The one about…it meaning something!

“I can’t do this anymore”. I lay down, closed my eyes and stared intensely at the back of my own eyelids hoping for inspiration; a picture, an image, an idea…nothing, just darkness. I sighed and rolled over. It was going to be a long night.

I don’t think I’ve ever felt trapped like this, don’t get me wrong, it’s not an awful place to be trapped, we’re ok, we’re living life. We can’t stay where we are though and we still can’t see a way forward. It feels a little like I’m in one of those horror movies where there’s no way out and the space is slowly filling with water; something has to make sense soon or I am going to drown.

There are occasional glimmers of hope, possibilities that might come to something but nothing ever seems to be straightforward. Yet in the midst of all the job applications, interviews and conversations about our future, the ‘everyday’ takes place; the real demands, joys and sorrows of raising children, seeing friends and sharing life with each other happens; life happens.

It’s easy just to sit and write about love and hope and adventure; to be passionate about the divine, soul and mystery; it’s at this point though that it has to mean something. It has to mean something when life is hard, when there isn’t a plan, when you can see those around you hurting and you can’t fix it. That’s when all the whimsical theological theorising actually has to be true.

This is where I have to believe that this story, the one I find myself living in, makes sense in a bigger story.

This is where I have to decide to love; to be kind and patient with those around me even though other feelings overwhelm me. This is where I also have to choose to love and forgive myself when I don’t love others as I would like to.

This is where, when fear taunts me, I acknowledge it’s existence but I don’t let it take the steering wheel. It’s where, when grief engulfs me, I allow it to do it’s work but I also take a deep breath and dare to keep hoping.

This is where I have to acknowledge that I can’t meet all the expectations placed on me by myself and others, where I admit I don’t even want to meet some of those expectations. This I where I accept that I don’t always cope and that it’s OK not to.

This is also where the tension between science and soul exists, where the logical reasoned approach to life meets the mysterious whisper of what could be and leaves me torn, not really knowing which route to take. This is where I’m left clinging to the belief that it will all make sense despite the fact that sometimes all I really want to do is hide under the duvet and stare at the inside of my eyelids!

So, this is where I choose to believe in the Divine; in a force that holds all things and where I admit that I believe that same force will renew, restore, refresh and resurrect all things, even my story.

This is where what I write means something. Right here, right now!

The one about…expectation!

Life was spiralling out of control. It had been a year since she’d left home but her understanding of who she was and where her life was headed was not becoming any clearer. Her eating habits were becoming more erratic as she desperately tried to have control over something. She’d failed to gain a place at university for the second year in a row and she had sixteen rejection letters to prove it. As she neared the end of her ‘year out’ she was very aware that life wasn’t going as she’d expected, not only had she failed to meet her own expectations she knew she’d pretty much failed to meet everyone else’s. That’s when the cutting began.

Maybe no ones actually got it together, despite appearances. Maybe we’re all living with expectation in some form or another. We don’t expect relationships to require so much work, we’ve been brought up with the fairy tales full of “happy ever afters.” We expect that we’ll find a job we’ll succeed at and enjoy, after all we’ve spent so many years in the education system surely that’s what we’re entitled to. We don’t even expect our loved ones to die when they do, even though we know it will happen to us all eventually, we never really expect death. We’re not really prepared for what life expects of us and sometimes we don’t cope with that!

Maybe we should be taught to manage our expectations; maybe then we’d cope with those feelings of anger, grief, frustration, sadness, loneliness and fear a little better. I imagine though, if we did learn to manage our expectations, that we’d also manage out the joy, laughter, hope and excitement and life would become incredibly monotone or mundane. So we’re left living with the challenge of expectation! Maybe if we could understand expectation our understanding of what it means to cope, or not, would make more sense.

Often in the ordinariness of the everyday we deal with a whole range of emotions because that what life invites. What if intertwined somewhere in those ordinary emotions that we all experience we also juggle that set of expectations placed on us either by ourselves or by others? What if just below the surface of our lives, we’re constantly managing those expectations? Like the pressure from the media to look a certain way, eat certain food or shop in a certain place? Or the pressure from our own family, friends or belief system to live up to a particular way of being in the world. We expect, or are expected, to cope and when we don’t we’re left somewhere between bewildered and depressed.

