Sizewell

Fifteen years ago today I was at Sizewell Hall, sitting down to a fish and chip supper, when I heard a quiet voice in my head telling me I was about to meet my husband.

I was on an away weekend with a friend who had dragged me along so that she could find a husband herself, and having recently decided I was finally ok with myself and not in any way desperate for a relationship, I was somewhat stunned when this happened. Keeping it to myself, I took a look and realised that there was only one guy on the table I was at all interested in. The chap diagonally opposite had himself been brought along by a friend. He too had recently finally decided he was ok with himself, having spent a month travelling in Australia. He introduced himself as Matthew, definitely not Matt.

The following day, after a drive in his car (he asked his friend to let me sit in the front) and a walk at Dunwich Heath where we were able to chat further and almost hold hands stumbling through the trees, we found ourselves back at Sizewell Hall playing Taboo with a number of others, realising that we were thinking along exactly the same lines and shared the same sense of humour. We found more connections as we talked and I learned that he worked at BT and had studied Engineering at Cambridge. I did an internal double-take. God must have realised that pairing me with someone who had (a) gone to Cambridge, a personal unrealised dream I’d had since I was eleven, and (b) got a degree in Engineering, a subject I worked at in industry and then for a year at university was something of a divine joke. Here was someone who epitomised my perceived failures in life. The fact I felt more comfortable with myself mattered here. I could see things in a more measured way. Having worked and studied alongside engineers for a couple of years, I had a good idea about the way these strange people think and how to relate well to them. Optimising. Worst case scenarios. Odd jokes.

The following day, the Sunday, as we prepared to leave, I got Matthew’s number and his surname: Robinson. I remember flirting badly and then being given the third degree from my friend on the way back, who hadn’t picked up any numbers herself.

We emailed for a few weeks, started dating and Matthew visited me in Prague where I was studying part-time that February.

We were married in 2003. We’ve only been back to Dunwich once (on our twelve-and-a-halfth anniversary) but we’ve had fish and chips quite a few times since. I am constantly grateful that I’ve got Matthew and that God instigated it all. Marriage takes effort and a lot of communication and commitment, but God knew what he was doing putting the two of us together.

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Doing Something

Maybe like me you have come across many articles and posts about depression and anxiety and wondered why those affected seem to need to write about it so much. Disproportionately, almost. I was giving this some thought.

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Some of us need to write to make sense of things in our heads, and feel better if we can share with others who affirm us. Some of us are lonely and want to connect with the outside world. Some of us feel that as depression and anxiety are fairly invisible, that the internet is a safe way of raising the topic and that Doing Something is helpful, even if it means someone else who is suffering learns that they are not alone and that there is Hope Somewhere. For some, it is a way of explaining behaviours we are not proud of: isolating, self-absorbing behaviours or irritability and moodiness. We are not happy with living like this and want to give some reasons for it. We crave unconditional affection regardless of where we are, knowing that that is part of the key to healing. We don’t mind accountability if it means moving out of the darkness. The little black puppy nipping at our heels for the past few months has grown into a beast which controls us, and we just want someone to help us put it on a lead, walk it with us through the journey ahead and learn how to live despite it.

And as I was thinking about how isolating it can be to feel depressed, which is a place I have found myself in again recently, I realised how similar the experiences of lonely older people can be. I was in the shop in the village with the children this week, chatting about jam or bread or something trivial, and one of them got in the way of an elderly lady. This is a typical event for our family, and as usual I apologised to the lady, but I made a point of making eye contact, though that doesn’t come easily to me. I recognised her isolation and felt a connection, so I smiled. She smiled back and commented on our jam (or bread, or whatever we were talking about) and we exchanged a couple of sentences. For me, they were two or three of the hundreds of lines of dialogue I had had that day. For her, perhaps they were far more significant.

When I see someone on their own in the shop, especially an older person, I am not going to get upset with the children for getting in their way. Instead, I can use the opportunity to smile and perhaps talk with them briefly, lessening their isolation to a degree and showing the children how to tackle loneliness. Because being depressed doesn’t make you less sensitive to others’ needs; if anything I find I am far more sensitive and concerned. It means I need time sometimes to absorb, to process, to live. It also means I want to help out, in whatever way I realistically can. And taking little steps to connect means training that black dog, taming him, taking him in hand.

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Two Visitors

In my village, near the crossroads and under aging willows and large chestnut trees, you will find a brook. And every day most of the villagers go past it; maybe scooting to school, cycling to work or driving into town. Step away from the road for a moment and you can lose yourself for a few vital minutes in a slice of utterly British life. There is a play park and an old historic water pump, a white wooden bridge and areas of grass to play on or to feed the laughing ducks.

