Tuesday, May 26, 2009

My Life in Plastic

I have just decanted the plastic cards out of the purse. I learnt the hard way, when my purse got stolen in Rome, that not all those plastic cards that I carry around with me will be that much use in Spain.

Library Card You don’t actually need to go to Spain to discover how useless it is. The library in Rugby will not let me use it to log on to their computers to access the internet. It would probably be cheaper to use an internet cafĂ© if Rugby had one!

Blockbuster Membership Card There is a scene in Notting Hill where Hugh Grant flashes his Blockbuster Membership card to get into a press conference. The shop in Rugby obviously doesn’t have the same issues as the library. They let me rent out “The Bells of St Trinian’s” to keep my nieces entertained one evening.

RBS Highline There’s no money in the account. I keep intending to close the account on account of their manhandling of money in general and having to be bailed out by the government. They can’t look after money properly. They can’t be trusted!

Gallery Hairdressers appointment card No time or date filled in, just the name Toni, with an “x” instead of a dot over the “i”. She is responsible for my Mary Quantish look.

Matalan I have absolutely no idea why they require a card for you to buy something out of their shop. It doesn’t serve as a credit card, or a loyalty card. It’s just a very silly way of doing business.

Gala Casino Yes, now you know my secret vice! Roulette is my game! Actually, it’s not my vice at all. A dozen chips each worth fifty pence doesn’t really add up to any kind of vice, particularly when the man you are sitting next to is playing with chips worth fifty pounds a shot. In Northampton I had need to go to the loo, and when I need to go, I need to go. We were parked in a car park in a complex that housed a Gala Casino. I thought they might let me in to use the loo. They didn’t, even when I showed them my card They wanted me to fill out a form and get another card from them. I just held on and found a loo that did not make me fill in any forms.

An Orange Top Up and Go card I have never topped up and went seeing as I don’t know how. The man in the Orange shop tops us and goes on my behalf.

Look Who's (Not) Talking!

I thought that if I maybe spruced up the outside of me, it would have a knock on effect of cheering up the inside of me! It didn’t work. I may have a very nice Mary Quantish hairstyle, and no grey roots, but inside I feel more like Quasimodo, lurching unsteadily about.

The train ticket to Edinburgh is purchased. I didn’t reserve a seat since they are now charging for the service. I also bought my air ticket to Malaga. I think I shall be the only person going there without the holiday mood and the suntan lotion in tact. A quick look at the website that deals with weather all over the world tells me that I am in for a week of sunshine and temperatures in the 80s. I am not a heat seeking body. Give me an igloo any day.

I find that what worries me most, apart from chaffing thighs, is talking to my brother. Talking for me is not built into my DNA. I am not one of the great talkers of the world. You just ask my friend Gill how much talking I do. Zilch! It’s not that I can’t talk, I can. It’s not that I don’t want to talk. I do! It’s just that I worry about running out of interesting things to say. I have not seen my brother for a few years, I have read through many of the backdated copies of the articles he has submitted to the magazine he writes for…but all of that doesn’t help. I am deep waters, not a chattering brook!

Most of the people that I talk to any great length with are sitting in a classroom behind desks and have to listen to me because I am the teacher. What we talk about is not personal stuff and they take tests that tell me whether they have listened to me at all. The other group of people I talk with are Christians in my church. The topic may be some wonderful insight into scripture. Over a cup of tea we talk about personal stuff, but not always that personal, and it’s never for very long!

There are few people that I talk to for hours on end. I am just not one of the world’s talkers. A Thinker? Yes, I think often. A writer? Now we are talking comfort zones! Talking? AARRGGHH!

Take for example, the hairdressers I have just come from. Isn’t it supposed to be that the reason that women are prepared to pay over the top prices for some of the treatment isn’t always just about the hair? Hairdressers may not be trained counsellors, but they end up listening anyway. That is…unless the client is me. I don’t do “hairdresser talk”. I am not sure if my kind of customer is not valued simply because I don’t talk. I will maybe exchange a few pleasantries…I am not rude by any means. I just don’t talk much.

I have to admit that my reluctance to talk this morning was justified. Who wants to hear the catalogue of troubles that I have faced and continue to face this year? I can’t keep up a string of irrelevant and irreverent observations on life – mine in particular. I don’t lead a life worthy of comment.