I know many people grow up with a strongly ingrained set of beliefs and a fierce loyalty to family. When we break away from that and find ourselves “free” of parental control or tribal constraints we take on the challenge of living those expectations. There’s a whole new world to explore. Many of us carry with us throughout life the expectations of the family that raised us, it acts as our moral compass, our marker for how to be in the world! For some that’s intertwined with “religious” belief, for others it’s simply family values. The expectation we get a job, earn money, buy a house, find a partner maybe even have children. Even if we feel our family don’t expect much from us there’s still social expectations that we’ll supposedly conform to. Somehow we learn to cope with those expectations but sometimes we find the demands of them stifling.

Here’s the thing, what if there’s some value in not coping, in not conforming, at least for a while? What if mental or emotional lapses, where we “don’t cope” actually are moments where we discover more about ourselves? What if some breakdowns in stability, some rebellion against societal expectation, or some failure to meet familial goals, are opportunities to reconnect with ourselves, to actually discover who we really are?

It seems that some of the greatest musicians, lyricists, writers and artists often struggled with depression or other issues which compromised their mental health. Some of the most beautful, creative and inspiring work is borne out of that place of pain. What if not coping provides opportunity for creativity to flourish? What if in those moments there is a deeper connection with soul, with meaning and purpose?

What if to some extent we need to celebrate our inability to cope rather than rush to find a quick fix? What if, when the temptation to meet all those expectations takes hold along with the stark reality that we either can’t or simply don’t want to, instead of adopting our usual coping strategies we take time out, to listen to ourselves, to reconnect with who we are and learn from what we’re experiencing because it is actually teaching us something! What if that’s really the role of religion in the world; not to place more expectation on us but to provide spaces and places to reconnect with ourselves and others, to encounter something more and share in the story we find ourselves in. What if then we find we’re better placed to navigate all that life asks of us? What if there’s something about being more honest with ourselves and others that allows us all to realise everyone’s just figuring it out, no one is completely sorted and everyone else is doing today for the first time too?

The one about…coping.

Alone, she sat, the silver blade pressed against her arm. Slowly and deliberately she moved the metal across her skin, the gaping flesh making way for the trickle of the thick crimson blood.

She tried hard to work out how she felt as she watched the blood ooze from the wound. There was no anger or fear, she didn’t feel any pain, it was something else….relief, she felt relief.

Relief that she was still alive, the blood was proof of that much. Relief that she finally had something that was hers, something secret and special, her own way of retreating from the world. Relief that she could still feel, the tears had long since run out and she wasn’t sure she was capable of feeling anymore but for that moment she felt peaceful, content and alive.

The warm blood ran down the inside of her arm and for a while she watched in awe of the beauty, the colour, the warmth, the pattern it made as she traced the lines and then, very calmly she picked up a tissue and pressed it over the gaping skin, she lay back in the bed and for the first time in a long time she genuinely smiled.

She wasn’t sure how long she lay there for, or if she slept but when she did finally move she very carefully tended to her wound. It never crossed her mind that it might heal better with stitches, or that it could get infected….all that made sense was that now she had something to care for, a reason to look after herself and probably for the first time, something about herself that she loved.

The cutting continued for months, not every day and rarely as a result of anger. It was her secret, her moment of punishment and protection, penance and passion, revulsion and tenderness, a tangible expression of self loathing and yet also a reason to love herself. A living articulation of the great paradox of life; a way she could express, hold, contain and release some of those emotions she struggled to otherwise give language to.

She knew people judged her for it, labelled her as mentally ill, maybe she was but maybe most people were! Maybe they just chose the more socially acceptable methods of processing their emotions.

Those days, months, years were not my finest, not moments I’m proud of but I equally don’t regret living life that way. I guess I do regret the pain I caused to those who loved me, the worry and the disappointment they felt but I hold to the belief that those years shaped me. I also know that still, when life is overwhelming and the myriad of emotions that confuse any given experience seem to take over I think about finding a blade. I never have. I stopped cutting over fifteen years ago when I realised that it had become a habit rather than a release. I guess I’ve found other ways to understand, hold and express how I feel.

What I’ve also come to realise is that when those emotions dominate and all I want to do is hide away or distract myself from the intensity of feeling they demand, instead of employing yet another coping mechanism I’m now more able to name that emotion and mark it as holy! I know! Sounds a little crazy right!