Two new ducks turned up just over a week ago. So far we have had a growing crowd of Mallards, a few odd white ducks, broods of fluff-ball ducklings and a single, grumpy Muscovy. Now we have Visitors.

There has been a lot of chatter on social media about our new ducks. The long-running good-humoured debates on whether it is a pond or a brook, or whether children should wear cycle helmets for protection when collecting conkers (and whether this is satire or not) have been put aside. For one thing, the Visitors have turned up, realised they are on to a Good Thing and decided to stay for a while. They are first in the queue whenever a baby buggy arrives promising bread or seed, wobbling over and asserting their place in the pecking order.

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No one was really sure What they were, however. We’re a well-read lot here, but these birds are rather different and seemed to defy the usual lists. They are larger than the regular ducks, have a black coat with a beautiful green sheen on the wings and white around the eyes, like eyelashes. The beaks are white and pink and their feet are dark brown.

My money’s on them being black muscovy ducks, perhaps flying over last week and noticing what a lovely village duck pond brook we have. I’m sure they’ll get fed well here, and perhaps even something of a reputation. Part of me hopes they do stay; it’s a friendly place where everyone is welcome regardless of background or what we look like. For me, what makes our slice of utterly British life even more special is our willingness to adopt and accommodate. It doesn’t make us less British. It makes us more human.

 

Tact and the Real Message

“I know how you’re feeling,” came a voice from somewhere close, “and I do feel really sorry for you.”

And my heart grew and I forgave her words because she is my daughter and this is her best. They were not hollow words spoken with an adult’s urgency to fix or with undertones of self-interest. She has little idea of nuance and tact.

So when she says ‘I know how you’re feeling’ she honestly believes she does. Perhaps she does have a sense of the colour of depression or the pain of its bite. I pray she does not know the full injury of it in her lifetime, or at the very least in her childhood. Oh little one, I sincerely hope you do not know how I am feeling.

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What touched me enormously was that she would even try to comfort me with words, though her pity was not what she was really trying to convey. The message I heard loud and clear was “I love you mummy”, which actually was the message I really needed to hear.

Messengers get shot frequently by those bitten by depression. In recent years I have learned to listen to the message behind the message. It’s not about the most well-chosen words, though for me at least they often bring the best relief. It’s not about connecting either, though finding common ground can bring hope and joy; I’m no longer journeying alone on this day. ‘I do feel really sorry for you’ can mean so much more than ‘I recognise your struggle and I hate it too and I hate that you have this fight on your hands and I pity you’. No, the act of being present, of communicating at all – in some age-appropriate manner, this is what brings light to my heart and salve to the bite-marks. My son spends time on my lap. My husband quietly washes up. My daughter tells me she knows how I am feeling.

And I stand back from my heart and marvel that God would bless me so much, whispering his love to me in so many ways each day – using even children so honest because of their lack of tact – and I give him my griefs and my deepest aches, because he is strong enough to carry them all. And though I crave tact and good words, I crave the real message more now and I pray my words too will speak love and that that love will be heard.

 

What now?

Where’s your treasure?

Your treasure is where your heart is. So said Jesus, as well as Albus Dumbledore. You steer towards the things you value. You invest in what means the most to you. For many of us it is our status, our children, our belongings, our future. For some it is a higher cause or service of those who need our help. For me as a Christian my investments only really matter if they have an eternal dimension. ‘Don’t store up treasures on earth,’ Jesus says, ‘store up for yourselves treasures in heaven.’ In heaven there is no decay, no stealing.

Some of my friends stand to lose a lot financially because of last Friday’s Brexit result. Houses aren’t selling as quickly while people wait to see if the values drop. Markets are volatile. Prices are looking to rise. The pound won’t buy as much abroad. Shares and stocks are dropping. If these things are our true treasure, we will despair. It’s evidenced loudly on social media and the indignation is catching.

Our treasure is never going to be worth much if it is in stuff. Stuff is only ever secondary in the big scheme. Love comes first.

Some of my friends stand to lose a lot of dignity because of their race or perceived race. Now in my late 30s, I belong to a generation where I genuinely have to stop and think whether someone is racially ‘different’ from me and colour is an odd concept. So many of my good friends are truly international and I wouldn’t have it any other way. There are groups of people using 52% as a mandate to behave in shockingly racist ways. But there is a backlash of people standing up and rejecting that, which is encouraging. My Divided Kingdom is far more outward looking than last week’s result implies.

