Whistling in the valley of shadows

Another postcard from the land of grief

One of the awkward things about living in a strange land is that you are uncertain about the unwritten rules, especially for displaying emotion. In some countries it would be rude not to kiss, whilst in others it would be unacceptable to do so. In some, it would be unthinkable to walk alongside another without holding hands, whilst in another it would be frowned upon. In one to whistle or sing as you walked along would be charming, whilst in another it would be rude.

The land of grief is often a very quiet place. Once the front door is shut the on/off sound of the radio or television is the only sound apart from my own voice talking to the dog. She occasionally responds in kind  but only if bored or hungry! Sometimes the silence continues outside, as if the weight of grief imposes a cathedral like hush about you which should not be broken.

Yesterday, I broke the rules. The sun was rising through the rooofs of the town and turning the canal into liquid gold. The air was still and cold, broken only by the splash of a duck landing and the gentle patter of Ginny’s paws. Overwhelmed by it all…I began to whistle. You can probably imagine what irrational thing happened next – a rush of guilt, a look over the shoulders, and a quickened but silent pace.


Of course, if it were anybody else, I would gently reassure them that no rules were broken and that the beauty of the morning was only enhanced by an instinctive reaction of joy to what it had to offer. Not so easy to say to yourself, though. Maybe, like Ginny, I need to take a little time to sniff the air and give thanks that it is full of promise.




A landscape transformed

Another postcard from the land of grief 

This week it has been snowing in the land where I now live. Snow has a soothing effect on the landscape – like a cool cloth on a fevered brow. Sharp corners are rounded, bare trees are frosted, dropped litter and chewed up verges are hidden by a kind of physical amnesia. Every one of the millions of snowflakes is an emissary in this campaign of transformation.  As they fall, drift and settle – between them they contrive to hide what was seen.

New memories and experiences fall in similar fashion upon this landscape of grief. Each one is tiny, and incapable of making the slightest difference on its own. The corners are too sharp, the hollows too deep, the cracks too wide.  Between them, though – they begin to transform a landscape. Sometimes now it is possible to look over it and see a little beauty where before there were scars. Sometimes the sun creates more brightness than shadows across it.

Like the snow, though, the transformation can be temporary. Snow does not fill the pothole in the road or round the sharp corner of the roof – it only makes it look that way. With the melt the new becomes old again and the quest for transformation resumes. What I am finding, though, is that even a temporary transformation can be welcome. To see beauty instead of scars, or to see softness instead of hard edges is a sign of hope even when it is ephemeral. The land of grief, like any other land, has seasons…

Ginny teaching a lesson in how to gaze in wonder as the snow falls...

Ginny teaching a lesson in how to gaze in wonder as the snow falls…

Day 100

Another postcard from the land of grief

In another land or another context, you might expect the 100 day milestone to mark 100 days of the new adventure. In this one, it is quite simply 100 days without her. 100 sunrises, 100 sunsets, 100 unmade cups of tea.

The truth below, written by the Apostle Paul, and etched here on a rather more tasteful Valentine’s gift from years gone by, remains.


Mis-remembering the old

Another postcard from the land of grief

Sometimes, when living abroad, even the things you did not really like about the old country take on a rosy glow which they never had before.Scented with a whiff of nostalgia, they become better than they ever were.

To be honest, I never really liked Valentine’s Day. The choice of cards for a man to give to a woman are frequently daft or rude, and the gifts are overpriced or silly. I shall probably always regret that the last Valentine’s gift I bought was a fridge magnet saying “I love you, even though you steal the duvet”. I would gladly have it stolen 1000 times over right now! In short, I am not looking forward to Valentine’s Day 2018.

For now, I shall simply be grateful to God for the companionship he has provided in this season of turbulent adjustment – described so eloquently in the two images below.



A thin place on a wintry hill

Another postcard from the land of grief

Sometimes when living far from home, people will take a little soil from the ‘old country’ with them. In the new and unfamiliar place, there is then always a connection with the old beneath their feet.

This morning I stood on a windswept slope in West Berkshire, overlooking Watership Down. As the snow blew all around, I laid the ashes of my very best friend to rest. As seasons come and go and the cherry tree planted there begins to flower, she will be especially remembered. It is a ‘thin’ place – standing in the new but not far from the old. I’ve a feeling that Ginny and I will often be found there – her quivering with excitement at the scents on the breeze, and me grateful for all the years I had.

On this occasion, nobody else’s words would do, so I wrote my own tribute:

You are the crest on a breaking wave

You are the kite wheeling in a golden sky

You are the scrunch of stones washed by the sea

You are the last and hardest steps to see the mountain view

You are the wisdom in the eyes of our sons

You are the courage in their hearts

You are the meter which stops the poem from seeping into prose

You are the note which stands a between dissonance and harmony

You are a chord within my heart, now playing only half a tune

You are the pause , the breath taken before a foolish response

You are the rich depth of Autumn

The promise of Spring

The Summer joy of a perfect sky

The welcome nip of a Winter’s day

You are half of me, and I am half of you

You are, forever, my bravest and best




Leave to remain

Another postcard from the land of grief

If you are going to stay in a foreign land, then the chances are that before too long you will have to work. The time will come when you have to swap ‘just arrived’ or ‘settling in’ status for ‘one of us’. Today, that day has come for me.

