For Mother’s Day

DSCN1329

 

Remember

Remember me when I am gone away

Gone far away into the silent land:

When you can no more hold me by the hand

Nor I half turn to go, yet turning stay

Remember me when no more day by day

You tell me of our future that you planned

Only remember me; you understand

It will be late to counsel then or pray

Yet if you should forget me for a while

And afterwards remember; do not grieve

For if the darkness and corruption leave

A vestige of the thoughts that once I had

Better by far you should forget and smile,

Than that you should remember and be sad.

This poem, written by Christina Rossetti in the 1800s holds, for me at least, a universal relevance to loss.  It is equally applicable to the passing of a mother, friend, child, spouse …. The beauty of the words is emphasised by the constant prompts to remember which run like a refrain throughout the sonnet.  At the time the poem was written, the process of mourning was in many ways far more public and visible than it is today; much was written about it in this rather pensive and tentative style.

Given the quaintness of the archaic language, the sentiments remain viable on a day when we are likely to be visiting our own personal losses.

Mother’s Day is a day that fuses joy and poignancy in equal mix.  I always remember my late mum fondly, but particularly so on Mother’s day.  Though she died in 2001, quite a while ago now, I could never forget her and smile as Rosetti suggests, rather I remember her, and smile. 

That would be my hope for anyone who is mourning their mum this Mother’s Day, whether the loss is recent or longer ago.

Reminiscing, examining and holding fond memories are some of the best ways to recall a loving and much loved mum.   A mum who is firm but fair, who can be a best friend as well as a mother, a role model, supporter, tear-wiper, empathiser, nurturer and teacher – those of us who have – or had – mothers like this are indeed fortunate.

And when these very special mums have left us, what else is there to do but to draw in that distinctive, maternal love and make it ours? … then we can share it with our nearest and dearest. It is a joy to pour the love that our mothers have given us onto our husbands, siblings, children, friends.  We keep the memories of our mums alive by paying forward all that love they showered on us in their lifetime.  We smile and laugh fondly in our remembering.

I remember too how becoming a mother myself, taught me so much about my own mum.  Suddenly I had parental responsibility for the gift of new, precious life and from mum’s experience she knew exactly how that would make me feel.

Loving and supportive, she was always there for me with advice, guidance, humour and affection.  If there were exams for being a good mum to my brother and I … our mum would have passed with flying colours.

I have been blessed with two wonderful children, and despite losing James, I remain the mother of two wonderful children.

Stella and I always mark Mother’s Day though it is poignant with memory for both of us.

Stella is now a happily married mum herself, not only to Charlie, but also to Grace, her beautiful daughter who was born in December 2016.

Mother’s day celebrations are not limited to mums and daughters, either.  Boys can give their mum flowers too – as an older teen, James invariably managed to find a last minute bouquet, though it’s fair to say he usually borrowed the funds to buy it!  It’s easy to sanctify him now, but his heart was in the right place and the love and affection he held for his family and friends was never in doubt.

My Stella shines in her own right, like a bright star in my maternal constellation, just as James does, even though he is no longer with us.

And now Stella and I are so lucky to have the wonderful continuum of life as grandmother, mother and daughter to celebrate.

Becoming a grandmother to my daughter and stepdaughter’s children brings me great joy and I love my extended maternal role.

A mother’s status is undoubtedly underrated as the life affirming and responsible position that it is.  Mothers put their children first without question.  As a mum, you instantly become unselfish – yet you hold selfishly to the joys of babyhood, cherishing the memories of your children’s early responses to your loving.

You treasure every little piece of love that your child gives you and reflect it, bouncing it back to them without any forethought.

The bond that is formed between you in those early days is never broken.  Your children remain your babies, and they stay part of you forever.

Even when you lose your child and you grieve, you grieve with love as well as sorrow.

You grieve with regret for the future that your child cannot have but you also grieve with loving memories of the time that you had together, however short that may have been.

Moving forward as a mother after you have lost a child is a massive challenge.                                                                                                                                                             You question your abilities as a mother, you even question your right to be a mother.        You cannot help feeling that you must have failed in some way for your child to die.         You would bargain anything if it would only give you back your child.

But slowly, the guilt lessens, the sadness becomes absorbed and you discover the lessons that grief has taught. You acquire a new, loving kind of wisdom, a new vision for looking forward.  Though there is nothing to forgive, ultimately you feel forgiven.