Our dignity is at stake if others belittle us or when we allow our brothers and sisters to be belittled. Let’s resist the indignities and celebrate our diversity and the value of each and every one. Our true value can only be found intrinsically; we are created, loved and given purpose by an Almighty God who cares about us. Love comes first.

Some of my friends in the arts, higher education and sciences stand to lose out when EU grants do not come their way in the future.

We will need to be imaginative. We will need to wait longer for some things: good things too. We will need to be humble. We will need to ask questions and find ways to continue working hard, co-operating and pushing boundaries. Love comes first.

Some of my friends in parts of the UK where a lot of EU money is spent stand to lose out when cuts impact on their services and options for improvements or subsidies.

Some of the rest of us will need to see more austerity measures as a result. Love comes first.

Some of my friends who voted Leave feel that the campaign was disingenuous and that they have been lied to. Those who voted Remain are grumbling that the exercise was not even necessary.

There have always been liars and gamblers. Self-interested greedy people and those unaware of the consequences of their actions. There always will be. Neither the Leave nor Remain side behaved well in the campaigning. And, as a nation we have failed to counter ‘free press’ with wholesome PR on what has gone well in the past. We have given politics a bad name and mocked Europe unfairly. Some of the consequences will, no doubt, wake up some of the Leave voters to what they signed up for. But are we surprised we were lied to? That the facts were complicated and not presented fairly? That a binary decision given to a hurting country would not be used by masses of those who felt marginalised to try and shock their leaders (at any cost)? What’s done is done. The grumbling will go on and the memes will echo around the internet, but we don’t need to remain miserable. Love comes first.

Some of my friends felt like they had no voice and no power. They voted to try and change that.

We need to listen to the hurting voiceless millions. Love comes first.

Alongside the memes, the anger and the confusion following the UK’s decision to leave the EU, I’m aware of a lot of worry. Uncertainty leads to volatility and panic.

Or at least, it can.

It’s not the only way.

I have spent a lot of time in the past few years finding ways to address anxiety and fear. Even rational fear needs looking at from time to time. So my reaction to Brexit includes anger, sadness and disappointment. But it does not include a great deal of worry.

Because worry is not the only thing we can do.

The opposite of worry is Trust. Trust means we have a leader. Trust means the leader is actually in charge and actually has a plan. Trust means we know there are storms coming, but we can weather them, because the leader already has a port ready for us. I know this is true because my leader has never failed me through all my own storms and through the lives and stories of countless others I know who have been through storms large and small. It is tried and tested. I know it is true right through my being: heart, head and soul. Trust takes the anxiety out of the days ahead.

Don’t be anxious. If you want to know more about Trust there are many ways to find out. Ask in your local church. Ask your Christian friends. Ask discreetly. Ask God directly.

You know, I voted Remain but I can see that we need to pull together as a country to make Leave work. And you know why?

Because Love comes first.

Grief stinks

The day after Ascension, who grieved?

It is a very odd part of faith, the ascension. We don’t focus on it a lot in my tradition; the date falls on Thursdays. Jesus, killed on a cross on a Friday during Passover. Raised from the dead on the Sunday, marking a new celebration day in the week. A new first day. Then multiple appearances in various locations, to numerous doubters and followers. He sat and ate with them. Talked and explained. Listened and loved the lost and the confused. Those close to him were convinced that he was indeed alive.

Just like the 40 days in the desert before his ministry years began, there were 40 days in which this post-resurrection Jesus continued to baffle and bookend. Unfettered by any human control, he chose who to present himself to. He did not intend to take Israel as his kingdom by force or to oust the Romans. Instead he repeats his earliest message: the kingdom of God. The proximity! The invitation!

The kingdom of God demands an engagement with Someone and a relinquishing of Self in order to be fully Alive. It turns one’s heart’s desires from self-promotion to praise of God. And in that moment the wonderful realisation of knowing what it truly means to be Loved. Human love is just a shadow of this Love.

These turners, these followers, these men and women baffled and bruised by life choose Love. They are the start of something, but they are not enough on their own. They need a spiritual encounter and a promise of help and strength.

ascension01So God does the unimaginable – again. He separates. From day one he had been separating light and darkness. Now he separates from those who turned to follow him. A significant separation of a physical body with limits, before a spiritual meeting with his followers. The practicalities are not even that important. An ascent – lots of witnesses – and a junction in the story.

