A Christmas hug

All the way from Nepal

I have been collecting nativity sets for many years now. I have them in all shapes and sizes, made from all kinds of materials. I have them from Germany, Peru, France, India and other countries too.  Last year, Magnet magazine ran an article all about the collection.

When I travelled to Nepal earlier this year, I really hoped to bring one back with me. Sadly, I was unable to find one – and bought a two-dimensional batik of the nativity scene instead.

CLICK for full size

CLICK for full size

Initially, I was disappointed that this was all I could find. However, when I got it home and unrolled it to take a proper look, I noticed one very important detail. Look in the bottom right-hand corner and you will see that the angel is hugging the shepherd. Can you see?

CLICK for full size

CLICK for full size

I was surprised by this, as I had never seen it in any other depiction of the nativity scene. However, a Nepali visitor to my home a couple of weeks ago brought some light to bear.  She explained that, in her homeland, whenever the Christmas story is enacted, great emphasis is placed on the angels telling the shepherds not to be afraid.

What a lovely thing, to depict such a message with a hug, don’t you think?

A bench with a view

The launch of the Fiona Fund

My landscape right now is littered with milestones. They are all marked in years, rather than miles, and they bear the number ‘1’. Each one is a reminder of a year past without my wife and best friend by my side. I miss her more than I can say, and her absence is felt keenly every single day.

In years gone by, we would often walk together by the sea – and Fiona loved nothing more than to gaze at its rolling waves and its ever changing landscape. We always appreciated those who had donated benches in memory of a loved one, as they allowed us to enjoy the view. She was adamant, though, that she did not want to be remembered in such a way. ‘I don’t want people sitting on me’.

Bearing that in mind, we have found a more enduring way to remember her. Throughout her working life, Fiona was an information professional.  A friend described her as someone ‘who dedicated her life to empowering others to be the best that they could be’. This was never more true than when working as a healthcare librarian at St George’s University Library.  In her last years, when hospital visits became both more frequent and more intrusive, it would give her the most tremendous lift to encounter some of ‘her’ students, who had passed through her hands whilst studying for their profession.  Training and knowledge were as much weapons against cancer as hypodermics and scalpels, so far as Fiona was concerned. Remembering this, the Fiona Fund was born.

Each year the Fund will make the Fiona Littledale Award in association with the Patient Experience Network to an oncology nurse who has already demonstrated their personal commitment to developing their skills and understanding of the field. The award will make it possible for them to attend further training by covering the costs associated with it. Just like Fiona herself, this will encourage those who are already prepared to go the extra mile by offering to shoulder some of the burden. Each year the recipient will write a blog post on their training experience, and will be offered the opportunity to host the Fiona Fund Twitter account.

After many months of investigation and preparation, the fund is now open for donations. If you click on the Fiona Fund logo below, it will take you straight to a page where you can join in.

I shall continue to sit on benches by the sea, and every time I do so I shall remember sharing them with my ‘bravest and best’. Meanwhile, the fund established in her name will be making a difference to oncology professionals, and those who benefit from their skills.

FF

 

The last postcard?

Another postcard from the land of grief

There comes a point when living abroad, where to continue sending postcards seems a little odd. After all, you live here now. The tastes, sounds and smells are no longer new. The language and customs may still be a little odd – but you can fit in with them to a degree.  You live here, they live there, and if you want to write it should really be a letter rather than a postcard. I am in the process of writing just such a letter now – and you can find details of it here.

The sun has now risen 365 times without its rays ever falling on her face. I have not made her a cup of tea nor held her hand for 365 days. Suns and moons and stars and mistakes and conversations have all passed by without ever sharing them. I have managed, very falteringly, to live without her. She lives there, I live here and we shall not meet again until I travel to another place more foreign still. It will be foreign to me, I suppose, and yet in the truest sense ever it will be home.

The river dawdles
to hold a mirror for you
where you may see yourself
    as you are, a traveller
          with the moon’s halo
    above him, whom has arrived
    after long journeying where he
          began, catching this
    one truth by surprise 
that there is everything to look forward to.

(R.S Thomas Arrival)

Until that day comes, and today especially – I shall head for the sea.  I shall gaze at its seemingly endless waves. I shall look for its invisible far shore,and I shall choose to believe that on another shore she looks for me.

