There is no ‘just’ to just looking

A review of ‘Into the tangled bank’ by Lev Parikian

As a writer, I am never overly comfortable with people ‘summing up’ the books I have written.  After all that thinking, writing, editing and re-writing, it seems a little unfair. Even so, I am hoping that Lev Parikian will forgive me for summarising his book in two words:

Just Look

I do so because that is the essential message of this book. With gentle humour and self-deprecating wit the author urges us to do that.  He encourages us to look at the birds, or the flowers, or even the spider – and see what is really there.  He also uncovers the peculiar anthropomorphism of our relationship with nature, whereby we invest some species with positive characteristics -such as a ‘cheery’ robin, or others with more negative associations, such as a moth.  It takes a writer of outstanding skill and patience to make me think that a spider might be anything even close to worthy of a second look – but he has done it!

The book is somewhere between travelogue and a nature journal, with a bit of Bryson-esque humour thrown in. Its sparkling quality is its tone.  This book is not ‘preachy’ or ‘worthy’ or intense as nature writing can sometimes be.  Plunge in and let this skillful writer take you on a walk or three with him.  You won’t regret it, and you’ll probably want to go out yourself for further exploration too.

As an inveterate early-morning walker, I leave you with Lev’s description of that time of day. If poetry is the art of bending words into shapes which make us see the world differently, then he should add ‘poet’ to the list of his many skills.

‘There’s that heady feeling of being a conspirator in the hatching of a new day, the knowledge that whatever the ensuing hours may hold, I’m giving it my best shot’.

LEV

Less than blissful ignorance

Dying Awareness Week 2020

Why ever do we need a dying awareness week?  We are all aware of that other great certainty, taxation – but we don’t have to chat about it!

The thing is, when it comes to dying, we probably do.  Research last year commissioned by Sue Ryder revealed that 7 out of 10 adults have never talked to their loved one about what might happen when they die.  The result is either a hurried conversation when brain or body are beyond it, or no conversation at all, followed by silence and regret.  This particular conversation is one which my late wife and I had many times.  Sometimes we talked about the last days and how they would be.  Sometimes we talked about her legacy amongst family and friends.  Sometimes we talked about her funeral. The main thing is that we talked. The spectre of death is robbed of some of its power as we talk about it.

I have been talking a lot about it since.  It has been my privilege to assist with the launch of two national campaigns for Sue Ryder: a better grief and a better death. Working in partnership with Authentic Media, I wrote Postcards From the Land of Grief, and have seen many touched by its honesty.  The book charts my journey through the first year of bereavement – with all the strangeness, challenge and reassurance which it brought. I have also spoken about the subject numerous times on air, to the extent that a friend in the radio business described me as ‘the death guy‘.

That is most definitely not a moniker I would have chosen. However, to act as some small kind of catalyst in these conversations has been a real privilege. To take a little bit of the terror out of having ‘the conversation’ has felt like a good thing. One of the advantages of the ‘postcard’ format has been that it encourages a ‘dipping in’ approach. Like flicking through a collection of postcards in a shop,  you can pick something up when it seems to speak to you.

I close with a quote from the book, and an invitation to read it this week. After all, dying matters.

It continues to surprise, this land of grief. Its topography is so hard to read – like the shifting sands of the desert. To climb a tiny hill can feel like scaling a mountain – leaving the lungs gasping for air at the top. Once scaled, the view behind may be spectacular, but the view ahead is hidden, at least for now. Some of the valleys which look like no more than a ditch prove to have sides so steep that they all but blot out the light.

Postcards front cover

 

A small thing of beauty

A review of ‘All things bright and beautiful’ by Jean Claude

Just before I picked this book up to review it, I read a message from somebody in lock-down urging people to share some small thing which lifted their spirits in this grey and heavy time.  I believe that this book will do just that.

I have now been a Christian minister for over 30 years, and yet I learnt Cecil Alexander’s hymn before I even had a faith to call my own. Sitting cross-legged on the hard wooden floor of our primary school assembly – someone would hammer out the tune on the tired old piano whilst the redoubtable Mrs Preston would urge us to enunciate each word to perfection!

In this gorgeous book, Jean Claude has taken a hymn which is over 150 years old and made it accessible and attractive to those of yet another generation. Each page is filled with rich colour – and enough detail to keep you coming back for a second, third or umpteenth time.  There is a special surprise with the ‘trees in the Greenwood’ too – although I shall leave you to find it for yourselves!