I am not sure I need to worry so much. My brother is more than capable of keeping up an entertaining monologue. He talks a lot. My only problem is more than likely how to get a word in edge-wise.

Maybe, apart from looking up websites about the weather in Malaga, I should be checking out “Five Steps to a Really Good Conversation”.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Ezekiel's Heart

“The word of the LORD came to me: "Son of man, with one blow I am about to take away from you the delight of your eyes. Yet do not lament or weep or shed any tears. Groan quietly; do not mourn for the dead. Keep your turban fastened and your sandals on your feet; do not cover the lower part of your face or eat the customary food of mourners. So I spoke to the people in the morning, and in the evening my wife died. The next morning I did as I had been commanded.” Ezekiel 24:15-18

The Bible contains some incredibly sad stories. I read this one many years ago. It is one of those bits that many people would never know was there unless, like me, they had followed one of those programmes that encourage you to read the Bible through in a year, assigning you a couple of chapters from the Old Testament and a couple from the New each day.

I read it and it broke my heart. It just seemed so unreasonable of God to do that to a servant. It was bad enough that he commanded Hosea to marry a prostitute to get a message across, but this was a different thing. It is hard enough to find the “delight of your eyes” in the first place, that to lose it is harder still.

I haven’t been given a day’s notice regarding my brother’s cancer. The doctors may be thinking in terms of months rather than years of life expectancy, but not days, and not hours.

I have also not been told that I can’t shed tears and I have shed a lot over the last twenty four hours. I haven’t been told to avoid mourners food, so chocolate is still on the menu!

Mike may not be “the delight of my eyes” either, but that doesn’t make it any less traumatic.

I wrote this poem, in response to the story, some five years ago. Trying to capture an emotion that belonged to someone else was a word play exercise. Now I feel it. Now it hurts. Now I wish it was just Ezekiel’s heart and not my own.

The last two couplets are particularly hard. If this is God’s will – it’s not a very nice will, and maybe, dare I say it, He’s not a very nice God to let it happen. Trust is no longer just a word that you casually toss into a conversation but a mountain to climb.

Ezekiel’s Heart

This time you ask
Too hard a task

To take my wife
My heart, my life

You say “Don’t cry.”
My tears deny

My pain, to hide
My grief inside

If I could pray
“Not her,” I’d say

To you alone
I sigh, I groan

Do as you will
Your plan fulfil

I trust in you
Your will I do

Talking with MIke

You know those movie scenes where the difficult telephone call has to be made. She picks up the phone, dials the first few numbers, puts the phone back down, walks around the room, stops and looks out of the window, takes a deep breath and picks up the phone again? Well, I played out the scene last night.

Between the hours of 8-10 pm was the best time to phone my brother, Mike, in hospital in Spain. So I waited until 8.00.

What if I have nothing to say? “Sorry” doesn’t take so long to say. The whole awkwardness of talking to someone you haven’t spoken to for years, and who has cancer, and who is dying doesn’t make for good conversations.

A Spanish lady picked up the phone. I don’t know how to say, “Can I speak to Michael?” in Spanish, and she had no clue and put the phone down.

Next minute he is there pouring a mouthful of abuse down the phone – not directed to me, but to the Spanish woman. He can’t speak Spanish either, so I doubt she has any clue what the problem was.

The problem, once Mike realises that he has a connection and he is not holding a dead phone in his hand, he tells me, is that the ward that he had all to himself, he now has to share and the other occupant, being Spanish, is ruling the roost, and he has been relegated to one tiny corner.

There’s nothing like a mouthful of abuse to open up the lines of communication. I don’t think I even got to say sorry, not that Mike would have listened. He refuses to be sorry for himself. The deed is done and dusted and who cares who is to blame and whether it is fair or not?

“At least they’ve not dropped me from the operating table!” It’s a reference to my sister’s recent illness, death and catalogue of hospital errors. Apparently Mike had been fretting that he never got to see Linda, or attend her funeral. He thought that others thought it meant he didn’t care…and sadly some thought exactly that way. The ones who knew, myself and my eldest sister, had kept it from them, at his request. To him, to tell them how ill he was, would be like the bridesmaid turning up at a wedding far outshining the bride. So he requested silence on the matter. I suppose we also agreed to keep quiet because at that time neither of us knew the true diagnosis. We didn’t know he was dying too.