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On sharing the journey

Another postcard from the land of grief

Years ago, before the loss which now overshadows me was even a cloud on the horizon, I was studying for a Master’s Degree in Preaching. As part of a module on post-modernity I looked at various media which caught the spirit of the age. One of them was the advert below, from the St Luke’s advertising agency:

The advert was all about the power of connection – in good times and bad. When I recorded my latest programme for BBC Radio 4, I had no idea of the number of people in the worldwide ‘stadium’ of the radio audience who would sense a connection with it. They have visited this blog in their 1000s, they have written cards, letters, emails and made phone calls. This land of grief has a population far bigger than I had ever realised.

Many of those who have got in touch have expressed their desire to read the book of the ‘Postcards’ and to be kept informed of its progress. Thanks to my publisher, Authentic Media, they can now do just that. Please visit this page and let them know that you are interested. Writing the remainder of the ‘Postcards’ book is proving to be particularly rocky terrain in this land of grief, and your company would be very welcome.

Thank you

A postcard on the postcards

Thank you for  visiting here after hearing ‘Postcards from the Land of Grief’ on BBC Radio 4 on Sunday October 21st 2018. It is clear that the programme has helped many including some recently bereaved and I am sorry that I am unable to respond individually to all those who have been in touch.  As I pass through my own ‘land of grief’ my capacity for doing so is not what it might have been. The programme is currently available to listen to again here , and you can also click ‘show more’ for a written script which includes the music and CD tracks.  For some practical help, please visit this page at Sue Ryder. You may also find it helpful to join in with the Sue Ryder Online Community here, where you can connect with others facing similar issues. I am delighted to say that when ‘Postcards’ is published next year, all royalties will go to Sue Ryder’s wonderful work.

This land of grief is a strange and daunting landscape, and I am honoured to have provided some companionship for you within it, even for a little while.

Richard

TREE

A Nepali slip of the hand

A journey completed

Eleven months ago, as the house hummed to the sound of the oxygen machine and the stair lift rattled occasionally up and down, I would have thought it inconceivable that I should spend ten days in Nepal this October.  Back then, the thought of trundling through Kathmandu’s dusty streets, gasping with wonder at sunrise over the Himalayas, or soaring 1800 feet above a Nepali lake beneath a para-glider would have been the furthest thing from my mind. So why did I go?

In the last weeks before my #bravestandbest left me for a higher calling, we had talked often about her funeral. We discussed the songs to sing, the way things would be, and where any money raised in her name might go. On the latter, she was keen that it should go to a mission context – but was unsure where that should be.

When the time came to plan it- a good friend introduced me to the work of KISC Equip in Nepal. This remarkable project is taking great strides in introducing best practice to Nepali schools in every context from mountain villages to big cities. Staff, parents and students are learning how to learn all over again, and it is yielding fruit. Since Fiona had dedicated the last few years of her working life to helping others learn how to learn – it seemed like a good fit. On November 16th , some £1800 was raised for the project through the generous giving of family, friends and colleagues. A few weeks later, the idea was born of going to see the project for myself, accompanied by one of my sons and two beloved friends.

There are so many things which I shall remember about Nepal. I will remember the majestic mountains:

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I will remember the lush green valleys:

jungle (Medium)

I will remember the stunning colours everywhere

oldl (Medium)

More than anything, though – I shall remember a morning visit to a tiny yellow school in the shadow of the Himalayas:

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In that school, with its highly motivated head, its dedicated teachers, and its enthusiastic students – I caught a glimpse of what a project like KISC Equip can do. After a tour round the school, we paused for spiced coffee and biscuits beneath the fan in the Principal’s office. With great ceremony, the visitor’s book was passed to me to sign. As I picked it up, I made a slip of the hand I have never made in these past eleven months. I wrote “Richard, Fiona…”. Maybe it was not a slip. Maybe it was because, as I told the school Principal, I could see her everywhere in that little school.

The legacy of my #bravestandbest lives on…

Far away is near at hand

Another postcard from the land of grief

 As I write this, I am a very long way from home. I am several continents and 4500 miles away, in fact. Outside in the street are the toots and cries of a busy street in Nepal, and above me tower the mighty Himalayas. All this could hardly be further from my day to day life at home. And yet, that other country haunts me here.

For my first few days here, I have been following a path laid down by the inspiration of my #bravestandbest. I have spoken to teachers and visited schools where money given in her memory has been invested in the lives of Nepali schoolchildren. Their eager faces and enthusiastic learning would have made her glow with pride, I know.

