Behind each face, a soldier

I received so many positive comments about my last poem, that last week I decided to pursue the imagery of soldiery, especially with the background of chronic illness, and in Mental Health Awareness Week. Having an invisible illness has shown or confirmed to me so much over the last few weeks, notably that you might not know what battles someone is facing from the outside, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t fighting. It doesn’t mean they aren’t fighting with everything they’ve got left in them. It doesn’t mean some days they don’t wake up and think: I can’t do this today. There are victories, there are losses. There are good days and there are bad. Sometimes it feels like a battle, sometimes a war. But you are not alone.

But I don’t think these words need much explaining. Just let a music speak to you, lie still and the seconds wash over you. Sometimes more words are surplus. It might mean something unique to you – receive it, don’t push it. Just be, and rejoice at where you are, be proud of whatever you are fighting, take strength from what you’ve overcome.

 

For all who fight. For all who stand but want to fall. For all who need a comrade tonight. For all whose mental strain is too much. For all who cannot see the light. For all.

 

When each week is a war, each day is a battle.

Can you hear the drums, and the clashing of metal?

The day is beginning, and the standard flies high,

While the soldier, wounded, utters a deepening sigh.

O how he would give to stay, sleeping, in bed! So

Why does he fight with darker darkness ahead?

Because he is a warrior, called to the fight, and

Even in sheer darkness, he holds victory in sight.

 

To be that soldier, in greatest fear to stand,

It’s a choice we make when we hold life in our hands.

Do we fight for a chance that we might live and survive?

Or do we surrender to darkness, and thus, suffering, die?

Humanity’s truth is that we shall all fall. But

When, where, and why, are never the same for all.

When the pool of bitter blackness tugs at our feet,

It is life, and its fullness, we must turn and greet.

 

When plunged into warfare, trembling, and afraid,

Little to guide you, and no one to call “friend”

O you’ll fight and you’ll fight and you’ll fight to the end.

Within, there shall be light, and it your fear amend.

Where there are mountains, towering high, o’er the valley

And up into the sky – there light shall also, beside you, fly.

With light you’ll find mountains can melt into plains,

A power almighty which loosens shackle and chain.

 

In this day I call battle, in this week I call war,

The soldier will fight, and not win, but o’er death soar.

And tomorrow, when the dawn winds her way back again,

The standard shall fly, and the trumpets refrain. But

The soldier shall stand, wounds his deeper strength,

And say – “Life I choose you. I hold death at arm’s length.”

He shall fight to the end, with light by his side,

When dark comes around, to light he’ll confide.

 

And he is fighting his battle, but is not alone,

Comrades beside him echo the harrowing groan,

Of conflict on the inside, but radiance without, the

While knowing the enemy they can never truly rout.

They’ll be strong for each other, they’ll share the pain,

Rank upon rank, fighting snow, wind and rain.

For though the outcome of war might be changed by will of one,

When war builds on war, it is only together outrun.

 

When each week is a war, each day is a battle.

Do you now hear the drums, and the clashing of metal?

A new day is beginning, and the standards rise high,

While the soldiers, still wounded, utter sorrowful sighs.

O how they would give to stay, sleeping, in bed! But

Today they’ve chosen to fight with the darkness ahead.

For they are the warriors, called to the fight:

In prolonged darkness, they hold victory in sight.

 

 

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Composing: Onwards, Soldier

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We don’t need to talk to feel it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will you sketch out your daily symphony today?

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do my words have melody and harmony?

Do I consider each one as you do your chord?

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

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

I toss words about, no structure, no plan.

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Onwards, soldier, to the end.

At last, Night is come. How softly, sweetly

Her footsteps tread upon the earth

Which was my transient home! And O, how

Tender her voice, singing Peace, and proclaiming that

I am come through the wilderness, the darkness

apprehended, though yesterday I knew not where to turn.

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

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

Those gold tipped mountains, sustaining the

Last remaining rays of light and calling me home.

My tears flowed fast when I slipped away, as

Dust through your fingers, too terrified

To stay to hear the anguished cry when you saw

Life’s heaving breaths shallow into stillness.

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

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

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

Stars, to bathe in celestial light, relieving me of

My tired breast, heavy laden with day’s

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

Gaining strength from some invisible spring of life. And

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

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

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

Lifted beyond the weeping grey clouds that at present beset

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

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

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

For here is Life; I know Him well.

Adieu

Today has been hard. But I have found hope through words. The poems I have written reflecting on grief can be found at the end of this post.