I asked for a conversation with Mike, and I got one. Liberally sprinkled with colourful language he told me what life was like in the hospital. While he was speaking, the nurses were changing drips and giving him medicine and he was interrupting his discourse to say ”Ow”.

We laughed a lot. I cried a lot, though I tried not to let him know.

It was so different from Linda. I didn’t realise how difficult it had been talking to an unconscious body wrapped in a ventilator, keeping up a steady flow of comments and not having her respond.

Mike’s raucous laughter and pithy observations of Spanish hospitals was entertaining. It wasn’t a performance put on for me, to cheer me up and make me feel better…it was him being genuinely him.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Conversations With my Brother

My brother, Mike, has written himself into the role of the black sheep of the family. I am not sure that he is any blacker than anyone else…and we all have our black moments. He is living in Spain at the moment, and it is only in the last six months or so that he has got in touch. Conversations over the facebook chat line are less than satisfactory, but better than nothing.

There are a couple of conversations that other people have had with Mike that stand out in my mind. One was with my youngest sister. I can’t remember the circumstances that led up to the conversation, only that it took place in a pub and was liberally watered with a lot of alcohol! It was a conversation, that when she related it to me, I was jealous of. They talked about all sorts of things, and he shared with her his thoughts on so many of the events of our childhood that my sister was too young to remember. They talked in particular about our experiences in an orphanage. We weren’t orphans. Our dad had died and mum was really unwell and we had been shelved out to friends and relatives before that, and I think this was the only solution for keeping the kids together. It wasn’t a good time in our lives and it wasn’t the most loving or supportive of environments. He talked about the nuns picking on Linda, and saying quite cruel things. It might have been about her weight. Mike told Sharon how angry he felt because he thought Linda to be beautiful. I remember thinking as Sharon related the conversation that I wanted to ask, “What did he say about me? Did he think I was beautiful?”

The second remarkable conversation Mike had was with my mum just before her left for Spain. Actually, I am not even sure this one happened or whether I dreamed it did. He hated public school. He couldn’t see that Mum wanted him to have the best opportunity possible, but that she wanted him out of the house. Rejection, was how he perceived it and it coloured so much of what happened to the rest of his life. He blamed her for so much going wrong. Anyway, he went to visit her, his “last” visit before he broke off ties with the rest of the family. He wanted her forgiveness. He was sorry for all the trouble that he had been, or for all the bad mouthing, for being “a disappointment”, not just to her, but to my dad when he had been alive. I don’t know whether he would have expressed his change of heart in Christian terms, but God was at work. Some of the first people that Mike met in Spain were Christians.

I am envious of those kinds of heart to heart, masks off, kind of conversations. I wouldn’t say that I haven’t had them.

I must have been in my late teens, or early twenties, just recently come to faith. I had the Roman Catholic background, but it wasn’t until I was eighteen that my faith had become personal and real. Late one night Mike came into the room and knelt beside the bed. He took my hand and said he needed to talk. He wasn’t entirely sober. He wanted to know about the peace that had come into my life. So I told him about Jesus and about salvation. We talked for a while exchanging views about very intimate things. I felt awkward and totally inadequate for the task and I gave myself a hard time because the conversation hadn’t led to his salvation! I don’t think he even remembered the conversation the next day.

The other conversation I remember was much later, before I moved to Inverness, after I had returned from teaching abroad. That would put it somewhere between 1987 and 1989. It might actually have been as late as 1993 when I was recovering from a deep vein thrombosis. There was a healing ministry in the local town hall. It was an international speaker. I invited Mike to come along. He had been suffering from a bad back for a while and I told him that if he came Jesus would heal him. I expected his usual guffaws at the mention of God. His reply surprised me.

“I know God will touch me, and that He can heal me...but I don’t want God to touch me. I will have to change my life if He does, and I don’t know if I want to change.”