When you lose a child, other mothers will be filled with fear of how they would cope if this unimaginable thing happened to them.

Instead of dwelling on that, I exhort all mothers to dwell on the love they have for their children, not their fear of living without them.  As bereaved parents, the loss of your children does not lessen your maternal love; rather it intensifies it into new directions and takes you to places you could never have imagined.

Motherhood is not only biological, it can also be spiritual.  Many people looking for a maternal figure can turn to those who may not already be mothers and they too can share in that special kind of guiding love; it is truly love without bounds.

Please heed Rosetti’s message to remember, especially on Mother’s Day.

In remembering rejoice in the power of maternal love, the sheer joy of loving unconditionally and being loved in return.

It is quite simple, really.  Love is the important thing, whoever you are; and whether those whom you love remain in the present, or are lovingly woven into your past. Happy mother’s day to all mothers and children.

mothersday

 Mum1

Advertisements

Look around, look up and look forward

diversion-sign

There are a number of traffic diversions in place locally at the moment, the main one being due to planned major works in the centre of town.  Two other unanticipated events (a burst water main and a sudden sinkhole) have temporarily closed local roads.  This is inevitably causing havoc and adding significantly to overall journey times.  Although I know our area quite well, I have been surprised to find that the diversion routes quickly take me into unfamiliar territory.

There is a need to trust in each diversion route and know that it will eventually get me to my destination.

This is an example of faith in action that I am happy to embrace.  It reminds me that at times, you have to be able to trust in that which you cannot see to achieve whatever you have set out to do.

During the week I thought I would try to figure out my own route to work avoiding the worst of the traffic.  But by turning left instead of right at an unfamiliar junction, I soon found myself going in the wrong direction.  I felt rather silly; how could I get lost on my way to work?!  – but I trusted my internal Satnav’s sense of direction, found the right road and was back on track again.

Once again, I was guided by something I could not see but I knew was there.

Tying in with this, I recently heard an inspirational talk on ‘looking around, looking up and looking forward’.  The premise of this was to show how, even when we think we are entirely alone, if we seek and ask for help, we will be aided in times of hardship, and  also rewarded in ways that we cannot anticipate.

As an example of looking forward, if you are running a marathon, your aim is to reach the finishing line.  As you approach the final straight you will see and hear all the spectators urging you on, willing you to do your very best to get to the end, within the time parameters that you are likely to have set yourself.  How encouraging they are!

But try to look beyond the finishing line.  Think about how much has been contributed to your taking part in that race in the first place.  You will have been driven by your own ambition and commitment to training, but generally speaking, no-one enters a marathon purely for themselves.  You will have been inspired by something or someone – to run with perseverance, to look forward and be uplifted and supported from beyond the finishing line.

Allowing yourself to have both vision and trust means that you can tap into what is ‘out there’ if you look for it.

Returning to the diversion theme, I had a horrible situation a few days ago when I was driving home in Shaun’s car, which is larger than my own.  Traffic was diverted away from a roundabout I would usually cross, sending me along a relatively narrow road.  As I approached a bend, I encountered a large articulated lorry coming the other way.  We both slowed down our vehicles, but as the driver tried to bring the lorry past me, we realised that the narrowest point and angle of the bend would not allow his long vehicle to pass.  I tried to pull up onto the verge on the left, but this was made difficult by the presence of bollards and there was not enough space to manoeuvre.

The lorry inched forward and the angle meant it was getting closer and closer to my car until it was almost touching my wing mirror.

I felt entirely trapped, unable to go forward or backwards.

We had reached an impasse.

I felt as though I was in the eye of a storm as other cars backed up in both directions, waiting for someone to move.  The lead car from the other direction was behind the lorry and unable to see the situation that existed on the bend.

I looked upwards to the heavens for inspiration. 

I looked all around me for a way round the problem, but found nothing. 

I tried to visualise looking forward beyond the finish line.

Strangely, I felt calm enough; I was not panicking but could not imagine how the situation could be resolved.  I opened the car window and called out,

“Can someone please help me?  I just don’t know what to do”.

Nothing happened.  I could hear vehicle horns as people became impatient, but I could not do anything.  I sat and waited for something … anything. … to happen.