The book will be treasured my many, and will add to the enduring quality of this wonderful hymn.

ALLTHINGS

 

Marvin the Maple

When only a story will do

In the past few days, I have been in conversation with one of those people whose blend of compassion and skill makes the NHS the wonder that it is. Kath is the Director of Children’s nursing at St Barts hospital, and acutely aware of the impact that Covid-19 is having on those of all generations. In particular, she made me aware of the impact on children from the loss of a significant adult in their lives. This little film will help you to understand a little more about it: As the numbers in this pandemic mount, so the needs increase, and capacity to meet them diminishes.  Who will sit and talk to the children, and how will they go about it?

Sometimes, a story can be the greatest tool to enable the hardest conversation.  Some of you may remember The Tale of the Little Owl , and the remarkable collaboration which brought it about.  The story was written to help children deal with the loss of a sibling, so something new was required for the new challenge.

In consultation with Kath, I have written a new story today -all about a little tree called Marvin, who loses one of the big trees who always looks out for him. You can read a tiny excerpt below. I am appealing for help in getting this story illustrated as quickly as possible. We shall then try to make it available as an ebook as soon as we can. The ebook route avoids the complexities and timescales of print publishing. It also means we can get the story into the hands of those who need it with no worries about infection control.

Could you help me to find an illustrator?  Could you offer any other skill to get this off the ground?

If so, please contact me via the comments box here, or on Twitter @richardlittleda

Thank you

April put her head on one side, the way blackbirds love to do – and she could see the problem.  In the night, the old oak tree had fallen – and it would not stand tall again.  There would be no more snow building up on its branches, and there would be no golden leaves when Autumn came.  Landing gently on Marvin’s lowest branch, which bent beneath her weight – she tried to explain.

‘I think he was tired’, she said.  ‘Maybe it was time for him to lie down now, instead of standing up’.  The little tree shivered at the thought.  ‘Even the biggest trees fall sometimes Marvin’, she chirped gently. 

UPDATE – an illustrator has now been found, and is working on the project, although help with creating the ebook would still be appreciated.

TREEE

A love song…

… to the idea of church

Yesterday I attended a seminar on ‘spiritual abuse’ – something about which I knew very little. One of the key hosts,Professor Lisa Oakley, opened my eyes to what can go wrong in communities of faith with a disarming honesty and humility which really made me think.

Reflecting on the lessons of the day, I wrote the words below. I have called them a ‘love song to the idea of church’, which I hold very dear:

I want to be in a church where I can be the Beta version of me, knowing that something better is on the way.

I want to be in a church where service is given, not taken.

I want to be in a church where words about the Word are always words of life.

I want to be in a church where forgiveness is always necessary and always possible.

I want to be in a church where communion is shared always and visible sometimes

I want to be in a church where the spelling of fellowship may be wonky but the grammar of love is absolute.

I want to be in a church which He is happy to own.

Would you like to be there too?

DBdNIkZWsAASQli

 

A blaze of light

A shepherd remembers

(Preached at Newbury Baptist Church on December 22nd 2019)

I want you to imagine, if you can, a dark hillside. At first – it looks uniformly dark but as your eyes adjust – you see the indistinct, moving shapes of sheep begin to come into focus. Look harder still – and you will see what appears to be one older shepherd sat on the ground. One arm holds a staff, and the other seems to make a tent to one side.
Look harder now – and see that a boy, aged 8 or 9 is snuggled into that tent – eyes on his grandfather’s wizened face as they are caught up in an animated conversation in the moonlight. Creep a little closer and you can hear what they are saying.

The grandfather is telling him the stories of shepherds from long, long ago.  There is father Abraham with his many many flocks and above him the canopy of God’s sparkling stars. There is David, fearless with wolves, bears and giants. There are others – the old man’s face twists as if tasting something bitter when he talks of shepherds gone by – leaders who trampled their flocks and left the lambs for dead.

These are not the stories the boy wants to hear. Tugging insistently at the old man’s robe he pleads with him. Tell me about that night – the night the skies lit up.