Accompanied by my new companion, I shall head into work and see whether the mantle of ‘Baptist Minister’ still fits about my shoulders. Around me, I have an invisible army of people praying for me. Before me, I have a crowd of lovely people who are ready to welcome me, and within me I have something else – a calling.

Some 26 years ago, on the day that I was ordained, the preacher picked up on an obscure text from the Old Testament story of Gideon. Gideon was an unlikely hero who found himself thrust into the limelight to lead a small army to a great victory. The text said the following:

The spirit of the Lord clothed himself with Gideon and blew upon the trumpet.

God had a tune to be played, and a trumpet on which to play it, but the missing piece was a man like Gideon – fearful, unsure and unsteady, but with enough puff to do the job.

In truth, I do not know until I try whether I have ‘enough puff to do the job’ – but today, I pick up the trumpet.

After work is done, companion Ginny will be happy to sit and watch some TV together...

After work is done, companion Ginny will be happy to sit and watch some TV together…


Alone together

Another postcard from the land of grief

Sometimes when living in a strange land you find yourself drawn to others who also never expected to be here. Like you, they are out of context and looking for anchors in this alien place. Ten days ago, I met just such a stranger.

Ginny was born in Ireland in 2016, and for some reason found herself without a home. Rounded up and brought across to a small village in West Berkshire, she came into the tender care of the Dog’s Trust. It was there that she and I met each other. As a lurcher, she doesn’t really have a voice – but her silence spoke to mine. Looking for another breed entirely, I found myself drawn so powerfully to her. Maybe there was a sadness or a wisdom reflected in those amber eyes, or maybe I just fell for the tasseled ears. Either way, I was smitten.

After careful checks by the Dog’s Trust, and some trial walks, she has now come to live here with me. These two characters, thrust out of context by circumstances they did not choose, are pooling their resources to forge a new context. She is a little nervous, and I have a lot to learn – but the partnership has so much to offer.

Watch this space…


Adjustment fatigue

Another postcard from the land of grief

Yesterday was a good day – infused with the zesty scent of new possibilities and a whole string of new stories to be published. Yesterday was a bad day – stalked by the dank smell of melancholy. Yesterday was a good day – meeting with people who matter in all sorts of ways. Yesterday was a bad day – with fears about tomorrow playing some ghastly version of hide-and-seek amongst the realities of today. Yesterday, like most days in this foreign land, was exhausting.

It is easy to forget that simply living ‘abroad’ in a place where language and culture and norms do not come naturally, is tiring. Unwittingly, you are engaged in a constant battle to adjust, as if spending your day on a balance ball. Years ago now, I spent a year living abroad and speaking a foreign language nearly all the time. For the first few months, even the very business of living was exhausting. The years have not changed that.

Hopefully, the intervening years have taught me that fatigue cannot be charged, like a bull at a red rag. Nor can it be ignored, like some distant smoke alarm which seems like somebody else’s problem. Instead, it must be accommodated, like a creeper growing round the lamppost or a tree growing away from the immovable fence. This, too, is an adjustment – but hopefully it will pay dividends when said tree flourishes.





Another postcard from the land of grief

I used to think it was an affectation when people kept on using an aeroplane boarding pass stub as a bookmark long after their flight was over. It seemed to be a subtle reminder to everybody else that they were the kind of people who did this so often that they could be nonchalant about it. Maybe there was another, even more subtle message here too. Maybe it was a reminder that they could go just as easily as they had come. Another ticket, another plane, and maybe another book – and they could step right back onto the tarmac where they had begun.

I am holding rather stubbornly to my ‘ticket stub’ just now. Very soon it will be time to return to work. I shall swap the mental garb of mourning for the working clothes of normality and recover some of the rhythms of life I knew before. Patterns of getting up, getting out, working and returning to the house will settle around me. I can’t quite let go of my ticket stub though – not yet. I need some reminder that I am a visitor here. This is not my place. My place is that other one, where the rhythms of my life were syncopated with another’s.

I suspect that one day the ticket stub will just fall out whilst I move busily from one task to another. Either that, or I shall swap one book for another and simply forget to transfer it over. One day, that will happen. Not today, though.



The treachery of absorption

Another postcard from the land of grief

When living away from home, and once you realise that the stay may be long term – things begin to change. You learn the language. You grow to love the food. You stop scanning the supermarket shelves for those things which you know you can’t get here anyway. In short, you learn to fit in.  To do so can be quite gratifying – a successful experiment in cultural adaptation. This is not where you meant to be, and it may not have been your choice to come here – but you are making the best of it.

And then, the moment of treachery comes. You are walking through your new-found neighbourhood, or talking in your new language with your new friends – when you stumble because you cannot remember the old ones. Perhaps you struggle for a word which was once so familiar on your lips and it just won’t come. You’re glad the people in that other country can’t see you now, because you would feel ashamed.

There are days now, in this land of grief – where I feel like I am starting to fit in. I recognise that single man in the mirror and do not flinch. I look at on old picture in a new space or sit in a new chair in an old room and it feels…normal. Then there are other moments where that new normal feels like a treachery to the old. It feels like the person who has studied their new language so hard that when a newspaper comes in their mother tongue they can no longer read it.  Absorption, which was such a laudable aim, feels like treachery in that moment.

At least one of the many cards I received on entering this new country quoted the phrase below. I was certainly surprised to see it on the side of a burger van in a safari park in the desert! It is, of course, true. However, I am learning that in this place I have to know not only who holds the future, but who holds the past.