A few moments later a cyclist came into view from the opposite direction.  He quickly summed up what had happened and called out to me,

“Don’t worry, I will guide you forward”.  I was so relieved!

I kept my eyes firmly on the cyclist, watching and trusting his judgement as he assessed the width of the space available on either side of the car, and he waved me forward.  Eventually, (although it felt like ages, it was probably only a minute or so), my car was clear of the lorry.  I thanked my Good Samaritan, a charming gentleman, whom had appeared just at the right time.  He agreed with me that the lorry driver should have stopped before the bend to let my car pass.  This would have entirely avoided the incident.

I drove off, shaken by the unpleasantly close shave but so grateful for the manifestation of this particular guardian angel, just at the right time in the right place, and in answer to my prayer for help.

Perhaps diversions that result in proof of the power of looking around, upwards and forwards, are not so bad, after all.

oak tree

Fire and Water

10544342_716004301797766_4829267688408219551_n

When you are a young parent you are very aware of school years and ages.  It’s surprising how fast this fades and at the meeting I attended at the East Sussex Fire and Rescue HQ this week, I had to ask the age of children in years five and six, because I had forgotten. (It’s age 9-11, by the way).

In loss terms, this being the twelfth year since we lost James, I am a Year Twelve.  That equates to the age of 16/17; to all intents and purposes an age of discovery, development and burgeoning maturity.

Sitting in that meeting room in Eastbourne, I found myself wondering what, if I was truly a Year Twelve, I would see today that is different from what James saw when he himself was in Year Twelve, with regards to safety generally, and water safety specifically.

wordle-2

The word cloud above, generated entirely from words I heard at Wednesday’s meeting, gives part of the answer.

I was invited to Sussex by Dawn Whittaker, Deputy Chief Fire Officer at East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service, following our meeting last February at the launch of the National Water Safety Forum’s Strategy. This in turn led to my involvement in the making of one of the ‘Beyond Blue Lights’ films for the Chief Fire Officers Association later in the year.

Wednesday’s meeting drew together representatives of community safety, serving firefighters/lifeguards, those involved in delivering the safety messages of fire, road and water and a representative from the RLSS (Royal Life Saving Society).

The meeting was relatively informal; its purpose was to share  the details of the ESFRS Water Safety Strategic Aims and Action plan which is already under way and has been instituted by a focused team of individuals.  Dawn told me that all that was required from me was to feedback my views about what is planned and to highlight any areas in which I think I can contribute from my personal experience.

The ESFRS have the same aims and intention as the National Water Safety Forum: to halve the number of drownings which occur in waters in and around the UK, by 2026.

When you consider that around 400 people lose their life to drowning each year, and it is the third most common cause of death amongst young people aged 10-18, this represents a significant target.

Drowning accounts for more accidental fatalities every year than fire deaths in the home or cyclist deaths on the road.

From this it can be seen how relevant is the involvement of the Fire and Rescue service alongside those organisations more easily identifiable as being involved with water safety, such as the RNLI, the RLSS and HM Coastguard..

The key strategies and intentions of the ESFRS Action Plan are

  • Delivery of water safety message through a more cohesive and collaborative approach including via nominated Water Safety Champions
  • Working supportively with other agencies : RNLI, HM Coastguard, RLSS, RosPA, local authorities, ASA and other Life Savers such as leisure centre lifeguards
  • Involvement with the four major national annual water safety campaigns with CFOA, RLSS Don’t Drink and Drown and RNLI Respect the Water
  • Undertaking to educate all children and young people about the dangers of entering open water
  • Collaboration with local authorities and Pub Watch schemes to achieve a reduction in alcohol related drowning

I was immensely struck on Wednesday by the commitment and energy of each individual to the cause of making this huge difference.  Each are working closely together to bring the safety messages to the community in many forms.  For example, we heard that members of the team have spent several weekends patrolling nightclubs in Brighton late at night, directly taking the message about the foolhardiness of a late night dip to the students in the town.

The introduction of Water Safety Champions, those individuals who have a particular passion for a specific area brings different resources to the table, too. The Education team goes into schools on a regular basis to spread the safety word.

The most striking thing about the meeting was that, like my experiences with the RNLI, there is an obvious willingness to share together and pull with cohesion in the same direction.  Everyone is  inclusive; no one is trying to be possessive or exclusive or to take ownership of specific areas.

