Home advice from abroad

Another postcard from the land of grief

Sometimes shops in holiday resorts would offer postcards with no picture. Instead, the front would contain a checklist of postcard style information which could be deleted as applicable. This might include:

  • Weather is good/ bad/ indifferent
  • Food is too spicy/ too bland/ interesting
  • Hotel is smart/ shabby/ comfortable

Very soon, I shall have been living here in this land of grief for an inconceivable six months. This being so, I am sending a list back to that other place. These are lessons learnt here which count so very much there.

  • Never believe that money is worth more than time – it is a poor trade
  • There are many conflicting duties, but the primary call on you is love
  • The things which have the highest value are those which have no price
  • A beautiful view shared is a view immeasurably enhanced
  • It is never too soon to say sorry nor too late to swallow your pride
  • Every conversation has value, no matter how trivial its content
  • Faith, hope and love endure, to coin a phrase
A moment of soggy joy in a sudden rainstorm on the island of Madeira

A moment of soggy joy in a sudden rainstorm on the island of Madeira

Not jumping the fence

Another postcard from the land of grief

Occasionally in this new land of mine,  I catch sight of the suitcases I used to use when travelling. They are far more than I shall ever need for one, and I look wistfully at a sunhat perched on top of them which no-one will ever wear again. These are bags for those who travel, not for those who stay.

There are other bags, though, which I have packed many times in these past five months. I pack them in a hurry, like a character in a film storming out of their life and heading for the airport.  I pack them as if I have had enough of living in this strange place called grief and I would like to go home, thank you very much.  This experiment in living alone has been interesting, and on some days I have survived it better than I thought possible.  However, enough is enough, and now it is time to go back to being married, just like I have been for the past 30 years.  I crave the easy familiarity of routines honed over the years and a companionship so deep as to be instinctive.

Thoughts trailing like a stray sleeve caught in the suitcase lid, I head for the border of this land and demand to be let through.  Sadly, I cannot pass.  The border is sealed, the guards are impervious, and my ticket was non-returnable and one way.  I live here now.  Bag tucked under my arm, I head disconsolately back, and stow it away for next time.

This is a process which is likely to repeat many times, I think – like a dog running time and time again at a high fence before realising it cannot be jumped.  However, as with every trip away from home – it looks slightly different each time you return.  Each time I come back from the border with that suitcase, ready to stash it away, I see the house just a little differently.  I move things around, I update old things, I act like I am intending to stay here.  Like a person with no passport, I start to think how I can make a life here rather than pining for there.

Family are a huge help – constant in their love, and unchanged from the way they were.  They live here, as well as there, it turns out.  Friends are a blessing – kind, patient, standing by but never pushing in.  The value of my faith is incalculable – lending light to the darker days and hope to the deeper valleys.  Even if I did not choose to live here, there are ways to make it work and people who are willing to help.

Not ready to pack those ‘go-bags’ away quite yet – but maybe one day.

shadowz

 

A song far from home

Another postcard from the land of grief

To live in this foreign land and yet still try to sing the song of faith is not a new thing. People of faith were doing it as far back as the 6th Century BC when exiles on the bank of the River Tigris tried to remember their spiritual home even though it cost them dear. In Psalm 137, harps hung on a tree and captors smirking at them, they tried to summon up a faith all but quashed by their circumstances.

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Today, before a congregation of Christians drawn from every tradition in Newbury, I sought to do the same thing:

As most of you will know, my wife, Fiona, died in November last year.  For the past seven years she had been battling cancer – with multiple surgeries and repeated rounds of chemotherapy.  On at least two occasions during that time, bad news was delivered at Easter. On both occasions, it was on a Maundy Thursday.

Last year was no exception.  On Maundy Thursday her oncologist finally told us that there was no more which could be done.  All curative options had been exhausted.  Fiona was handed over to the care of the local Sue Ryder palliative care team – who would see her through to the end.

The next day was Good Friday – and we were both here, along with all of you.  After the service, we joined in the walk through town to the Methodist Church.  When we got there, Fiona had to sit on the wall for the short service in the open air, as she was too weak to stand.  This was to be an Easter like no other…and our last together.

Two days later, I left the house shortly before 7 for the Easter sunrise service. Fiona was really needing her sleep at that time, so I closed the front door very quietly behind me . That was when it struck me with a kind of searing clarity: next year, she will be up before I am at Easter.

There it is – in all its simplicity and depth. What we sing about, what we proclaim in our churches…all comes down to this. Do we believe that those who die in Christ are raised to life?  I do, and it makes it possible to live in a miasma of constant sadness but with an unshakeable hope. I shall celebrate this Easter without her, but not without hope…and on Sunday morning, she will be up before I am.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

shadowz

 

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

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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…