The old man stops, looks at the boy’s pleading face, then looks away to the edge of the hillside as if to focus on something in the distance as he speaks. You have to understand, my boy, that we were the outcasts. Nobody trusted us with anything other than their sheep. The rich ones would wrinkle their noses when it was time to bring their lamb to the gate for slaughter. The priests would wring their hands and wash over and over again at the horror of touching us when they took the Passover lambs at the temple gate. This hillside was bedroom, bathroom, toilet and home for months at a time. Even when we did go home, others would cross the village street so as not to be downwind of us.

The boy’s face crumples with sorrow as the old man says ‘nobody wanted us near…and nobody trusted us’ .‘But God did’, the boy whispers, caught up so much in the story that his usually loud voice is hushed. Looking momentarily shocked at the use of the sacred name – the old man looks down kindly at the boy and nods. ‘He did’, he says ‘He did’. And continues the story

That night the darkness was a thing you could feel – like a thick, old velvet curtain draped about the hillside muffling the sounds and dulling the stars. When it started, it was as if someone had poked a hole through from the other side – a sharp needle prick letting through the brilliant light beyond. Then there was another and another and another – 10,000 pinpricks of light – pouring through on those who least deserved it.

The boy looks hurt that his grandfather should describe himself so – but lets him gather himself before the story goes on.I cannot tell you whether it was a voice, a trumpet call or a choir stretching to the sloping edges of the sky – but I know what it said.
GLORY to GOD IN THE HIGHEST it said – the hillside beneath us shuddering with every syllable AND ON EARTH PEACE.  ‘To those on whom his favour rests’ the boy continues – for he has heard the story before.

The old man doesn’t hear him. He has stopped talking and his hand is clutching at tufts on the hillside -as if searching for something he has dropped there. He is biting his lip and the boy has never seen him like this. He tugs anxiously at his sleeve as if to ask what is wrong

We went to pieces, boy. We fell to the ground and waited till all the holes in the dark blanket closed over again and we were alone. We were afraid. No-one ever spoke to us – so why should God himself tell us such a thing? Had we imagined it? Had the years on the lonely hill made us hear the thing for which we longed the most? The boy shakes his head vigorously at the very thought, and the old man tousles his hair.

If you had been there, you would have been the first on your feet, boy. The bravest of us did just that. He stood up, tightened his belt like a man on a mission, and told us we should go and see for ourselves. After all – a babe in a manger would be such a thing that it could only prove the words we had heard.

And so it was. We went, we saw, we worshipped and we KNEW both God and ourselves as never before. We had imagined NOTHING.

We had been TOLD – personally told that the world had changed. That night we told everyone we saw – even the ones who wanted to avoid us. The news was bigger and better than us, you see?

A cast member prays before a Wintershall nativity performance

A cast member prays before a Wintershall nativity performance

A dog’s view of loyalty

Ginny speaks

Readers of this blog who preach will be familiar with the sermon-put-to-bed-but-what-about-the-children feeling. I was struck by exactly that feeling as I laced my shoes on for a dog walk yesterday morning. This was the result, shared this morning and very warmly received.

___

Yesterday morning I looked at Ginny as I put my shoes on, and she looked back at me, willing me to hurry up. I said to her : ‘what shall I say to the children tomorrow morning about loyalty to Jesus?

Picture1

This is what she said – or would have done if she weren’t a dog.

Picture2

Always walk together, because together is good.

Picture3

Always listen just as hard as you can to him.

Picture4

Don’t run too far ahead of him.

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And don’t lag too far behind him either.

Picture6

If you get separated from him – be sure to hurry right back.

Picture7

Hold on tight to him when things are scary.

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You can always be yourself – just the way you are, with him.

Picture9

Try to help him with the important things if you can.

Picture10

Pay close attention to the Bible.

Do all that – she said, and you will know what loyalty is all about. Simple!

Picture11

 

 

On sacred space

Memory and loss

Yesterday, I visited a cathedral of sorts. Like most of its kind, the soaring height and sweeping beams seemed to engulf the visitor – turning them into a small part of something bigger. Inside, there were relics, preserved in glass that the faithful might see them as they shuffled by. Here were pieces of folk art and more formal tributes all woven together into a single narrative – a tale of good and bad, heroes and villains.