This is undoubtedly where the strength of a cohesive, collaborative team approach is going to win the day. 

Dawn asked me to share what is important to me.  My view, strengthened over the past     11 ½ years, is that drowning prevention must begin with education, and a heightened awareness by every young person that they must look out for their own and their peers’ safety, with diligence.

Safety education is going to start more vigorously in primary schools, rather than just secondary schools, which is a very good initiative.

Every child will ultimately have the opportunity to learn to swim.  It is important (if obvious) to note that being able to swim does not preclude drowning, as we know to our cost.

In fact, as Dawn pointed out, it is more likely that you would choose to avoid water if you cannot swim, something that had not occurred to me before.

I also feel very strongly, a growing sense that up until recently, organisations have been lax in recognising the needs of their own staff, who are working ‘at the sharp end’ and dealing with very traumatic circumstances,   To this end, I always advocate that people seek their own avenues of grief support and trauma support after incidents.  We had some discussion about bereavement support organisations such as The Compassionate Friends, CRUSE, the Drowning Support Network and SOBS to name but a few,  and the need to have these easily accessible to operational staff as well as families at the appropriate time through the available links.

As a Year Twelve, I see that my role in water safety has gradually become twofold.  Firstly, I understand the importance of telling James’ story – not to sensationalise, but to personalise, the reality of living the life of a bereaved parent, also how that impacts on the family and beyond.  My work with Kingston Council, my writing and my subsequent involvement with the RNLI and other organisations are all key to sharing very important messages around the matters of water safety.
Secondly, I feel it is vital to share and talk about the issues surrounding trauma, grief and loss, for our own health and wellbeing.  It is well recognised that acquiring a grief toolbox is key to getting through the worst of times and remaining relatively sane!  I welcome the chance to share these aspects of grieving whenever possible, through writing, presentations and workshops.

Having said that, articulating my thoughts at such a meeting of professionals is an opportunity I never imagined I would have and I am grateful to Dawn for her invitation.

Such events are emotionally draining and I was very glad to have Shaun with me, who gamely drove us there and back and sat in on the meeting; his presence was appreciated, as always.

Finally, I share a comment by David Kemp, Head of Community Safety, who said,

“We do no harm, we only do good”.  That strikes me as a good ethos for ESFRS to have, and I wish them every success in achieving the aims of this most important strategy.

 

esfrs1

The Grief Climate

img_1070

Grief … you tread on it, stamp on it, walk on it, tiptoe round it

You are buffeted by it, you are sheltered by it

You see it, you taste it, and you grow it.

You smell it, taste it, feel it, hear it, and finally you Throw It.

 We have had some hard frosts this week.  Each morning, the roofs have been iced in white and I have had to run the car engine for a while to de-ice the windscreen.  As I watch from inside the warmth of the house, a tiny gap appears in the centre of the screen, slowly expanding and melting, spreading across the glass until eventually the ice turns to slush, easily cleared by the windscreen wipers.

The frosty mornings put me in mind of the climate of early grief, when you feel as though your emotions are cast in frozen stillness.  Numb with shock, you can hardly move to put one foot in front of the other.

The thaw comes very slowly.

It is notable that in compensation for these cold, frosty mornings we have had stunningly colourful sunrise and sunsets.  Late in the afternoon, planes leave raspberry pink vapour trails across the darkening sky, and the sun is a glowing orb that sinks slowly below the horizon.

Early grief is a cold and exhausting climate.  But eventually the clouds separate, the sun shines and the rainbows arrive.

At night, the sky is clear and full of stars.  The newest star is yours.  And the moon shines her benevolence upon you.

Comparing grief to how the weather behaves I suppose to be a reasonable enough concept, and perhaps it can be applied to our senses.

If you could see it, how would your grief look?

You might think that grief would be unremittingly ugly, like a warty old crone face.  You can picture early grief looking like Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream’, with an unutterably horrified expression.

But grief’s face does evolve.

You begin to see a gentler, calmer, visage.

When your grief is new, your face carries a hunted, pinched expression.  This is particularly evident when you look back at photos when you thought you looked ‘normal’.  Eventually the face you see in the mirror has absorbed the hurt and pain in its planes and lines and what reflects back is the familiar look that you know is your new normality.

If you were to hear your grief, at first it might be a senselessly discordant shrieking, wailing sound; your own silent scream.  You hear it in your head much of the time.  Sometimes it drowns out the rest of the world around you.  Sometimes you need to vocalise it.