I would have grieved. Something had happened and Someone had gone ahead, calling others to follow. I would have grieved the distance and the unknowns. I would have grieved the mess remaining and the masses of unrepentant folk. I would have grieved the stench of life Without. (I would have had hope too – my eyes lifted from the past to the future and from the sticky hell of earth to the hope of heaven. But I would have grieved.)

And grief remains in our world in the mess. I didn’t know any of the celebrities who died in the past year, but I grieve at the end of opportunities, creativity, laughter. I think many of us do. The separation is out of our control and we don’t want it.

weight of grief

Two months ago my granny died.

I don’t want the separation and the emptiness when I return to her home. I don’t want the grief, though it tears through me. She was a war-time evacuee. A left-hander in the wrong era. A girl who thought her mum was her sister – raised by her granny in Notting Hill and ignored by her father. She lived most of her life in Devon and I rarely saw her out of the county. She was stubborn. Hard work. Kind, but firm and she didn’t suffer fools. Forged in her generation with scars and dashed dreams of her own, you needed to meet her on her terms, which was hard. She had a strange sense of humour. One time, for a surprise, she arranged a tour for me of the local sewage works. She had been a model. A cinema owner. A mum. She was brave, and witty, and under-educated.

But now she is dead and next week I return to Devon to sort through her clothes with my mum. A task of turning and of separating and of grieving.

I think it is ok to grieve. Even the painful things. Our hearts expect it.

I think it was ok for the followers to grieve, following Jesus’ Ascension. Things had changed.

When something changes and we feel the weight of separation we long to express that. For some it means retracing and recalling. For others it is far more private. Grief is heavy and the price is high – the BBC are saying today that broken hearts are a real thing.

But, after grief? After the initial rush of emotions? Once the pain has become more calm?

This is where Hope lives. And the Ascension gives me Hope.

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I can hope to meet my granny again. She shared my faith and she lives and I will see her and talk with her again. I can place my hope in God, though I hate the separation of death. He lives and he is not controlled by death or by physical limits. I can hope for good things and know that there is more than the mess and the stink of grief and separation. There is a kingdom I am part of and my eyes are fixed on Jesus.

Where was I?

I know where I was on September 18th 1990. I know where I was because my geography teacher – a man whose name I cannot now remember – asked all of us what day it was.

We were thirteen. Our teacher seemed genuinely angry and upset that we did not know what day it was. How could we? We had no means of finding out in 1990 without leaving the classroom. So he kept asking us. He was not a good teacher and I made a mental note that this method would not work.

He despaired, shouted at us a bit and put on a video. A VHS with a fuzzy picture and trippy colours on a hulking cathode-ray machine with clunky buttons. It was loud enough to wobble the tubular trolley. There was lots of sound and anger being performed at us. Some of us were a little scared. Our class watched in confusion as Jimi Hendrix performed guitar riffs with his hands and his teeth, on his knee and behind his head. There was certainly skill being demonstrated, but like a fine wine or a decent book we did not appreciate exactly what. We were thirteen.

Happy that he had berated us enough, our teacher told us that the date that day was exactly twenty years since Jimi Hendrix’ untimely death. We looked at each other. So now we knew. Some of us still had no idea who Jimi Hendrix was, so our teacher took it upon himself to tell us. It was not much of a geography lesson. I think this was the teacher who also tried to teach us how to make cocaine from the plant, should we find ourselves in South America. (It was not the best of schools but I learned a lot about how not to teach there).

I never became a fan of Jimi Hendrix.

I never became a fan of David Bowie either, but this week I have learned why.

I judged him.

I thought of him as a provocative and promiscuous glam rocker, caught in all the trappings of fame and success and one of many provocative artists – so what was new? I was not interested in music which broke the mould because much music does that. I felt the Bowie experience was hollow and unsophisticated. Also irritating and showy. And amoral. And broken.

I judged him, and today I have understood something about myself in that and why I need to stop judging. Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive others. 

I have no right to judge. I did not even realise I was doing it. Here was a guy living out his life in full colour, whatever my own feelings were about those colours. It is not for me to judge him. I can like or dislike his music, his opinions and his actions, but it is not for me to judge them. The difference is important. Do not judge others and you will not be judged.

I still do not identify very much with Bowie and I still don’t warm to his musical styles, but I have made a small step forward. A moon-step, if you like. He, like me, was only human. And sometimes all of us, as humans, recognise that we have limits. And we do ourselves all a great favour if we refuse to let our differences divide us. When we look closely, we find that we have more in common than we may have realised.