Legacy #2…

One of the things that Graham picked up on brilliantly when he spoke at my mothers funeral is the way that her life was defined by the extreme deprivation of her childhood. I knew this of course, but my friends words helped me understand it again, almost as of for the first time. When we are too close to a thing, we do not see it clearly, as a whole. When our lives are intrinsically linked to an other, complexity and shared detail make it difficult to understand broader themes.

The day after the funeral, we made a start in clearing out things from my mothers house- I say we, but this was mosty my lovely family because I found amost every object to be loaded with shared history and deep sadness. Some of this sadness comes from the evidence everywhere that Graham was right.

The stockpiled food, constantly added to as if no amount of food would allay the fear of hunger. Dozens and dozens of containers of powdered milk. Out-of-date mountains of coffee. Scones she could never eat. Vast stockpiles of cans. A chest freezer in which every inch is stuffed with food, despite the fact that the bottom has not been reached for decades.

The clothes overfilling wardrobes, as if someone would look at what she was wearing and judge her as poor. Dozens of Clarks shoes still in boxes, because if you have good shoes you could go far.

But most of this food and these clothes were never used, and this made me unbearably sad. This was not the best that this lovely little girl could have hoped for, surely?

On the long 7 hour drive home, interrupted by a welcome stop-off to walk in a park with some old friends, we made the obligatory toilet stop at Tebay services on the upper M6. I found myself wandering around the expensive clothing shop, and (very unusually for me) expressing a desire to buy an over-priced tee shirt. Michaela quite reasonably did not encourage me and suddenly, there it was. The old feeling in the pit of my stomach.

I can only describe it well by telling another story. I have a painful memory from when I was about eight or nine of being desperate for a watch, but not just any watch, I wanted – no I really wanted – a digital watch. One of those early ones that glowed red when you pressed the button.

My mothers response to her own poverty was, on the whole, to make sure that we NEVER went without. We always had clothes (even if they were second hand or home made,) good shoes (Clarks again) and food on the table. But mum was a single mother on benefits, and even though she was incredibly, self-denyingly frugal, money would always only go so far. We simply could not have what our friends had.

So I did get a watch for Christmas; a wind-up, perfectly serviceable, sensible watch. I remember clearly trying so very hard to be grateful, biting my lip so hard that I my mouth filled with the iron-like taste of blood, but then to my shame I cried. I told her that this was not what I really, really wanted. This watch that she had saved for and carefully selected was not good enough for me. I do not remember how my mother reacted but I still have that watch, even though it does not work anymore.

Back to the tee shirt. I tried to describe to Michaela what was on my mind, and she initially felt guilty for not buying it, but I was quick to make clear that I did not want the bloomin’ overpriced thing, that that was not the point I was trying to make at all. Rather it was about two things;

Firstly, the understanding this silly little feeling gives me for my mother. When we grow up in relative poverty (or absolute poverty in her case) we never fully escape it, no matter how many things we accumulate.

Secondly, the clarity once more about how poverty impoverishes everything; our intellect, our world view, our sense of self-worth, our ability to form and sustain relationships of trust and our confidence. If you have not been poor, then it is easy to think that everyone is like you, and that the playing field it level. It is not.

I have so much to be grateful for, sitting here in my warm room in my own house in one of the most beautiful places in the world, surrounded by people I love. In many ways, I have won the life lottery.

But I am my mothers child so for me, gratefulness is a decision. It is something I have to work at and live towards.

May there be generations to come where the great promise of childhood is not shadowed by poverty, but in the meantime, let the rest of us practice in all things, compassion.

Legacy…

My mother some time in the 1950’s

Last night we arrived home after an exhausting weekend which began with my mothers funeral, then progressed towards taking stock of the momentous task of clearing out the house containing the vast accumulation of almost 60 years of continued occupation.

Despite the emotional exhaustion and the pain of loss, it has been a ‘good’ weekend.

It was full of good people; my dear family who supported me every step of the way, old friends who stepped in and made such a huge difference (more of that later) and contact with so many people from my past – albeit a past that I had tried hard to escape from. In the end there were about 60 people at her funeral, which was remarkable, considering how isolated and she had been for much of her adult life.