Tinnitus is an aggravating, ever present ringing, a whistling, white noise mix of sound that is like the second stage of grief’s orchestra.  It stays.  You get so accustomed to it you don’t notice it any more.  Perhaps it never really goes.

You can try to balance it out through listening to music, something that was impossible to do in the beginning.  Every song was a memory.

On the plate, grief has its own flavour that kills the appetite and does not nourish you.  It’s bitter; sharp like a bad wine, or bland and beige like an overcooked dinner. To work through grief, you need to find stimulants to whet your appetite, which are beneficial and flavoursome and will awaken your taste buds again.

Early grief does not want to eat.

Early grief loses the pleasure in food.

But appetite will return and it needs tempting back with appealing foods.

Given that you are what you eat, when you are grieving and surviving on tea and toast, it is no wonder that you do not necessarily possess the strength to deal with all that surrounds your loss.

 The touch of grief is far from tender.  You may recognise the feeling of sensitivity when you have a fever, when your scalp is so sore it hurts to brush your hair.  Your skin is dry with an underlying itch that you cannot scratch.  Your throat is raw from weeping.  Your eyes are red and they burn with lack of sleep.

You have to get past this.  You must shower, dress, put on your armour for the day and push yourself back into life.

You might equate early grief to walking along a rock strewn path wearing unsuitable thin-soled sandals. You can feel the roughness beneath your feet and you are lucky if you don’t turn your ankle or slip on the scree-like slopes.

One of the best things about the evolution of grief into a gentler incarnation is being able to enjoy simple pleasures like buying and wearing a new outfit.  It will come.

The garden of grief might contain some kind of hybrid mix of cactus, gorse bush and nettle in its first year.

Later on you may have a plump cushion of soft geranium with pink blooms and lemon scented leaves.  Or you could brush against a thyme plant on a warm, sunny day, and enjoy the resinous fragrance that drifts upon the breeze. The beauty and perfume of a rose will lift your spirits.

Finally, the sheer weight of grief is hard to carry.  It’s hard to determine whether you carry it on your back or your front.  Perhaps it is seated in your heart.

Slowly but surely the weight diminishes.  Eventually you may be holding onto something as light as a tennis ball.   It’s a useful mind exercise to practise throwing it away …

 

img_1083

 

 

 

 

 

What’s in a Murmuration?

img_1004

Following my talk at the launch of the RNLI Fish Supper charity fundraiser last October, I was honoured to be invited to pay a return visit to the College in Poole on 10 January and give another presentation, this time at a training event.

I was told that currently, there is something of a sea change (couldn’t resist that one) in the management structure of the RNLI to better integrate the management functions for rescue (lifeboats), supervision (lifeguards) and prevention (Respect the Water, education and community awareness).  To this end, there is a new grouping of operational RNLI Managers with specific responsibilities covering the entire coast, including Irish waters and the River Thames.  My brief was to address this group of men and women who together have an enormous amount of knowledge and experience within their specific fields.

Prior to the presentation, which was to be at 5pm, Shaun and I were sitting with a cup of tea in the Slipway café bar at the RNLI college, watching through the window a group of starlings, known as a murmuration.  We marvelled at their airborne acrobatics as they gracefully swirled, swooped and dipped, forming wonderful shapes which morphed and changed with smooth fluidity in the sky above the water in the bay.  Their synchrony and grace were a delight, and we felt privileged to be watching their spectacular pre-roost show, as the light was fading fast.

There seems a curious synchronicity at work, in that when I looked for an image of starlings to illustrate this post, I saw that the RNLI’s Ross Macleod had posted some pictures of starlings in Studland Bay, Dorset and he kindly allowed me to share one here.

img_1036

One theory of such murmurations is that they are to do with defence, representing distraction and safety in numbers; the group behaving with a single purpose, and in the starlings’ case, to avoid predators.

But perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of the birds’ behaviour in formation is that the group responds as one and although they are separate, uniquely individual characters, they move collectively, forming their shapes in shared commonality.

As I come to know better the men and women associated with the RNLI, whether they are volunteers or staff, it is not too fanciful to think that collectively they behave much like a murmuration.  Apart from the fact that they are not in danger from marauding raiders – although of course they do experience negativity from a few detractors – their underlying aim and remit is single-mindedly purposeful and can be summed up in their intrinsic desire to make our waters safe for everyone.