As the school day drew to a close last night, the last rays of the sun burning a red hue onto a darkening sky, the school body was gathered together. We waited in silence, knowing that whatever was coming, it couldn’t be good. Unfortunately, the sickening foreboding was all too just. One of our young members of staff had suddenly died.

Grief takes many forms.

There’s the initial shock. That it can’t be true. There’s the pain. The tears. The realisation that you will never that face again. Or hear that laugh again. Or watch him gallop down the hallway with a hockey stick doing his best impression of a Jabberwocky. There’s the sharp stab of the understanding of mortality. There’s an appreciation for the frailty and fragility of life. There’s the mask you put on, saying I’m OK, when deep down there’s a storm of hurt brewing. There’s madness. Anger that the world is carrying on when life has been cut short. There’s irrational guilt. There’s silence. Nothingness. Emptiness.

Grief takes many forms.

Over the last 24 hours grief has swept a shroud over the school. It has felt subdued. Like the world is turning in grayscale. There has been a sense of unease to hear laughter, laughter that isn’t his. To see smiles in a sea of sorrow. But there has been a solidarity, compassion and selflessness that has helped to ease the news. I think grieving as community is easier than grieving alone. Everyone is sharing memories, smiling behind tears, and reaching out a hand. Everyone is understanding. Everyone stands together. And if we listen closely, we can just start to hear the soft tones of peace.

It is times like this where a community founded on faith finds its strength. Evensong last night was bittersweet. The music had been chosen a long time ago, but its words, known to all, were comforting, and the introit seemed a plea from the depths of our heart.

When I lie within my bed,

Sick in heart and sick in head…

When the house doth sigh and weep,

And the world is drowned in sleep,

Yet mine eyes the watch do keep.

Sweet spirit, comfort me. Comfort me.

Litany to the Holy Spirit, Herrick (1591-1674)

This morning, we gathered for a difficult service of reflection, exploring Christ’s sacrifice and pain in death. Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani. My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me. We prayed. We sat in silence. We knew that we were not alone. And he was not alone. I have no doubt that, whilst elements of pain will last, over the rest of the week, the community will build itself back up, find peace, reconciliation with anger, stability, and renewed strength, in the knowledge of God’s presence amongst us, lifting the darkness of grief.

There was no better man than he. A friend, a tutor, a pastoral adviser, and an inspiring teacher. His wit, humour, confidence and energy were infectious. He never stopped giving of himself. And there is no greater testimony to that than the grief we are sharing today.

But one day grief will pass. We will find new life.

Yesterday afternoon, before I heard the news, my Director of Music came to me with a box, saying that he needed me, as Librarian to the Choirs, to help him and take care of a project. I was curious, the box stating on the side that it contained 36 x 50g worth of Digestive biscuits. I was all too keen to relieve him of it. Then he disappointed me by saying that it wasn’t biscuits. Perhaps, I thought, it was the Stanford in A I had been looking for earlier. No, it wasn’t that either. Sit down, he told me and open it carefully.

It was a blue tit, lethargically blinking at me, incredibly confused, cushioned in a whole load of clinical roll. What on earth was I meant to do with a half-dead blue tit? Well of course, he said, you have to nurse it back to life. His clearly competent veterinary experience had led him to the conclusion that it was concussed. Or maybe that was because it had just flown straight into his window. And somehow he thought I had the necessary credentials to make it fly.

So 15 minutes later, I was to feed milk to a blue tit with a pipette. I did not see this happening in my day. Nor, was it, to my belief, part of the job description. I spend most of the time photocopying or trolleying 60 choir folders around sight. But here I was, with a bird. And you bet I was going to see it fly again. And sure enough, with some TLC and warmth it flew away, after about half an hour tentatively pecking at the box.

I didn’t know it at that point, but I don’t think that little vulnerable bird came into my life incidentally. That bird was a little spirit that needed to be set free, a reflection of the soul of the departed. The moment he took flight kept coming back to me last night. I can’t help thinking that my little blue tit was God’s way of telling me that his spirit too had flown into a higher place.

We all cope with grief and sorrow in different ways, as an individual, or as a community. In community, I stand with my fellow pupils. As an individual, I channel my pained hope in composing words, like those below.

I am grateful to all who support and uplift me, and help me see the light in darkness. Today I take care to hold those I love a little deeper in my heart, to pray for God’s love to heal and comfort, and to give my prayers with all those who mourn. May the souls of the faithful departed rest in peace, and rise in glory.