I think the lesson here is we can never be sure what kind of legacy we leave in the lives of those we have touched.

I spoke at the funeral, trying to do justice to the legacy that this woman had left in my own life, for both good and ill. I wanted what I said to be honest, but also full of love; honest about how difficult my own childhood was but also how much more difficult was hers; honest too about her mental illness and how this formed a bubble in which my sister and I were cut off from the ‘normal’ world outside. But I also wanted to somehow express my gratefulness for how her life was totally subjugated to the needs of my sister and I, so much so that after we grew, she never found a replacement.

My friend Graham led the service. Even though he had not met my mum, he knew her through me, so that when he contacted me and offered to do it, I felt a gathering sense of relief and ‘rightness’. We had a long conversation about her life, but the conversation from my point of view seemed incoherant, because how on earth can you sum up a whole life on Zoom? Somehow Graham took these ramblings and pulled together a story that made sense, bringing a depth of insight even to me, whose clarity was perhaps obscured by proximity.

I will say more about what Graham said in another post, because I am still processing some of it, but here is what I said at the service;

There were three of us; my mum, my sister and me, growing in our own bubble, cut off from everything else by…

By what?

By being different perhaps. Two children raised by a single mother on benefits on a middle-class suburban estate, but no, it was more than that…

We went to church, when others did not – and a particular kind of church. The black-and-white, bonkers kind of church where people raised their hands and spoke in tongues. We had no TV and listened to different kinds of music. But it was more than that too…

My mother was not the average kind of person. You could say, not normal. She had odd ideas about the world and wild rages, often triggered by minor childish infractions.

My sister Katharine externalised her rebellion.

I internalised mine.

Both of us carried our scars, but it was my mother whose upbringing was the most damaging.

She grew up as the unexpected and unwanted child of aging parents at a time when the word ‘bastard’ was a literal insult. There was no warmth on offer, no love, no understanding of the emotional needs of a small girl. No presents at Christmas or birthday. No encouragement to overcome her struggles at school, which would now have been diagnosed as dyslexia.

Small wonder that she wanted to escape. She had dreams of a different kind of life; for someone to whisk her away, like what happened in films.

Instead, she found herself alone with two small children.

My sisterand I with my mothers parents, 1967.

There was much about the way she raised us that was very problematic, but one thing I have no doubt of is this- she did the best that she could. She took everything that she had, every bit of knowledge, every scraped-together penny, and poured it in to my sister Katharine and me. We were her everything; her reason for being, and as we grew beyond needing her, she found no easy replacement.

The bubble we lived in burst. I moved away, although Katharine and my mother continued with their tempestuous interdependent relationship. Despite all of this, our bond was never broken.

Even with the coming of our beautiful next generation of grandchildren, it was still about the three of us, because only we could ever really understand what that bubble had been like.

Today is a day when I remember the other two people who shared my bubble- not only my mother, but also, my dear sister who died last year.

Now, I am the only one holding these memories. This knowing, that was once shared, is mine alone.

For now at least.

I do not know what happens when we leave this life, but I do not believe it is the end.

The life of my mother is over…

…but not the life she set in motion. That continues on in me and my family.

Nor the life that was in her. That has moved on.

She was life, but now she is life.

On remembering to rest…

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Some need to learn this lesson more than others (I feel I might have learned it too well).

I wrote this poem for my wife, and gave it to her for Christmas, along with a… chair.

May those of you who need to sit for longer than you normally might.

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Sit

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Some things are only possible

From a sitting position, because

Standing is too prone to induce the appalling

Pursuit of progress. Sometimes we must

Let our chasing shadows catch us.

We must share stories of what is, and

Worry a whole lot less about what might

(Or might not) be coming.

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Some things can only be understood whilst

Looking upwards from low down; when

Letting the curve of the earth come closer

To hold us in a kinder embrace.

Let us might remember that life

Can never be dialled from distance.