Here’s how I now understand all of this: we all face times in life where emotions surface. Sometimes stirred by a song or a film, sometimes evoked by a smell or a sound. Sometimes storming to the forefront of who we are because of words spoken or words left unsaid; a response to our own or others actions. There are occasions of immense sadness and grief, others that cause us to fear or to doubt, some that just make us angry. Yet there are also times where a deep sense of joy and connection to something more releases feelings were not sure what to do with. I know now that there are many ways of releasing, burying or ignoring emotions; that extra glass of wine, an intoxicatingly wrong relationship, another evening spent watching pointless television or indulging in that extra piece of cake. Some of those ways we use to cope aren’t healthy, aren’t the best for us and others are deemed more acceptable, like an addiction to exercise or work. We all find ways of coping. Other times we don’t “cope” and we find ourselves reeling from the shock, embarrassment or disappointment of another outburst.

Yet what if we choose to name those emotions that hold us so violently. Fear. Doubt. Loneliness. Anger. Anxiety. Confusion. Grief. Hope. Joy. What if we draw a circle around whatever it is we’re feeling and allow it just to be. Not good or bad, just holy.

What if it sits in that holy circle either until the intensity passes or until we’re ready to deal with it, or more fully enjoy it? What if we listen carefully and calmly to what it’s telling us about where our life is at but we don’t allow it to push us into unhealthy behaviours or dependencies. What if we dare to stay awake, fully present in our own lives, in tune with who we are and where our lives are headed? What if some moments are simply holy, set apart as unexplainable, and uncontrollably beautiful? What if we have the courage to embrace that! What if that’s what it means to be fully human, fully alive? What if it all belongs? What if in that place we can truly know what love is?

The one about…mourning

mourn

/mɔːn/

verb

feel or show sorrow for the death of (someone), typically by following conventions such as the wearing of black clothes.

feel regret or sadness about (the loss or disappearance of something).

Mourning can take many forms and opportunities to mourn can vary. We mourn the loss of a job or relationship. The realisation that a situation has changed and we’re not going to do life in quite the same way can leave us feeling bereft of familiar routines, experiences or places and a type of mourning takes place. Most commonly though, when we talk of mourning, we talk of it in relation to physical death.

Mourning death varies from culture to culture. In the UK we’re often quite ordered and reserved, a viewing of the body is generally only for immediate family and the work of preparing the body for burial is left to a funeral director. Funerals are often solemn occasions, followed by burial or cremation and then a shared meal with family and friends.

In other parts of the world though the deceased’s body stays with the family, openly on view for visitors to pay their respects. Some cultures are very vocal and express their grief with wailing or song. Some cultures have set mourning periods with rituals that have to be observed.

Across the world, however it’s carried out, mourning is recognised as an outward expression of grief, a more visible, tangible display of those feelings we hold inside.

Mourning isn’t just culturally influenced, our personality, previous experiences and relationship to the deceased also influence when, where and how we mourn. However we practice mourning, however prescriptive our tribes methods of mourning are, mourning is a healthy part of the grieving process.

There ability and need to mourn privately has its place and is unique to the individual but there is something beautiful that occurs when a community comes together to mourn. While each individual holds their own thoughts and feelings the act of sharing together allows a deeper sense of solidarity and understanding to be expressed. In coming together there’s also somehow a recognition that the need to mourn isn’t always in proportion to the loss experienced. This shared experience is often one which strengthens community and unites those who participate. Mourning together goes further though because it allows space for community members to comfort each other, to stand alongside each other, it requires courage to admit feelings and to hold others feelings alongside our own.

It seems that often as we mourn what’s taking place is an admission of those feelings that are deepest within us. For most people death within the community or family stirs our deepest fears about our own mortality. It’s as though death reminds us how vulnerable we are and how uncertain life is. Maybe death isn’t just the loss of someone but also the loss of our own innocence and security and a reminder that we can’t hold anything too tightly.

What if this is why mourning is so essential? What if mourning allows us to feel those fears, to let them surface and to acknowledge them in the presence of others who share those feelings too.

