Wide open spaces…

I went for a walk.

Thanks to all of you who have been so kind and supportive in relation to my earlier post. In particular there were lots of comments about risk. Life without risk, it seems, is not really possible, but should we try to live like this, we may find that we have no life at all. Being drawn out to adventure seems to me to be an essential characteristic of the life of faith, as well as being essential to psychological and physical health and well being.

Let be honest though- some of these activities can indeed be self indulgent. They can be about the pursuit of an adrenaline high, or an experience that disconnects us from the wider community we embrace and serve. Seeking after transcendent experience in wild places can be a form of idolatry too. Yesterday a friend who was planning to come with me instead helped another friend erect a garden shed. He may well have made the better choice…

However, yesterday I just needed space. My head was full of ‘stuff’, and my temptation was just to find a hole to hide in.

So instead, I climbed up some mountains, and found some deep snow.

An activity of course that was not without risk…

In which I am berated as an ‘idiot’…

I have been struggling a little with the publicity following my recent little mishap. For the most part, people have been polite and kind-  interested in the details, but perhaps a little switched on by the drama of it all.

Today however, in our local newspaper, a letter has been published that has a rather different tone.

The good thing about having a blog like this is that it gives me a chance to make a kind of response of a more thoughtful and considered nature.

Here is the letter in full, along with my response.


I write with anger as I note that a lone canoeist was rescued from the Clyde last week. Has he been sent the bill for the rescue? It was nobody’s fault but his own that he chose to go canoeing on his own in February weather. Why should the tax payer have to pay for this man’s folly?

Dear ‘name and address withheld’

I am sorry, but also a little puzzled, to have been the cause of your anger.

You are quite correct that I took decisions that ultimately led to an accident, and that any blame to be allocated is mine alone. However, I do not agree that these decisions amount to ‘folly’. This for the following reasons-

  • I am an experienced canoeist, who has been out on these waters many time before
  • I have never previously capsized my canoe, despite paddling in far more challenging conditions
  • The ‘February weather conditions’ you alluded to were in fact flat calm, with hardly a ripple of a wave, and the air temperature could have best been described as ‘mild’
  • I was indeed alone, but had taken the precaution of letting others know were I was going, and when I would return.
  • I stayed reasonably close to shore, and well within my comfort zone
  • I am fit, a reasonably good swimmer, wore a buoyancy aid and warm clothing that allowed free movement in the water. I was close to shore when rescued, having made good progress from the point I entered the water

I should perhaps also point out that I too am a tax payer.

When the search and rescue facilities are privatised, as your report two weeks ago said that they will be in 2011, do you think that people who choose to put themselves in danger will be rescued without receiving a hefty bill?

I hope so. The humanitarian ethos that puts the saving of life before the saving of money is one that many of us (particularly me!) would want to defend. I am very grateful to the people who rescued and looked after me, and humbled by their compassion and care.

You raise the point again of me choosing to place myself in danger. Clearly, canoeing (at any time of the year) has a degree of risk associated with it, even if this is a measured risk. It is also clear that after every accident, there are things we can learn that might help us reduce the risk, or cope better with mishaps as they befall. To this end, I have already uprated the floatation in my canoe, bought a wetsuit, flares and am considering purchasing a portable VHF radio. Whether or not these things would have prevented the accident is debatable.

The issue of risk is a difficult one.  There is risk in many activities- perhaps the most risky thing that I do is to drive around Argyll on our busy country roads. I do this because I have to as part of my job, but many of my colleagues have had serious accidents.

Many leisure pursuits have a measure of risk- cycling, climbing, hill walking, sailing etc. Those of us that do these things have a responsibility to make sensible preparations and precautions, but miss judgements and over confidence are common. At some point, many of us have accidents- most of them thankfully minor. There is a real danger that we start to see accidents as the result only of foolishness on the part of those involved. It makes the rest of us seem invulnerable, which of course, we are not. The blame game that you appear to be playing is likely to make this worse.

Does this mean we should avoid such activity? I and many others do not think so. Risk can also be a positive choice, as the alternative can lead to no life at all.

It is perhaps also worth noting the huge costs to the NHS of physical and mental health problems associated with our sedentary modern lifestyles- and the encouragement to get out into wild places as a way of reducing future health problems.

How many millions are wasted on sending helicopters up hills to collect people who think it appropriate to climb them in training shoes and t shirts?

I do not know. I suspect that you do not either. I do know that a number of people who volunteer for rescue based activities (RNLI, Coastguard, Mountain rescue) love being in the outdoors, and are enthusiastic participants in the sports that you appear to find questionable. Some of them have lost friends to accidents, or been rescued themselves, and want to give something back.

I have spent a lot of time in the mountains, and have met people who were poorly equipped. However, I have also been part of the rescue of a group of soldiers who were cragbound despite being very well prepared. In wild places, stuff happens.

Neither do I think that your analogy is a fair one. I was not wearing a t shirt, nor was I wilfully reckless or inexperienced.