A root needs its loam, and we need

A place to call home

Christmas day 2021…

My dear friends, here we are again.

May you know love, particularly if love has been distant. Remember that it surrounds us even when we fail to percieve it, because we are all held in the great mercy.

May you know joy, even in the presence of difficult things. May it come to you in tiny parcels, like little laughs.

May you know peace, like the settling of a snowflake in the palm of your open hand.

Every year I have tried to write a poem for Christmas.

Todays poem has a quote from Richard Rohr as an introduction;

“There’s really only one message, and we just have to keep saying it until finally we’re undefended enough to hear it and to believe it: there is no separation between God and creation. That’s the message. But we can’t believe it.

And so this Word, this Eternal Word of God that we read about in the prologue to John’s Gospel, leapt down, as the Book of Wisdom [18:14–15] [1] says, and took its abiding place on Earth, in order to heal every bit of separation and splitness that we experience. That splitness and separation is the sadness of the human race. When we feel separate, when we feel disconnected, when we feel split from our self, from our family, from reality, from the Earth, from God, we will be angry and depressed people. Because we know we weren’t created for that separateness; we were created for union.

So God sent into the world one who would personify that union—who would put human and divine together; who would put spirit and matter together. That’s what we spend our whole life trying to believe: that this ordinary earthly sojourn means something.

Sometimes we wake up in the morning wondering, what does it all mean? What’s it all for? What was I put here for? Where is it all heading?

I believe it’s all a school. And it’s all a school of love.”

From here.

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Light of the world

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The low winter sun takes on power from

Puddles of last nights rain and I turn away

Resonating to a signal sent from distant stars

.

Something glints in the top of the bare branches

A flash of wing or a white tooth or maybe

The coming together of a choir of angels

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And in the wet manger of heavy earth, summer

Sleeps, waiting for light to burst out again

In brand-new hallelujahs

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For behold, the light is with us. The light is

In us. The light shines out in the darkness

And all things will be well.

Advent 27: Acceptance…

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My kids are not kids any longer. Christmas eve is no longer about heady anticipation or the manufacture of magic so that it will be ‘special’ for our little ones. (But then again…) Mostly, despite the nostalgia, this feels like a release.

But still we are surrounded by Instagram ideals. They are not real, but are still powerful.

Here is my suggested response; let us step aside and remember to accept what is given.

Take a few moments in the press of the day-before to look around and acknowledge what you have, in all its chipped-paint beautiful imperfection.

The Christmas tree may be wilting, but if you take up one of those dropped needles and pinch it between your fingernails, it still smells of the deep forest.

Where there are families, there may also be sharp squabbles and old rolled-eye frustrations. But there will also be great love.

The dinner you cook may not look like those shiny feasts on the TV adverts, but still it is likely that you will eat until you can eat no more.

The sofa you slump down on may sag in one corner and the TV remote require tape to hold in the batteries but who cares, because you are home.

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I love it that at the heart of the Christmas story, the is no ideal. No soft bed, no picture-perfect beginnings. Instead there is a teenage couple, travelling to pay homage to an invading empire, and one of them is heavily pregnant with another man’s baby (because any other explanation must have seemed like craziness.) It is the story of teenage love, in all its up and down extremes. The sort that we say ‘will never last.’

Out of this little bubble of love and kindness, there came in to the world goodness that is almost impossible to understand.

From this small broken beginning, the Mercy, which was already within us, also came to us in the form of a baby…

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The stable, BC

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Hold me close, my gentle love

The night is cold and hollow

Make me a cave

Within your arms

And deep within I’ll

Burrow

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See that floor all trodden down?

Let it be our carpet

Make me finest silk

Like buttermilk

From this feed-sack

Blanket

.

Let’s whisper dreams of things to come

When we are done with caring

When what we have

Will be enough

With a little spare for

Sharing

.

The light from stars is far away

It takes a long time falling

So just for now

It is enough

To hear your gentle

Snoring

Advent 26: The light blazed in the darkness…

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1-2 The Word was first,
    the Word present to God,
    God present to the Word.
The Word was God,
    in readiness for God from day one.

