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

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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:

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I will remember the stunning colours everywhere

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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

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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



Seventy reasons

To be thankful

Last year on the 69th birthday of the NHS, I published a list of 69 reasons to be thankful.  125 days later, my #bravestandbest died of cancer. Throughout the years of her illness, she was the recipient of the meticulous professionalism, warm compassion and downright humanity which make the NHS so wonderful. She was proud to serve the NHS as an information professional, and one of  the hardest days was surely that on which she could do so no longer. This year, 69 reasons has become 70.

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 giving your best for my bravest and best.

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Of chameleons and rainbows

The place of emotions in church

Did you ever hear somebody voice this little truism? ‘If we want to get OUTsiders IN to the church, we must turn the church INside out’. The sentiment is laudable, and calls for an end to a preoccupation with the machinery of church and its replacement with an intentional focus on the world beyond the church.  On a Gospel basis, there is very little with which one could disagree there.

However, there remains an awkward entail to this.  If we do turn the church inside out and we do get the outsiders in, what do we do with them when they get there?  A friend of mine used to talk about our expectation that new Christians will be like chameleons – taking on the colour and hue of those who were in the church before them.  They may well do just that – but if those colours are drab, will we succeed only in growing the drabness?

To return to the Inside Out theme for a moment – church is an environment where we would prefer not to show what is going on inside, thank you very much.  In a church whose holy book includes furious prophets, angry leaders, passionate kings and a weeping Messiah – we would rather check our emotions at the door.  Whilst I abhor those forms of Christianity which have traded on emotional manipulation to elicit conversion or donation – I find the cult of blandness to be unbecoming in a people whose God painted the rainbow.

In what may be Pixar’s most unusual film to date, Inside Out depicts the life of the emotions inside the head of a little girl: Riley.  Inside her head are: joy, anger, fear, disgust and sadness.  Interestingly, each is depicted in a different colour. Joy is yellow, anger is red, fear is purple, disgust is green, and sadness (not surprisingly) is blue.  The inside of Riley is a colourful place.

What if we let those characters and their colours out to play in church?

Anger

Anger is the short, squat, straight-talking and fiery member of the emotions team inside Riley’s head.  In church we like to leave him to the Gospels where we point him out gingerly in the temple.  ‘There’ we say ‘we have room for righteous anger – right there in the Gospel’.  I’m not sure he’s welcome in church, though.  In all my years of ministry across various churches, I am not sure I have ever seen righteous anger.  I have seen self-righteous anger, holding hands with his cousin, indignation.  They sit at the back with their arms folded and mutter to each other under their breath.  I would like to propose that we invite anger along to the church prayer meeting.  I propose that we should encourage him to speak up whenever we pray for the lost.  I hope he will give it all he’s got when we pray for those who corrupt power or who confuse wealth with importance.  I hope he will pray loudly, and that the rest of us will learn to crank up the volume of our “amen” so as to keep pace with him.

Fear

Fear in Inside Out is thin, wispy and fragile.  He is mainly purple, but wears a check shirt and an old tie.  Fear comes to church, but he rarely gets beyond the front door.  He’ll talk to people on the step, or in the car park, but once inside he finds the loud voice of faith just a little too grating and prefers to wait until the worship is over.  In truth, he’s been scarred by people calling him by the wrong name once too often. How can people mistake fear for doubt, he wonders? They don’t even sound the same!  I would like to encourage fear to join the worship team.  I would love to hear his reedy voice singing.  I would love to hear him tell us why we are going to sing this song ‘anyway’.  I would love to hear him sing a duet with joy, one day.

Joy

Joy wears bright yellow and radiates light, a bit like a sunflower.  I have sat next to her in church on more than one occasion.  Sometimes I have had to blink because her brightness hurts the shadows in my eyes.  She loves to be up the front and sometimes she hides amongst the children whilst they are singing.  Once in a while, though, I would love to drag her away from the limelight.  Could we persuade joy to pour the cups of coffee or stack the chairs, I wonder?  Let’s sit her down with the church treasurer once in a while and see what happens.

Disgust

Disgust wears clothes which are a little too green, like peas on e-numbers.  You won’t see that colour in church, though, because she tends to cover up so that she can blend in.  Outside, it’s a different story.  When reading the paper or discussing the sermon her colours are fully on display.  She is a prolific letter-writer, although rarely signs her name.  I would love disgust to join the outreach team.  I would love all that passion to come tumbling out whenever we realise that there are people perishing within a stone’s throw of the church.  She would like John’s description of Jesus in John 11 v.33 where he ‘snorts’ in his spirit (a word used of a horse rearing up in alarm) when he sees what loss does to people as Mary mourns her brother.

Sadness

Sadness is blue, with big owlish glasses which only seem to magnify her sorrow.  Sadness comes to church, but tends to sit at the back.  She can’t help herself creeping in, but she is unsure about whether she is welcome, so she stays near the exit.  I would love sadness to sit down with the church leaders when they discuss what’s going on in the church’s life.  I would love her to have a seat at that table when they talk about the sticks in the spokes of the Gospel’s progress or their own walk with their saviour.  Hers would be a gentle and welcome voice, I think.

Years ago, I visited a church in India planted the previous century by British missionaries.  Outside all was noise and colour – a bewildering sensory assault of sound, sight, taste and smell.  Inside, the suits were grey and the harmonium played grey music for the grey people to sing.  It seemed like such a waste.

Would you let the colours out to play in your church?

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Click for the ‘colourful church’ in full size