Helicopters can only be in one place at a time and while they are engaged in the rescue of an idiot, they cannot be available to rescue people who are in difficulty through no fault of their own.

I may be an idiot- but given that (I assume) we have never met, I think your assessment of my character is presumptive. Even if you are right, do you think that we ‘idiots’ are better left to drown? My family and friends might disagree.

Are we more deserving of rescue if victims of blind chance rather than personal failure? In a car accident for example, should we first save the victim, or the person whose mistake caused the accident in the first place?  Who decides?

It might be interesting to note that the helicopter that rescued me was a Royal Navy unit, that was already on a search and rescue exercise two miles up the Clyde. In this, I was very fortunate, and am very aware that I was the centre of great expense.

Finally ‘name and address withheld’, I would like to say this. I am not sure what activities help bring meaning to your life, but it may well be that at some point in the future, you too are faced with a situation for which you were not prepared- perhaps even because of a mistake that you make. I hope that this never happens  but it is also possible that you may then require the help of emergency services.

If such a thing should befall you, I hope that you are treated with the compassion and care that you have failed to show to me.

By way of postscript, today I was in a local shop, and a woman took it upon herself to call me an idiot to my face, and to say that she very much agreed with the comments made in the local paper by ‘name and address withheld’.

I was a little stunned, but managed to ask her why she thought that saving my life was a waste of the time of emergency services, and why she thought that I had behaved like an idiot. I was able to explain a little of the circumstances of the accident, and the nature of the weather conditions (which she assumed were the cause of the accident.) She huffed and puffed a little, but conceded that there must be another side to the story. We parted smiling, albeit through clenched teeth.

Such is life in small communities.

Melvin does Calvin…

This morning Melvin Bragg’s programme ‘In our time’ discussed the life and influence of John Calvin, Protestant ‘guard dog’ of the reformation. You can listen again here.

Highly recommended for those of us who need to engage with some of the big theological ideas in bite sized chunks. And all the more important for those of us who perhaps stand as part of a new reformation.

It is all there- the passion, the seeking after the purity of truth distilled from correct study of the Bible, the desire to release people from what were regarded as empty superstitions fed by the Roman Catholic church.

But also the austere, sometimes brutal regime that emerged in Geneva around his teachings- the rigid inflixible and systematised faith. And the persecution of anyone who dared to hold a different view.

It also dealt quite well with the way that Calvin’s teaching fitted in with, and perhaps even inspired enlightenment thinking, and was able to spread and flourish via the new information technology of the printing press.

Oh- and the pre-destination thing.

Definitely worth a listen with a cup of coffee…

Football as litmus paper for prejudice?

So did any of you see this story earlier?

It seems that comments by Tennis player Andy Murray have been taken to a T Shirt. In 2006, whilst being interviewed by a Daily Mail journalist (and I know that many of you might agree with me that those words may contain an inherent contradiction) Murray got himself in trouble as follows-

So, for the hard of thinking, let me state here that: I did the interview with Andy Murray and Tim Henman a couple of years back where Murray talked about ‘supporting whoever England were playing against’.

It was a clearly a sarcastic remark. He was responding to teasing from your columnist about Scotland’s absence from the 2006 World Cup and derisive laughter from the mischievous Henman.

It was reported in that context in this newspaper at the time and the exchange was run as a transcript.

A couple of days later a red-top got excited about the comments, lifted a couple of them into a ‘story’ that took on a life of its own and from there the truth was lost.

But the story has carried on.

The latest incarnation of this can be seen in the sale of these T-shirts-

These shirts are being sold as Football World Cup shirts. ABE stands of course, for ‘Anyone But England.’

The perhaps overly zealous policeman who reacted to the shirts appeared to have some concern that the shirts might foster and encourage racism- which is of course an offence.

At very least it appears to tap into wider popular prejudice and division between our neighbouring countries. Football has this way of being a conduit for all sorts of prejudice and base emotions- it is like a kind of religion without a moral code sometimes.

I know my own reaction to this- which is that I find this narrow sectarian stuff very depressing. I do not often feel the heat of prejudice personally, despite living in Scotland and having an English accent (although someone did call me a ‘white settle’r today- albeit with a smile.) I just think that most of us should just know better. The fostering and celebration of narrow judgemental views is never really victimless- there are always vulnerable people who suffer, if only kids in the playground. There is also the fear in me that these fires, once lit, might become conflagrations- if not in our generation, then perhaps in the next…

So- what do you think?

Making recovery real…

To Oban today to a Scottish Recovery Network conference on the promotion of ‘recovery’ as a concept and driver for mental health services, and more importantly, for those of us who experience mental ill health.

It snowed, and so we were a bit worried about the drive, but in the end Audrey, Victoria and I got there and back with no trouble.

The challenge and critique brought to services by the change of thinking and shifts in power required to move towards a recovery based system (rather than an illness based system) has been the stuff of my working life for a while now. I have found that it has had the capacity to reignite my passion for the work that I do.