There is a more recent conversation with Mike. It took place last night about half past nine. It is not a conversation that I am jealous of. My brother, Richard, phoned him and I guess that some time today I will also be phoning. Mike never made it to my sister’s funeral. For most of my family is was not expected that he would come, but I hoped he would and had been gently nagging him. It turned out that the “wouldn’t come” was “couldn’t come”. He was due to go into hospital having been diagnosed with two tumours. There has been a biopsy done, and it turns out that they are both malignant. The word “cancer” has been tossed into the diagnosis and he has started radiotherapy treatment. Mike, on the phone last night was very positive. He was thinking in terms of success and the cancer going into remission. I just wonder when he finally put the phone down, whether he really felt so positive.

Me? Am I positive and thinking in terms of success? I am still trying to right my boat after my sister Linda died last month. I didn’t think that a storm would brew a second time so swiftly.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Leave Your Country... and Go

It is coming up to twenty years since I moved to Inverness. I came up in 1989 to serve for a year on a gospel outreach team. I came from Rugby. It would probably be about this time that I was being interviewed to see if I was a suitable candidate, although the only requirements seemed to have been that you were a “born again” Christian (how long you had been born again didn’t seem to matter…maturity in Christ wasn’t considered important) and whether you were the member of a vibrant Church (usually within the Covenant Ministries band)

I had handed in my notice for my teaching job at the end of the previous year. I had been teaching abroad for five years and there had been so many changes in the courses and exams that I was finding it hard to catch up. I had been taken on by a temping agency and was filing letters in a big industrial firm. It wasn’t rocket science and once the novelty of people saying “Pease” and “Thankyou” and opening doors for you had worn off I was really being challenged.

Someone came to visit our church to enlist support for people on the outreach teams. They weren’t looking for volunteers, just financial support and practical help like food parcels, but a couple in the church said to me that they would support me when I enlisted. I had no intention of enlisting. Then someone else said the same thing. Then the pastor of the church explained that he had written on my behalf to get the application form and had already filled in the bit he was supposed to fill in recommending me.

I weighed up filing letters against going to a town I’d never been to, to spend a year with people I didn’t know, doing something that completely terrified me – the safe option versus the scary option…and I chose scary.

I didn’t choose to come to Inverness. Along with his recommending me for the job, my pastor also recommended that I get sent as far away as possible. He didn’t want the church and the people I knew to be near enough to me that when things got tough I could just come home. Inverness was the farthest away they could place me.

Before I left Rugby, they prayed and prophesied over me…like they did. Someone made the comparison between me and Abraham, quoting Abraham’s call. Just like the great man, I was heading to another country, to a place I didn’t know, leaving behind the familiar (and the letter filing), leaving behind my family who all live within a twenty mile radius of my mum.

“The LORD had said to Abram, “Leave your native country, your relatives, and your father’s family, and go to the land that I will show you. I will make you into a great nation. I will bless you and make you famous, and you will be a blessing to others. I will bless those who bless you and curse those who treat you with contempt. All the families on earth will be blessed through you.” Genesis 12:1-3

Abraham was 75 when God asked him to move. Had he been living in the UK in our generation, he would have already moved 5.7 times by then…but he wasn’t. Moving just wasn’t done in Abraham’s day. It wasn’t part of the culture, it wasn’t practical.

Abraham really downsized. He moved from a proper home with proper foundations to a tent. He shifted regularly. He didn’t move within a ten mile radius either,

Leaving you native country, relatives…I did that, but there is a leaving of something else. Leaving behind the familiar doesn’t have to mean heading off to the Amazon and preaching to pygmies. It might mean leaving the spade in the ground and walking over to the fence to talk to your neighbour.

What made Abraham leave?

It wasn’t his knowledge of God because he didn’t know who God was at the time. He came from a nation that worshipped idols.

God said, “I will make you into a great nation”. To get the nation, you need the son. Abraham didn’t have a son. What God was essentially saying to Abraham was “If you want the son, then I can give him to you, but only if you move to where I tell you to go.” The son is tied up in Abraham’s obedience to move. If he stayed where he was, there would be no sons. Abraham wanted the son…he wanted it badly…so he moved.