So as those feelings of sadness and fear surface, as moments of despair, hopelessness and grief manifest what if we choose not to avoid feeling? What if we’re not too quick to distract ourselves from feeling? What if we choose not to bury those feelings underneath the mundanity of life or deny their existence but what if instead we allow ourselves to feel, to embrace feeling and to be embraced because what if that’s where we find life?

Mourning is painful, mourning requires vulnerability but what if, in doing so, we create an opportunity to know ourselves a little more, to allow others in and to allow love to comfort and heal? Maybe it’s good for us to mourn…

The one about…the journey!

We moved to Peterborough four and a half years ago, seven of us, on a crazy adventure to a city we didn’t know and people who didn’t know us. To be honest, the very little we knew about the area wasn’t great. The ‘Peterborough ditch murders’ had taken place a year or so before we moved, carried out by someone who lived less than a mile from our house…when you don’t know an area you can be very quick to make assumptions, that along with the fact that both the church houses had been broken into in the months leading up to our move!

Alongside all those events though, the universe was speaking to us! We were invited to meet our prospective training vicar in September 2013. In the run up to the meeting we found an old bible that had been written in by our eldest daughter a year or so before. We’d never noticed but in her scribbled, seven year old handwriting was a prayer: “when we move house can I have my own room and can there be silver birch trees in the garden”. We were given a tour of the parish and shown our possible new home, where there were four bedrooms and silver birch trees in the garden! A couple of weeks after visiting Peterborough for the first time I had a miscarriage. It was a surreal time; the excitement of a whole new adventure, in a city we were slightly fearful of, without a baby we thought we’d be having. Yet the answer to the scribbled prayer connected with us so deeply that as a way to remember the baby and the significance of all that was happening, I had a silver birch tree leaf tattooed on my hand. I’m reminded each time I look at it that there’s a bigger plan and that we were meant to be here!

We’re still here and the adventure has been awesome! We arrived as a family of seven and now we’re a family of nine, with hundreds more friends! Our time here has opened our eyes to the variety that the role of priest or vicar offers. We get the jokes about how Sid only works Sundays…we can see how people think that! There is more to the job though. We have the privilege of sharing with people in key moments; through baptisms, weddings and funerals. We join with those who are celebrating and stand with those who are mourning, it’s humbling to be part of people’s lives. The role here has been so much more than that though too. We’ve been involved in the parish primary school as chaplains, mentors and on the governing body. Sid has taken on role of chaplain to the youth team at Peterborough United and then there are the relationships and conversations that grow out of simply living in a place, of doing the school run, or of taking your kids to clubs. It’s a whole way life.

Out of all those things we’ve also been able to experiment with what church might be, trialing a different way of being church. During the summer before we moved here, we created a list of ‘values’ that we thought were important for church, the key elements of what church could be, based on a combination of experience, reading and Sids training at college. When we came to Peterborough there was an understanding that we’d get to try and put some of our “theory” into practice! We called it “Refresh” and we held a monthly gathering where we talked about things of God, and pondered some of what makes us human; we shared food and formed friendships. Out of this other things began to grow, a weekly tots group, podcasts on the themes of the month and a blog!! In some ways we just began to touch the surface of what we’d like to do, mainly because the role of priest required time and energy too but also because our future here has always been uncertain.

We moved here for a three year training post, knowing that we’d then move on to our own parish. However, nothing’s that straightforward! Fifteen months into the training post, the vicar who led the two churches left. Sid took on the responsibilities of the role of vicar until the lines between curate and vicar blurred. At the end of his three year training post we were given the opporunity to stay for another year and continue the role of helping the two churches work together and become, in Church of England speak, a “united benefice”! A challenge which all involved threw themselves into. It speaks into what church should be: a place where people come together, listen to each other, seek to connect with the Divine. All of this required everyone to give of themselves, to love, forgive and celebrate…it’s a journey we’ve been on together as church. In the midst of that journey though we have had conflicting, confusing messages about our role here, some of that from our own understanding of what we may or may not be ‘called’ to do and some from the institution we work for, who ultimately decide whether we stay or go.

I guess when the vicar left and we continued the work here it seemed to make sense that we’d stay. I know at one point we wrestled with that because we’d always believed we’d have to move on. Staying became a new concept, something we found hard to comprehend at first. There’s a big difference between staying in a place long term and frequently moving. The community here have made it clear that they would love us to stay, which also speaks of what it is to be church, but it’s not that simple. It’s been painful and confusing as well as life giving and exciting. It’s been a time of soul searching, of prayer and conversation as we try to work out what it is we’re passionate about and what we’d give our lives to doing. Something I don’t think we would have explored so deeply if we’d found another parish two years ago!

