You can never tell what life has in store for you, and the greatest changes that we make in life come at unpredictable moments. Every day, every second we can choose to make a change for the better, and give our story the twist that it needs to propel the action forward and to make it the compelling read that forms an integral part of all the best novels.

So my New Year’s Hope this year is that you make your chapter gripping. Don’t just make a change to the way you live your life this week, but decide to make a change each day. It doesn’t have to be a great change. Maybe just ‘today I’m going to smile more.’ But one action that you make can have a lifetime of effects.

For many, the New Year symbolises an unmatchable hope for the future. But it 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. In the end, your book of life will be one in an infinite library of infinity. So make your little part of infinity count. 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.