As is often the case, for me, the space outside seemed somehow more sacred – a spirituality which blossoms beneath the open sky, perhaps. The memorial below took my breath away with a reaction so visceral it almost floored me.  Here was a picture of loss like no other I have ever seen. Millions of tiny droplets fall down and down and down – swallowed up into a black hole from which they never return. Here is loss, and loss and loss – ever receding and never returning.  Like a waterfall of tears they fell – catching the Autumn colours as they did.

In this first week of November, again, I am glad to have seen it.3FA1E24E-A6AE-4098-98ED-A36DB000C2FE

 

Growing here…and there

Another postcard from the land of grief

Those of you who have read ‘postcards‘ will know quite how important trees are to my particular story. As a Christian, I believe strongly that those which are felled here go onto grow there.

treepoem

Seventy-one and counting

Another year of Team NHS

For the past two years, I have published a list of reasons to be thankful for the NHS on the occasion of its birthday. This year, to my great embarrassment, I let the day slip by. That is no reason not to publish another, longer, list though. Here are 71 reasons to be thankful…

1. For every hand held
2. For every restless researcher, in pursuit of an elusive cure
3. For every patient receptionist, calming the anxious arrival
4. For every porter, expert in negotiating emotions as well as corners
5. For every play therapist, busying imaginations whilst bodies rest
6. For every phlebotomist, extracting the stuff of life in order to give it back
7. For every cleaner, fighting a battle with the invisible enemy
8. For every medical student, eager to join the fray
9. For every GP, meeting whatever comes through the door with professionalism
10. For every nurse, working out the meaning of care by delivering it
11. For every anaesthetist, measuring life by breaths.
12. For every surgeon, wounding to heal
13. For every tea poured
14. For every chaplain, speaking volumes, sometimes with words
15. For every physiotherapist, moved by movement
16. For every pharmacist who regards precision as the best medicine
17. For every radiographer, looking hard at what cannot be seen
18. For every occupational therapist, paying extraordinary attention to the ordinary
19. For every paediatrician, with big patience for little patients
20. For every hand washed
21. For every paramedic, always quick, never rushed
22. For every midwife, treating each birth as if it were the only one
23. For every theatre technician, using tools and loving people
24. For every audiologist, savouring the sound of sound
25. For every breath monitored
26. For every oncologist, fighting a battle cell by cell
27. For every medical school lecturer, honing tomorrow’s talent
28. For every manager, balancing competing needs whilst life hangs in the balance
29. For every volunteer greeter, lowering the threshold for those who fear to step over it
30. For every immunologist helping each me to fight back
31. For every nurse practitioner – caring, advocating and communicating
32. For every endocrinologist, whose moans are hormones
33. For every psychologist, whose landscape is the mind
34. For every prosthetist, whose best limbs are not their own
35. For every brow furrowed
36. For every caretaker who takes care that others might deliver it
37. For every secretary who controls a diary to set its owner free
38. For every cardiologist, never missing a beat
39. For every volunteer driver, getting people to places
40. For every chiropodist, healing the heels
41. For every caterer, feeding those too tired to taste
42. For every geriatrician who believes getting old should be getting better
43. For every Community psychiatric nurse whose patch is people
44. For every bed manager who rarely sees their own
45. For every ward clerk who keeps track because they keep up
46. For every ward housekeeper who keeps house like it was home
47. For every opthalmologist who sees what seeing is
48. For every practice nurse jabbing flu in the arm
49. For every speech therapist, who wants all to have a voice.
50. For every dentist, by gum
51. For very heartbeat counted
52. For every dietitian , fed by a desire to help
53. For every staff nurse, professionally compassionate
54. For every ward sister, compassionately professional
55. For every dermatologist, whose care is more than skin deep
56. For every gastroenterologist, sick to the stomach at preventable illness
57. For every medical librarian, who wields information like a scalpel
58. For every first cry
59. For every Orthopaedist, bone tired but mending bones
60. For every neurologist, who minds
61. For every tear shed
62. For every counsellor whose door is open
63. For every pathologist, for whom the worst disease is inaction
64. For every obstetrician for whom every birth is a triumph
65. For every estates manager for whom the building is a medical instrument
66. For every unpaid minute worked
67. For every music therapist, for whom the sweetest notes are not on a patient’s file
68. For every last breath
69. For every day

70. For every audiologist, imagining the silence in order to defeat it.

71. For giving your best for my bravest and best.

bee3

Busy doing good…