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

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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.

 

SE1 7JU

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

As a lamp shining in a dark place

I love school. But it isn’t always easy. Those were the words I said to a member of staff last week as I tried to express how I was feeling.

Coming back to school after the summer has always been something I’ve looked forward to. It is exciting to revel in the September sunshine, laughing over whichever teacher decided that growing a beard over the summer would make them look far wiser. There are always new people to get to know, new routines, new activities and new licks of paintwork across the school site. You are excited to go to lessons, for maybe the first and only time in the year. You are eager to find out the curricula you will be following, and who will teach you what. The boredom of long summer days is over and each year you discover a new passion, a new talent, a new energy.

It was strange to think that this would be my last ever first day back at school. After 14 years of school, this would be my last. But I was ready for it, excited about this transitional year, seemingly between childhood and the big wide world. And what is more exciting than being an U6th former, the oldest in the school, finally being able to walk across the quadrangle whose paths have been barred for 5 years? Believe me, it is most convenient when the bell starts ringing before lessons and you still have half a cup of tea to drink and prepare your books. Suddenly taking the diagonal of the Quad enables you to drink that tea, and have all the right books, and make it to your lesson on time. Awesome.

And being in U6th comes with many new responsibilities – time management is key when you are simultaneously editing the school magazine, being Chairman of the Food Council, secretary to the school council and Choir Librarian, organising school debating, becoming the barricade between 300 ravaging hangry teenage boys and the canteen counter, monitoring the tuck shop queue, making sure 20 girls, who normally stay up far later, are in bed by 21:30 and then somehow still having the energy to apply to universities and keep up with 4 A levels.

Life sure is busy. But I enjoy all the responsibilities; these past 3 weeks have been fun, getting involved in new areas of school life, and seeing the work that goes in behind the scenes to ensure that the school runs as it should. And whilst I am currently in a love/hate relationship with my personal statement, I am finding the process of applying to university incredibly exciting. My teachers are all lovely, I have the majority of my Classics lessons on timetable for the first time in ever and the work is stimulating and engaging.

But if I’ve learnt anything over my 14 years in education, it’s that people come before work every time. The most significant reason why a new year at school is exciting is simply because there are so many new people to get to know. It has been great to get to know the new Head, new teachers, all the new year 9 girls in my house, to mentor new choristers and be a face that people know that they can come to for help.

And, at the end of a long day, with a hand that feels like it’s dropping off from the amount of writing it’s done, there is nothing more rewarding to hear an 11 year old whisper to her friend, ‘I want to be like her when I’m in the sixth form.’ Then when you turn to approach her, having heard, though she didn’t mean you to hear, she blushes slightly as you look her in the eye, squeaks a ‘great thank you!’ in response to ‘How was your day?’ and then smiles as she walks off to the Lower School, in some kind of awe that I actually asked her how her day went. If students see you like that, then you know you’re doing something right. Yes, they admire you for all the crazy things you do, the work, the positions of responsibility, the captainships and assemblies, but they admire you more because they feel like you are person they relate to. You engage with them, and that makes all the difference. People want to feel like you care about them.

In that sense, the first few weeks of term have been great. But somehow, even among 1000 other people on site, the first few weeks have felt incredibly lonely.

Being an U6th former means you are the face of the school. You walk into assembly each morning. 720 pairs of eyes stare at you. Everyone knows your name, even if you don’t know theirs. Everyone knows what you look like, what you do, what you don’t do. Gossip spreads like fire through the school. Suddenly, a girl you maybe spoke to once in year 10 seems to know something about you, giggling as you pass in the corridor. You know something is going round. Something that is probably not even true. The next week, someone tells you what the gossip is. It’s hurtful. Never would be true. It shows people don’t know you. People who knew you would never believe that. Then you find out who started the rumour. Who is seemingly forming clique after clique to oppose you. Things teachers don’t see. Everything becomes a competition. Nothing you do is right anymore. You spend your life looking out for others.

You spend your life in prayer to be there to help people when they need it. You give more when you’ve got nothing left to give. But suddenly, there is no one there to look out for you when you need it.

It feels like no one understands, no one gets you. There are so many other teenagers who spend their Sundays in Church. There are so many other teenagers who don’t spend their Saturday nights drunk, having sex, and throwing up over a stranger’s toilet seat. There are other teenagers who learn Ancient Greek and Latin. But not here, not now. I’m the weird one. For now I am all alone.

It is so hard to walk into assembly, with 720 pairs of eyes staring at you, knowing that you feel alone. 5 years ago, the rumours, the competition, and the catty girls would have broken me. Now, I sail on. I hide the pain, carrying on being there for those who need me, busying myself with the duties assigned for me to do. Sometimes it gets too much and the pain and hurt bubble to the surface in a night of tears. But I get up each day, I smile, I delight in the joy I can bring to some, and I ignore others. I try to love my enemy. I hold out the eternal hand of friendship to those who need to take it. I pray, praise and seek guidance. I look for the day when I will go to University, and there will be people who share similar values. I cling to faith and family. I have an acceptance of myself as I am. I sail through.

And just when things get too much, divine fate drops someone in the way to pick me up. Someone who understands that it is more than ok for your way of acting to be different from the world’s way.

A conversation with my step-grandfather in the car, waiting to collect my brother. The car lights are off, the rain dashes the windscreen. How do I find living in London? Busy. Isolating. He gets it. We’ve never talked like this. He has so much love to give. I never let him give it before.

Sitting down with friends after evensong. They know something’s wrong before I even say. Work issues or people issues? People issues. I try not to cry. I fail. But it doesn’t matter, because they’re there. Their prayers. Their support. They lift you when you fall.

Days off school. To rest, to sleep. To see. Friends drop by, on their way to fly back to Jackson, Mississippi. A little laughter. Brownies. Alain Ducasse chocolates brought from Paris. Their son my closest confidante, a freshman in Swarthmore. Philadelphia’s a long way away. I know, I said. But technology is both the cause of my pain, and a degree to its relief.

I have felt so alone the last three weeks. I’m not going to pretend that bullying disappears in a cloud of smoke. I’m not going to pretend that it doesn’t still affect me. There are malicious people out there. There are still some pains that people can’t share. But there are so many that are relieved. Unlike before, there is a net that catches me. That gives me the ability to bounce when life throws me down. I am so grateful that. I continue to do my best to be as a lamp shining in a dark place. The day will dawn. The morning star will rise. And until then, through the darkness, my candle will not burn out.

When you’re weary, feeling small,
When tears are in your eyes, I’ll dry them all.
I’m on your side, when times get rough
And friends just can’t be found.
Like a bridge over troubled water,
I will lay me down.
Like a bridge over troubled water,
I will lay me down.

When you’re down and out,
When you’re on the street,
When evening falls so hard,
I will comfort you.
I’ll take your part, when darkness comes
And pain is all around.
Like a bridge over troubled water.
I will lay me down.
Like a bridge over troubled water,
I will lay me down.

Sail on silver girl,
Sail on by,
Your time has come to shine,
All your dreams are on their way.
See how they shine!
If you need a friend,
I’m sailing right behind.
Like a bridge over troubled water,
I will ease your mind.
Like a bridge over troubled water,
I will ease your mind.

 

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.