What do we want so badly that we are prepared to move to get it? The trouble with us is that sometimes we don’t want things that badly. We tell ourselves that we can live without that one thing we want so badly. We change our thinking about that one thing to make it no so necessary. So we stay put. We end up with a life less extraordinary than God intended for us.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Peeling Off the Mask

I just didn’t give it a second thought. I printed off a copy of the all the poems I had written for the Writer’s Digest Poetic Asides Poem a Month challenge. (That was a bit of a mouthful). I gave a copy to a friend. I was delighted that I had completed the challenge and made the crossover from inspirational poetry to writing poems about dandelions and green blackboards.

I forgot that in among the short snappy two liners, and the complicated sestinas, there were a lot of raw poems about the grief of loosing my sister Linda. They were bleak, and dark and sometimes angry. Some of best poems are birthed out of some of the worst of circumstances.

What I had given my friend was an open window straight into my soul. It wasn’t pretty…and yet at the same time, in one of those most mysterious paradoxes we all encounter, it was beautiful. Very strong emotions had leaked out into the poetry. I had lifted the lid on what was really happening in my soul.

In church I wasn’t even attempting to hide my grief, but I made the effort to clean it up a little, make it presentable and palatable to people around me. In my poetry I didn’t. It was just straight from the heart.

Transparency is hard. We all wear masks and show other people the best of us. There is something quite awesome that happens when we peel back off mask and reveal the real us.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Coming Out of the Facebook Closet

I have only myself to blame! I got involved in a conversation with a group of young people about Buddhist enlightenment…as you do. I am neither a Buddhist nor enlightened.

I was trying to explain the concept of enlightenment, not merely as knowing more information, or knowing facts that you didn’t know before. It is, apparently, a new way of looking at things.

A Facebook friend of mine had posted an account of a near-miss with a neighbour’s bullet….that brush with death scenario. It has produced in her an appreciation for life and for all that Jesus had done for her. She was looking at things differently. So, I was using my friend’s experience to illustrate what enlightenment might be like – a new way of looking at things.

The young people were not as impressed with the account of the brush with death and all the repercussions, as with the knowledge that I had a Facebook page! This really impressed them! They wanted to how many friends I had, whether they were “real friends” or cyber pals.

I suppose I should have anticipated the next move. “So and so has added you as friend on Facebook.” is becoming a regular tag in my emails. They tracked me down!

Despite having a Facebook page (and a My Space page…and a Shoutlife page…and a blog…) I am a surprisingly private person. I can’t imagine that anything I get up to can be that interesting to someone young enough to be my granddaughter!

I am “friends” with some of my nieces and nephews. I have had my fill of the pouting poses of a zillion photographs! So you will understand why for the most part I am politely refusing to be friends.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Field Trips Blues

I had my words rehearsed! I was prepared to argue my corner if necessary! When it came to the crunch, however, I said nothing!

I had put my name down for a two day field trip, accompanying a group of children as they were let loose in the forest paths and trails of Highland Scotland. I had also put my name down to stay overnight in one of the lodges.

I have been trying to drag myself out of my shell and become a little more social. This was obviously one of those I-can-do-this moments. I like walking in hills and climbing things. I like nature. The thing I’m not sure that I like is walking hills, climbing things and doing nature with others. This is mostly because I do things slowly. I don’t walk, I amble and all these people that I am going with are not amblers…they march and they walk quickly. It seems that no matter how far in the front I begin, inevitably, I end up trailing in at the end. I actually don’t mind being overtaken, but I do mind coming in last.

So, the meeting was today, at lunch time, to discuss details. I had been away for the previous week because of the funeral. I had deadlines for various projects to meet. I hadn’t filled in the proper forms to be away from work for two days. There were more people on the trip than they had anticipated. Even sleeping arrangements were proving to be difficult to allocate because there was one woman too many! It just seemed the perfect conditions to absent myself. No one was going to be inconvenienced.

There I was, with the organiser, the first person to arrive at the meeting. The words were just about to fall out of my mouth.

I said nothing. I kept quiet.

Actually, I didn’t keep totally quiet. Part of the first day walk involves a very steep hill climb. I have done the trip before, but never done the steep climb bit, on account of there always being some child that for some reason or other can’t do it. Last year it was blisters. The year before that it was potential asthma attacks. I have always volunteered to accompany the non-steep-climbers along a low route back to the car park.

“But they will all go up the steep hill climb!” said one lady.