They are entirely impartial, proactive, positive personalities whose aims and aspirations I cannot praise highly enough.

They are vocational and often generational, many of them having fathers and grandfathers who served the RNLI.  The water is in their blood and it shows in their passionate commitment to make a difference for anyone and everyone.

What could I, as an individual, tell them that would impact on the group?

I felt the most value I could give to the presentation would be to share my own reality of ‘What Happens Next’; by which I mean … how do you live your life after the crushing loss of a beloved son to drowning?  It is only through my dealings with the RNLI since 2014 that I have come to understand how important it is to keep telling our personal story.  This is because the ways in which sharing some of James, and our life as it has evolved since his loss, provide helpful insights into life as a bereaved parent.

I found this group an ideal audience also to hear some of what I have learned about grief and loss in the past 11 ½ years – not only to help them with their work when they are involved in incidents with the worst possible outcome, but also in their personal lives.

They are all people with families and friends like any other group and inevitably, most of them will experience the loss of someone close to them at some time or another.  I was glad to mention the loss-specific organisations that have been so much help to me: The Compassionate Friends, the Drowning Support Network and CRUSE Bereavement Care.

I always feel it is worth sharing too the assorted elements that come to form the grief toolbox … in my case the above organisations, our work with Kingston Council, my writing, to name but a few.

I also thought it would be beneficial to summarise some of the Do’s and Don’ts that I have learned in the past 11 years.  These I have published in full before, but I feel they are worth sharing again:

Top Do’s and Don’ts in dealing with Bereaved families:

  • Don’t tell them that such tragedies happen to only those who are strong enough to survive them
  • Don’t change the subject when they mention their lost loved one
  • Don’t stop mentioning their lost relative’s name because you are scared of reminding them; you cannot upset them any more than they have already been upset
  • Don’t presume to understand their grief because you have experienced the death of an elderly relative or even a pet
  • Don’t remind parents that they have other children or could have another child
  • Don’t say “I don’t know how you cope; I couldn’t.” The bereaved have no choice in the matter.

 

  • Do be as normal as possible with them; talking about ordinary things and even sitting in silence, can be comforting
  • Do answer questions honestly and understand that some people have a need to know small details, others will only want the wider picture
  • Do ask how they are feeling, but only if you are prepared to listen to the answer
  • Do express your own sadness about what has happened, and encourage them to talk about him or her as often as they want
  • Do remember the needs of the wider family who may all need support and ask you questions that they cannot ask the most directly affected family members
  • Do remember that you must protect yourself from being drained by the needs of the bereaved family – who heals the healer?

The things we do as we go through our lives can outlast our own mortality.

The things we do today and tomorrow are stepping stones, building for the future.

Sharing our memories and our present and our future provides unexpected legacies in memory of those whom we have lost.

I am indebted to the RNLI for allowing me to continue telling the story.

There is a naturalness in the murmurations of the starlings.

There is a naturalness in the ebb and flow of our seas and waterways which commands us to remain vigilant … and always to continue to Respect the Water. 

img_1019-2

 

Hug a Tree in 2017

img_0880

I bet no-one ever took me for a tree-hugger, did they?

And yet … as I reflect on the nationally trying (Election/Brexit) and loss-filled (too many to mention) year of 2016 that we are shortly to be leaving behind, I realise there is a great and simple truth to trees.

Trees are sanctuaries. Whatever human frailties we have, through all our joys and sorrows, trees stand steadfast.  Whatever havoc we may create around ourselves, the roots of trees reach further down beneath the ground and their branches stretch their fingers higher towards the sky.

They bend with the wind, they do not break.

They can withstand either scorching or freezing extremes of temperature.

The cycle of leaf, blossom, fruit, continues unabated and the sap circulates in trees’ systems like our lifeblood circulates in us, bending to the rhythm of the seasons.

Trees are life givers that can feed the world.

Trees provide fuel and shelter when we need it. 

Trees can be anything from spindly to magnificent. 

Trees can be in a copse, a coppice, a thicket, a plantation, a glade, wood, a forest, an orchard, a jungle, a weald; they can stand proudly alone or be in massed company.