3-5 Everything was created through him;
    nothing—not one thing!—
    came into being without him.
What came into existence was Life,
    and the Life was Light to live by.
The Life-Light blazed out of the darkness;
    the darkness couldn’t put it out.

From The first chapter of John’s Gospel, the message translation

With a great blaze of poetry, John begins to talk about the life of Jesus. He does not talk about babies in mangers or choirs of angels or wise men travelling from afar. Rather, he talks about light…

It is a cliche beyond my enjoyment to describe ourselves as made of stardust, even though somewhere deep in our carbon it may be true. I would much rather talk about how we are animated by light.

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It is a mataphor of course, and one well employed by John, but I want to take a moment to consider whether it might also be ‘true’.

The life in us is only our own for a while. It burns bright and beautiful in some, in others it is obscured by so many shadows, but still the light remains.

As advent unfolds towards its apotheosis, I pray that whatever illuminates and animates you will sing in your soul. May it be the most graceful, the most loving, the most simple and the most human way of being.

I believe that this light is not gifted only to those who ‘belong’ through accident of membership or proximity, rather that it is the very core of all created/evolved life. I know this can be debated by application of all sorts of scripture-swords, but stil… I feel it differently.

It does not matter to me at all if you take a different view, because all will be revealed soon enough… in a blaze of light.

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The light from stars

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The last breath

Then the one after that

My hand on her head

Holding the last heat

As it faded away.

.

When light is thrown by stars

Does it fly forever

(Like a soul set free)

Or is it just taking the

Long way home?

.

If you are ready to go, I whispered

Then go.

Go towards the light.

Advent 25: It’s behind you…

Let me introduce you once again to another one of my friends, Graham Peacock. Perhaps I should say the Reverend Graham Peacock. Here he is, as his alter ego, Madam Fifi…

I must have been very young- maybe 5 or 6- but I remember my class at school being asked about who wanted to be in the school play. I was shy, but I wanted to be in it, yet I hesitated and by the time I put my hand up it was too late.

That memory has stayed with me as a sign of ‘I could do that, but I’m scared to put my hand up and take a risk’. It was a way of saying ‘no’ to all sorts of things because of fear.

Once I got into my 40s- I’m 55 now- I began to say ‘yes’.

From that came wilderness retreats, running gigs, playing cricket hopelessly: I began to switch from ‘I couldn’t possibly do that’ to ‘Why on earth can’t I?’

And so was born acting.

My village has a strong amateur dramatic tradition; many years ago, someone asked me to audition for a part in a murder mystery and I was cast. Eventually I got into the village pantomime which is A.Very.Big.Thing. I did it as a one off: I was a minister in the village and I thought it’d be good to meet new people and to take the church to a different place.

I managed to be marginally less cardboard than the scenery and I enjoyed it so much: the performing, being around people who didn’t have church as a reference point and also the creation of temporary community. The next year I auditioned again. I think this year I’m in my 12th or 13th time of it being a one off…. even through lock down.

On one level, there is no real connection with Advent, apart from the fact that being in the pantomime begins to consume Advent evenings: two lengthy rehearsals a week and seemingly every spare moment learning lines but then trying to deliver them with feeling and humour. I guess there is also something here about repetition of familiar lines until you begin to see the meaning, ‘feel’ them & began to sense nuances that at first weren’t apparent.

For me though, aside from the fun and life that I gain out of being on a stage, each time I do it, my inner 6 year old punches the sky and goes ‘You said yes and didn’t give into fear!’ That’s a very tenuous link with Advent, but for me it is about giving into hope and possibility instead of playing it safe.

As I started writing this, omicron and the spread of omicron seems to have put paid to pantomime happening in 2 or 3 weeks time, but maybe it’ll be possible by Candlemas or later. Maybe…and maybe I won’t be this way again: whatever- the casting, the learning and the attempt have been enough to give me hope.

Advent 24: The shortest day of winter…

Today is the shortest day of the year, at least for those of us in the northern part of our beautiful planet.