I am all for getting some of the younger generation to do some exercise but I have a real problem with setting a challenge that some of them just can’t meet. It is not always a matter of don’t-want-to but simply-can’t. You can’t just expect these youngsters who sit in front of computers or TV at home to suddenly find the resources to climb a steep hill!

Truth to tell, making the younger generation do the steep hill climb isn’t really my concern – making me do it is what concerns me! It’s this one not-so-youngster who sits in front of the computer or the TV that is unlikely to find the resources to climb a steep hill!

Monday, May 04, 2009

The Anatomy of a Tear Drop

My mum and I were talking about grief the other day. We were comparing, not our own experiences of what makes us cry, but how other people were handling our tears.

There are some people that almost insist that you fall to pieces and weep on every available shoulder. If you don’t cry they think you are bottling it all up.

There are others that think that you shouldn’t be weeping at all! They have this notion that tears are some kind of betrayal of trust in God. I am not quite sure what they are looking for, but sorrow seems to send out the wrong message.

My mother is sad. She doesn’t want to hear or speak encouragement. I suppose to put it bluntly, she wants to be miserable and enjoy her misery…for a while, at least.

I am also sad. I cry sometimes, but not for long. The minute to begin, there is this voice in my head that says, “Enough! Pull yourself together!” I suppose I am worried that my sorrow will become like a black hole that sucks me in.

I just want to find, I suppose, a right kind of sorrow and a right way to grieve. As I was thinking about it this morning, a phrase came to…”Cry all you have to, but leave room for joy.”

The Anatomy of a Tear Drop

If you could take a tear drop
Just one from all I’ve cried
Manipulate a scalpel and
Into its parts divide

How much is made of sorrow,
The kind that sheds no light,
A sadness that contains within
The darkness of the night?

How much, if just a little
Contains a spark of joy,
That rests upon a promise
That nothing can destroy?

God uses all that happens
To bring about my good
Reminds me there’s no place to stand
Where He has never stood

Sunday, May 03, 2009

The Funeral

I think that, to be honest, one of my overwhelming emotions, during the funeral service of my sister, was actually jealously! There’s a confession!

The service was held in the Mormon church in Northants. A number of people had been invited to speak. Apart from my elder sister and myself, there were two others – a friend of Linda’s who had shared responsibility for teaching the Sunday School children, and a man, possibly a church elder or something.

The first thing I envied was, I suppose, their very obvious and expressed grief. They cried a lot and wiped the tears away as they spoke about her. I suppose that over the last couple of weeks I have done a lot of crying, so it’s not that I haven’t wept buckets. I think it might be all this stiff upper lips thing, and being brave, but during the service – and doing my bit – I didn’t cry. Neither did my elder sister. We were sitting next to each other on the front row, listening to the speakers. I wondered if some people were perhaps wondering how I could be so dry eyed when they were weeping so openly. Maybe it was too much weeping for me – too unrestrained.

The second thing that I envied was how much more they knew Linda than I did. I know that I shared her childhood, but I have a wretched memory at the best of times. They were able to speak for ages about friendship and experiences over decades. Since moving up to Inverness, and before that, I saw Linda very infrequently. Joe and I would visit if we were down to see my mum. She has made it up to Inverness on a few occasions – but our meeting times were few and far between. I am not a phone person – so the spaces between meetings were not filled with phone calls, or letters.

There was almost this desire to tell people to stop crying so much, because they didn’t have the right to own such a close relationship with her…but they did. I was the one without the really close relationship, certainly in the later years.

The lady that spoke at the service came up to me afterwards to ask, rhetorically I think, if I could come and visit her every week, so it would be just like having Linda back in her life! Apparently where I looked like Linda (?) my elder sister sounded like her – the combination of the two of us was Linda to a tee.

My contribution to the service was a poem that I had written, though I did wonder how well it fitted with Mormon theology.

A Warrior's Return

I've fought the battle, won the race
And now I claim my crown
I come before Your throne above
And lay my trophies down

The strength was Yours, the gifting too
My part, but to obey
The light was Yours that showed my path
The lamp that led my way

The tears were mine You wiped away
With gentle, kind caress
The joy was Yours, at my return
Your smile of tenderness

I've fought so long and run so far
But now I'm home with you
And in your arms find peaceful rest
And know your love anew