So here we are, still uncertain about where we’ll do life in 2019 but with some clarity about what we’ll be doing. Our heart, our passion is to create church, Prodigal Church to be precise. Our vision? To be a church in the community, for the community, a spiritual centre of the community but with a very practical, action centred vision to make a difference for good, to go beyond ourselves and our limited experience; to love and look out for each other and those around us and as we discover more of what life in all its fullness looks like for all people!

We’re not sure where this will happen, we’re still trying to figure that out. It’s a little scary with two pay cheques left, especially when the house comes with the job! Yet it’s exciting and briming with possibilities. Life is an adventure; birthing something new is painful…but it’s always worth it!

The one about…death (part two- or is there?!)

I’ve been thinking about death all week and wondering why we don’t find it easy to talk about. I don’t think it’s because we’re not interested, it’s the one thing that affects everyone, no matter who they are, how much they have or what they do. I also can’t imagine that it’s because we don’t have anything to say. Most people I know have encountered death in some form and even if that’s not the case I’d be surprised if they’ve never thought about it. So why don’t we talk about it more?

I guess partly because it’s painful, the grief can be overwhelming and when you know you’re not going to hold it together it’s easier not to talk. I’ve been there, I get that. Yet even when that raw, seemingly relentless, suffocating kind of grief begins to ease a little we’re still reluctant to talk. It’s awkward, maybe we’re worried we’ll scare someone with our story or our thoughts, maybe we’re fearful of offending someone, of saying the wrong thing, of making it worse. Maybe were sacred that what we feel or think isn’t ‘normal’ and we’ll sound a little crazy! But what if what we’re actually most afraid of is death itself?

Part of the problem with death (other than the glaringly obvious finality of it) is that we don’t really know much about it. We don’t know what it feels like. We don’t know when it will happen, we don’t know how it will happen and we don’t know where it will happen and we don’t really know what happens other than the physical symptoms?! One thing we do know is that it will happen! It will happen, despite the wrinkle cream, the hair colourants or any of our other attempts to stay looking young. It will happen despite the over indulgence in wine or work or retail therapy or social media, despite any of our attempts to keep busy, any of our attempts to distract ourselves from reality, to not to have to think too deeply about life…despite all that, death will still happen! We can choose to keep ignoring it or we can start to embrace thoughts and conversations about it…because there’s something about facing our fears, something about sharing our thoughts with others that helps. It helps us realise we’re not alone, helps it’s realise what is ‘normal’ and helps us form more of an understanding about what we believe might happen when we die.

Now, I am not dead (as far as I know) and having never died I simply don’t have the answer to the ‘what happens’ question. I know there are a plethera of opinions and postulations about what happens next. Some people, go for a belief in oblivion, nihilism, the understanding that there is nothing more. Somehow for me that falls short, I guess I’ve sensed something more in my encounters with death.

The night my dad died, after seeing the sheet covering his head, I didn’t go back into the room. The funeral directors took him away. I went to visit him, his body, in the funeral home a couple of days later with a family friend. She stood at a distance as I walked to the table he lay on. I stared at him, he looked as though he was sleeping. I touched his cheek really gently, more out of intrigue than anything else. I remember just watching him, hoping he’d wake up. He didn’t. I’ve no idea how long I stood there for, no tears, just a kind of awe and confusion and wonder and lostness….an eleven year old encountering something there just weren’t the words for.

The reality is that words are limiting. We can’t really describe what happens when we witness death, all of our words fall short, they don’t fully capture what we experience or how we feel.

I remember looking at his body, touching him, bemused by the familiarity and yet the unrecognizable, the memories that his face had shared and the emptiness staring out. What made him “him” had gone. Gone where? I don’t know, but there was a strong sense that something bigger than physical death had occurred. There was something about spirit, essence, aura, soul, something more, something deeper that I didn’t have words for, something I couldn’t fully comprehend, something had changed.