And now, here in the mountains, i find my heart stirred by their quiet majesty. Silently magnificent, they take my breath away, and I cannot help but think how she would have loved them. Wordless, hands clasped, we would have looked at them and treasured the moment. Eleven months ago today, that became impossible – and I choose to believe that there are other mountains for her to see now.

Years ago, on a railway embankment somewhere between Reading and London Paddington there used to be a piece of graffiti which read ‘far away is near at hand in images of elsewhere’. How true that is today.

Distant figures

Another postcard from the land of grief

Years ago, I used to travel once each year to Serbia, where I lectured in a Bible School. I soon realised how fascinated people were to find out about my life back home, and decided to make those conversations easier. I filled a little photo album with pictures of my ordinary life.  As well as family, friends and colleagues there were pictures of red post boxes, buses, local shops and even the supermarket where I did my shopping. My Serbian friends loved them, and they led to many an interesting conversation.

If I had moved abroad and kept that album – I wonder how it might have looked a few years down the line? Would the once familiar have looked strange, or quaint, or slightly unbelievable?

As I write this now, I have been twisting the wedding ring on my left hand, and looking at the picture below, taken on August 29th 1987. Those two figures at the front of St Salvator’s Chapel in St Andrews look so very far away. They don’t look real to me. In fact they look rather like the figures of a bride and groom you might stand on the icing of a wedding cake.

They are not.  That is my beloved Fiona and I, flanked by her sister on one side and my brother on the other. It was taken just at the moment that we made our wedding vows to each other 30 years and 364 days ago. Like every couple on their wedding day, our heads were filled with dreams of what the future might hold. Many of them came true, and there were many more besides.  Others did not, and I have left them on the far shore of that other country.

I shall not blog tomorrow, but today I wanted to thank God for the 31 years that were. Throughout them I was fortunate enough to have a companion whose faith, wit and steadfast love made me whole. For that, I shall always be grateful. God bless you and keep you, my #bravestandbest

OOS

 

 

Lazy lens?

Technology and seeing

Eleven years ago, as part of the Biblefresh year, I organised a Bible photography exhibition in the church where I was working at the time. Local businesses donated prizes for the different categories and 79 images were submitted by 27 photographers to illustrate 68 different verses. You can read all about it here.  At the time I was asked  whether an image should be taken and then a Bible verse found to fit it, or a Bible verse selected and then an image chosen to illustrate it. I maintained then, as I do now, that it does not matter. If the exercise makes us either look at the world through Biblical eyes, or at the Bible reflected in the world about us – then a good thing is happening.

Yesterday, I came across an app, advertised through a Bible reading platform, which offers to cut out that entire exercise. The app allows you to take, or select, a photo, and the app then generates a Bible text to overlay onto it.

Sometimes the results are both clever and beautiful, turning the everyday into visual reminders of the spiritual:

Sometimes they are puzzling, such as a model seaplane ominously suggesting the verse below:

Sometimes there is a degree of confusion, such as here where both an image of a mosque and the cross generate the same verse:

The app is clever, slick, and will doubtless encourage me to play a lot more as I explore the way it works. If the images above are anything to go by, it could produce some very attractive results.

I can’t help the feeling, though, that it will make me lazy. Will it not short-circuit the creative process through which I went with that Bible exhibition seven years ago? I think the app which helps you see the world through a Biblical lens is called ‘imagination’, and it has been around for a long, long time…

Nothing planned

Another postcard from the land of grief

One of the curious things about living abroad is that the ‘obvious’ special days, the instinctive milestones on your calendar, mean nothing to anybody here. Days which have formed part of your emotional and psycological landscape for as long as you can remember simply do not feature here. My online calendar reflects exactly that truth today:

For just about all my adult life, this day has been an opportunity to celebrate the difference my beloved Fiona makes to the world. Every birthday present bought, every candle snuffed, every ‘happy birthday’ sung has allowed us to rejoice that the world has truly been a better place with her in it. Her fierce loyalty, her brilliant mind and her steadfast love have touched our lives in a million untold ways.

Today, she is not here to celebrate. All those benefits linger on, of course – but who feels like celebrating a birthday when the guest of honour is unable to come? Maybe in future years I will find myself able to celebrate this day once again. Maybe it will become a kind of ‘Fiona day’ to cherish those things which she also cherished. Not this year though.

This year, I walked with Ginny beside the sparkly sea. This year, I laid a single sunflower on the waves and watched until it was washed from sight. My beloved sunflower stands tall, I know – but not where I can see her. 

Stand tall, my love. Happy Birthday