I have spoken about recovery before- here and here, but for those who have not come across the concept before, here is the definition from the SRN website

“Recovery is being able to live a meaningful and satisfying life, as defined by each person, in the presence or absence of symptoms. It is about having control over and input into your own life. Each individual’s recovery, like his or her experience of the mental health problems or illness, is a unique and deeply personal process.”

It is about trying to stop expecting people to fit into hierarchical burearocratic structures, but rather shifting power from the institution to the individual. It is about creating opportunities for people to rediscover hope, and to re imagine what a fuller life might look like.

You could say that it is about the redemption business- the Jesus business. And where he is, I want to be near.

But lest you think that I am doing that familiar paid helper thing, and dividing the world into us (the professionals) and you (the recipients of our expertise) then let me confess that I too am in a process of recovery.

Or should I say sometimes I am.

Because we were asked today to consider what might contribute to our own ‘wellness’, and people gave the usual answers- love, relationships, long walks in the country, meaningful activity, meditation and rich ruby wine… But I was led once again to reflect on my own mercurial sense of wellbeing, and how fragile it was at times.

Because sometimes it seems as though I am merely a victim to unfolding circumstance. Things happen, and I have little control over them, nor my emotional reaction to them. Of course, this is not true. There are lots of things I do, or avoid doing that make me who I am.

It is perhaps more like one of those slow unfolding accidents, that give you chance to react and minimise the inevitable impact- which is nonetheless still painful and shocking.

Of course there is such blessing in this journey of mine too- and I am so grateful that I do not walk alone.

So by way of celebrating these continuing outbreaks of redemption, almost in spite of my own ability to miss them- I offer you this lovely poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins-

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying What I do is me: for that I came.
I say more: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is—
Christ—for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

The canoe is back…

Today, one week after my recent adventure, I took a trip over to Bute.

It was a lovely day- very cold, but full of sunshine. As ever- the camera travelled with me…

During lunch, I visited the local Coastguard office, to fetch my canoe. There was some confusion as to who had the key- it turned out that the lock up that the canoe was in was actually used by a former member of the coastguard to store his scaffolding. This is Argyll after all.

Eventually a very nice man turned up with a large bunch of keys, and what he called a ‘universal key’ in the form of a large hacksaw. The universal key was not needed, as the first actual key opened the padlock, and I was reunited with an old, battered and rather well travelled green canoe.

It was good to see it again. We have some more adventuring to do.

But for now, lets go home.

I make the local newspaper…

Gulp- my recent little swim made front page of the Dunoon observer.

Here is a photo someone took- I am out of view behind the police launch.

Michaela and I took a trip down to the west bay this morning. We went to see David Torrance, the man who raised the alarm, and said thanks. He seems a really nice guy, and I will be forever in his debt. He was in the right place, at the right time, and did the right things.

We then went round to the Rock Cafe for breakfast, and stood watching the sun sparkling on the sea around the Gantock Rocks. It is a lovely cold sunny day today. I looked a where I entered the water and marvelled at how far I swam.

I do not plan to repeat it.

Life twists and turns…

I was out today for a short walk. I am still weak as a kitten, so I did not go far- just a little stroll above Loch Eck- which was under a thin skeen of ice from one side to the other…

My friend Simon treated me to lunch and a pint at the Whistlefield inn, and I found myself reflecting on the fact that we stayed at the Whistlefield lodges the first time we ever came to Scotland, 19 years ago. It has been quite a journey.

I have been getting through some of the emotional stuff after my recent trauma. I had a few flashbulb memory images that kept flashing into my minds eye- wheeling seagulls above my head, and the chimney stack I navigated my swim by. These things are settling down as they always do, and today I deliberately wore the clothes I took my swim in.

Next week I will fetch back my canoe, which washed up on the island of Bute, 10 miles or so down the Clyde. I believe that it is undamaged! I will then need to take a wee paddle… no doubt as far as the rope that Michaela ties me to will let me go!

Our horizons shrink so small. I am determined that mine will stretch far still- although I will be more careful in the reaching after them!

Life will still have its twists and turns. And there is so much beauty in the day we walk through…


I read this today- and loved it;

Question of the Day: How does one incorporate imperfection?

In a Navajo rug there is always one clear imperfection woven into the pattern. And interestingly enough, this is precisely where the Spirit moves in and out of the rug! The Semitic mind, the Eastern mind (which, by the way, Jesus would have been much closer to) understands perfection in precisely that way. The East is much more comfortable with paradox, mystery, and non-dual thinking than the Western mind which is formed by Greek logic.

Perfection is not the elimination of imperfection, as we think. Divine perfection is, in fact, the ability to recognize, forgive, and include imperfection!—just as God does with all of us. Only in this way can we find the beautiful and hidden wholeness of God underneath the passing human show. It is the gift of non-dual thinking and seeing, which itself is a gift of love, suffering, and grace. In fact, this is the radical grace that grounds all holy seeing and doing.

Richard Rohr, February 2010