I don’t know if all of that’s just a desperate attempt to convince myself that there’s something more than this life, stirred by my cultural and religious beliefs and fuelled by not wanting to accept that some of those I’ve loved are no longer here. Or if there really is something more. I’ve never met anyone who’s encountered death so closely and written it off as a matter of fact with a ”that’s that done then”.

I know not everyone’s encounter with death is as straightforward as I’ve described but often when we do find ourselves able to talk about those final moments, when the initial shock and pain have subsided, we use words like beauty, stillness, mystery, as though the moment of passing is something deeply spiritual. We talk of it being a privilege to have shared in that moment, to be part of something so much bigger than the now.

One thing I have realised as I’ve thought more about death is that those with a strong shared cultural or religious certainty seem more able to talk about death. Those who have a framework for what happens next seem more able to hold it, deal with it, interact with it.

So I guess the next question to wrestle with is ‘what do I believe happens next’? If I don’t believe in oblivion, if I do believe there’s something more then what might that look like? Is there something beyond this life? An afterlife? Eternal life? Are we reincarnated into something our someone else? Is any of the next life dependant on this life? Is this life part of a bigger story told by the universe and does love have anything to do with it? I think there needs to be a part three!

The one about… death (it’s just the beginning!)

Death, we’re often so reluctant to talk about death, well the British are! It’s as though we just don’t have the words or the courage or any structure to naturally hold it, despite the fact that it’s the one thing we’ve all got coming our way.

Yet we’re intrigued by it, religions are built around trying to understand the afterlife; we read books or watch films, many of which feed our fascination with death. Halloween is fast approaching and so the trailers for the next big horror movie are being screened. I’ve never really been into horror films, the closest I got was Gremlins and that was by mistake!! Yet there’s something about horror movies that draws so many people in! I’m not a media studies expert, and I’m sure there are PHDs written on such subjects but there is something about the afterlife, about how it all ends, about the fear and the unknown, that we long to explore as we look to our own deaths and that of the planet. Yet, the reality is that, despite our fascination, when we have to confront it with friends or family we find it awkward, uncomfortable and frightening. We need outlets to explore death, a way to encounter it, safely?!

My first encounter with death was a relatively safe one! Toby, our cat, died when I was about 7. I cried as we buried him in the garden. Four years later death returned to our family, this time taking my dad. I was 11, my brother 9, he was only 41. Cancer. We found out at the end of the October half term and by Christmas he was gone. Six surreal weeks. I remember vividly the activity in and around the house in the early hours of December 14th. I stood outside the door of my parents bedroom…I could hear my mum talking to people downstairs. I opened the door and my dad lay there, the top of the bed sheet covering his face, just like in the movies, but this was very real. I closed the door and walked back to my bed. I don’t remember much else other than the devastating realisation that I’d not said goodnight, that night of all nights. We held his funeral five days later, the chapel packed and the house afterwards seemed even busier. My brother went to stay with friends for a few days, I stayed at home with my mum and grandad, my mum’s dad, who’d come to stay for Christmas. That night, after the last guests left, I went to bed with a compelling urge to go in and say goodnight to my grandad, something I didn’t usually do. He never woke up.

Those days were strange and painful and somewhat unreal. I remember returning to school before Christmas and no-one expected to see us, no-one mentioned what we’d been through apart from one teacher. It was as though there just weren’t the words, or there wasn’t a script written or a framework to hold that story in!

Three weeks after that my mum found my dad’s uncle hanging from a wardrobe and we found ourselves sitting in church again, staring at a coffin.

There’s much that could be said about all that! My mum is one of the most incredible women I know, the strength and love she relentlessly demonstrated despite her own grief is inspirational. I know the events of those few weeks changed me and my brother in ways we’ll never fully comprehend. I know the death of my dad still haunts me and that at times I still miss him. I also know that I don’t talk about him very much, that I rarely look at pictures and that I’ve never really understood how to continue his memory. I do wonder if the children will look like him, I didn’t know him well enough to really know if they’re like him in other ways. I know that I and many others, don’t really know what to do with death.

So, over the next couple of weeks, inspired by conversations with friends, I’m going to read up on how other cultures and countries embrace death and celebrate life, I’ll consider whether religion helps or hinders our interaction with death and try to figure out how love holds us within the bigger story as we navigate the path between this life and the next. We need to talk more about death.