If you grieve today, let me grieve with you. If you see hope today, may I see it too.


A SONNET FOR HIM 

Soft as the wind that dries a dewy grass,

Gentle as the sun that thaws an icy snow,

So shall your soul, smiling, pass,

And our eternal love shall you know.

Grief shall be but a transient state,

For us who know that your spirit is sure,

Safe in a paradise, through a golden gate,

Where your soul eternally shall endure.

So, as the stars shine, you among them bright,

So, as the shadow of choking darkness melts away,

Supplanted by a blinding holy light,

May we feel your present soul each and every day.

You, who shared the burden of our every pain,

May you help us to see there shall be hope again.


OH LITTLE BLUE TIT 

He’s dead, they say.

It can’t be true.

But he passed away.

And in you flew.

A fragile thing,

Yellow, green and blue.

Oh little tit,

How feeble your coo.

But oh little tit,

I’m so glad I found you,

Cradling you in my tired palms,

As you survey an unfamiliar view.

Can you fly, little tit?

Can you struggle through?

Are you the spirit

Of the man I knew?

Fly little tit, fly so high,

Fly free, oh spirit, as you used to.

Ah! So you’ve found your wings,

Now settling beneath the crooked yew.

Oh little tit, oh spirit of man,

Adieu, Adieu.

Don’t lose the words that make you sparkle

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

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

1. The tree

 

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

All the footsteps blur in the mud.

O fire tree,

You stand on the hill, alone,

And the darkness is rolling in from the west,

Dashing pink and purple across the empyrean canvass.

The stars are veiled with the urban smut.

Your flames burst from your branches.

They burn with ignited passion.

They lick at your unyielding frame.

Will you be my guiding light?

Yesterday I trembled, seeking shelter

Under layers of thick protection.

But now you scorch my heart.

I take off my shoes and stand

And listen. Still. A small voice.

A voice of calm. Can I wait here

To hear what is you call me to do?

I don’t want to have to walk again

In the darkness.

2. The box

In a square box with four straight sides,

She is a circle that tries to break free.

She almost fills the space, pressing

On the midpoints of each line.

She is so close to being there;

She is so close to being them.

But there is still some space left in the

Corners. So she can breathe, some say.

But she cannot breathe. She has to

Fill those little spaces too. She has to

Let them know that she can do it.

She can be everything they want her to be.

And she hopes that they will believe

In her. But she knows they will not.

Because in a square box with four straight sides,

She is a circle that will never quite

Fit the mould.

3. The bird

Life gets better, he told her once.

She always has, she always will.

She turns her head. A shrill cry ex rostro.

The taste of freedom is so sweet that it

Clings to the air, leaving a tang of

Future pleasures under grey skies.

But there is still so much time before

It will be real. For now, she waits,

Has a taste, longs for more, doubles

Over with the pain of hunger.

When will the holy feast be spread

Again, regal, on that golden stuff?

She does not know. But she will

Keep her eye open. Searching.

Looking. Longing for freedom.

For she is a fledgling, and soon

She will fly.

4. The different girl

Do you know what it is like to be lonely?

To walk into a hall of people all alone,

To sit down all alone, to eat all alone.

Do you know what it is like to feel

Detatched from the world in which you live?

Isolated.

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

But in her head all is silent,

Because she’s different.

The girl whose face is naked,

The girl who prays at night,

The girl who

They call the traitor, the betrayer.

She did something inconceivable to them,

Her own. Her own no longer.

For telling the truth, for being honest,

This is what she receives.

Perhaps all she wants is someone to laugh with,

Someone to share her stories with,

Someone to be with.

Perhaps she can find someone in her own

Imagination to talk to. Perhaps in her own stories

People would care.

5. The invitation to interview

I walked up the stairs that night

Not expecting to find anything at all

Out of the ordinary.

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

The files were all upright on the bookshelf

And the books were piled high, in

Alphabetical order within genre, naturally.

The bed was made, and my blanket,

The voice of home, was tucked under the

Statutory sanitary bed-sheets.

The sash window let in the wisps of the

Cold November air which the folded pieces

of paper were trying so desperately to keep out.

I pulled down the blind, to shut away outside,

But the moon reaching the window bars drew crosses

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

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

Was trying to call me. I picked it up.

The email. Invitation to interview.

 

It looks like I’ll see the Christmas market

In Oxford this year.

 

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.