Light has pulled back, retreated defensively, waiting for a chance to tentatively return and from hereon forward, each evening will gift us with approximately 2 minutes 8 seconds extra daylight.

There will be cold to come; icy days when it is easy to slide and fall.

There will be storms to face; days when panes of glass between us and the wild winds seem hopelessly insufficient.

There will be bone soaking dampness; the sort that makes it impossible to imagine that mud might become soil again.

There will be false starts: days when it seems as if spring has finally come, only to be snatched away again.

Despite all of this, each and every day, we are gifted 2 minutes and 8 seconds of light.

Let it feed your souls my friends.

Let it filter in.

Nadir

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Nadir

The arc swings low

The day drains away

Across the steel grey sky

How deep is the sump

Of winter

.

Exhale

For before each breath

Lungs must be fully emptied

Swell the chest and say farewell

To the shortest day

Of winter

Advent 23: Ghosts of Christmas past…

This post is from my friend Chris Fosten. I met him through poetry. Sometimes when you read a poem, you ‘meet’ somone and know instantly that you will like them and so it was with Chris. Here here talks about those Christmas days that are both normal and extraordinary at the same time. May we all make our own memories like these.

By the way, Chris has been a long time blogger, podcaster and has pubished a book of his poems here.

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I love Christmas, and I view anyone with any sort of visible Christmas lights as an ally. I’m sure that seems crazy to some, but it’s true: in the darkness, they are optimistically,  and sometimes over-enthusiastically, bringing joy. It’s been true since I was a child. I used to love sitting in the room with the Christmas tree, all lights off except those on the tree itself. I was entranced. Every evening, they are still the last things to switched off, and occasionally I still sit and marvel before flicking the switch. There’s a sort of happy abandon in coloured Christmas lights – a wilful joy breaching the darkness. I  love them – a visible, brazen, symbol of hope.

I think my memories of Christmases have quietly taught me that, while things are very much different now, what has always made Christmas is the people I am with. The people who, in quiet ways, have brought that joyful splash of colour into my life. The people who, to quote John, are “the light that shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never put it out.”

For me, the small, ordinary, things; the times of love and laughter, the shared significant moments, can be the fairy lights.

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Ghosts of Christmas past (iv)


There is nothing to do
but sit on the bench
watching the water.

Christmas even has come
with chill and rain
and this break in the storm.

We talk in staccato
bursts, laugh quietly,
making plans for the year

that we’ll never follow,
spotting birds we
cannot name.

Insulated from the cold
by the company,
we head home for tea.

Advent 22: To you whose hope seems stolen…

Christmas can be hard. I have friends who are clinging on by their fingernails, watching the approach of fake festivity with dread.

It is no surprise that cultural assumptions around Christmas impose a kind of torture on those who feel out of sorts with them.

Perhaps this is you. In part, it will be me, not only because of recent losses, but also because I tend towards the meloncholy, particularly at this time of year. However, In my case at least, this is not the whole story. I am blessed not to be alone for a start, and my table will not be empty. Still, I will struggle and sowill look for small moments beyond the inevitable excesses when things are deeper and these will be my Christmas.

To those of you who struggle, often in secret, to ‘get through’ Christmas, I want to say this; it is no shame to opt out of what you need to opt out of. There is nothing wrong with doing what you must to get by. If you need to grit your teeth and watch back-to-back episodes of old TV programmes, do it. If you need to stay in bed with a good book and try to forget the whole thing, this is fine too. There are days when these things are necessary.

There might be moments though. Small things known only to you. Tiny exchanges between you and the mercy that holds you. They will be easily missed and soon forgotten, unless you reach out and take them in your hands.

This poem is a prayer for the same…

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Starlight

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To you whose hope

Seems stolen

Know this tender thing;

The bruised old sky above you

(Which seems to yawn indifference)

Is, in fact, leaking light.

.

Particles tumble down

Like this promise;

I am here

Where you are

.

For I know what you know

I see what you see

The fences you built are no protection

From starlight

.

My stars leave no shadow

And in this gentle light

Shy things

Become possible.