The cycle of the deciduous tree’s life repeated year on year has a structure that reflects the human condition from birth to passing.  In spring, the sap rises.  The tree begins to green up. The leaves and blooms unfurl, fresh and new.  The tree’s energy is growing and strong.  In summer, the tree stands tall and proud in its gown of green, embracing the warmth of the sunshine.  The autumn brings mellow colour and as the sap falls back to the heart of the tree, the leaves fall gently away, leaving the tree stark but strong against the ravages of winter.

yearend2

It may look as though the tree is dormant, yet deep within its kernel heart it absorbs the sugar of the seasons, creating a rich residue, ready to come to life again in the spring.

We repeat such patterns many times throughout the living of our days.

When a tree dies, its life is revealed in the whorls of its bark and the rings of its trunk.  Every circle tells a story, each notch on the bark is an event in the life of the tree.

Some trees are really special.  When you stand beneath the shelter of their branches you feel they can help you to safely let go of troubled, chaotic thoughts.  They nurture and support in silent empathy.  They are living, breathing beings.

wisley

Two trees either side of a path can reach out like arms across a sacred space, drawing you to their embrace.  It feels as though they are acting as a channel that reaches high above the planet to draw down comfort, particularly at times of trouble, loss and grief.  Twice in my life I have experienced an amazing release of emotion, standing in this ancient energy and letting the trees take my sadness and absorb it into their primordial wisdom, leaving me comforted and calm. 

There is an undeniable truth to trees.  You know where you are with trees; they will never deceive.  Their wisdom is pure.

Listen to the trees.  They whisper in the summer breeze that rustles their leaves, and yet they whistle and howl through winter gales. Their moods are many and capricious, just like ours.

Do the trees mourn?  What can be sadder than a dripping, dark yew in the graveyard?  Yes, the trees can mourn.  But the beauty of trees in bloom in the early spring is a matter for deep joy.

Trees care not for politics or religion, though they are God-given.  The Tree of Life represents the first true human temptation; the mighty oak tree symbolises the stolid strength of faith.

Collectively, trees represent strength, resilience and solidarity.

A stand of trees high on a hill looks glorious.

A single small sapling reaches for the sky with optimism and conviction that it will one day be great and strong.

You may feel that you are separate from the trees, that they mean nothing to you. But we are all connected.                                                                                                                                             C S Lewis said, “Human beings look separate because you see them walking about separately. But then we are so made that we can see only the present moment. If we could see the past, then of course it would look different. For there was a time when every man was part of his mother, and (earlier still) part of his father as well, and when they were part of his grandparents. If you could see humanity spread out in time, as God sees it, it would look like one single growing thing–rather like a very complicated tree. Every individual would appear connected with every other.”

I send love and good wishes to everyone for a peaceful and healthy 2017. 

Stay connected with each other, value your friends and your family … and if you feel so moved, go out and hug a tree …

A Christmas Message

msdonnaandchild

There is a small hilltop village called Monagri, near Limassol in Cyprus.

Inside Monagri’s plain little church, I experienced a special silence in this sacred space.

Gazing at an ancient painting of Madonna and child, their patrician faces expressing calm serenity, as I breathed in a hint of incense from years and days past, I felt that  here I was in a truly spiritual place.

Though the painting was ornate with gold leaf, the overall simplicity of its message shone through.

There is no greater unconditional exchange of love than that which exists between mother and child. The continuum of daughters becoming mothers and their daughters in turn carrying on the blended family groups that are created line upon line is our history; it is our past, present and future.

I lit a slender tallow candle and set it amongst a few others in the simple container of sand. The flame flickered in the still air and the smoky scent drifted up my silent prayers to the ceiling and beyond.

blogpiccandles

The silence was absolute.

Silent is an anagram of listen. 

In the silence, I listened.

In the stillness I heard … only peace.

Though it was a sunny summer’s day outside, my thoughts turned to Mary and Joseph’s December journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem and I considered how challenging it must have been for them to travel blindly across unfamiliar land.

Their Satnav was the sun, moon and stars, their signposts were words of knowledge shared by others who had travelled the road before them. They did not learn through the artificiality of electronic media, they learned through word of mouth and story-telling.  All they would have heard at night was the sound of the wind and the darkness would not have been polluted by artificial light, but broken by the starry sparkle of the planets and constellations.

They completed their arduous journey just in time to bring new life into the world, calmly, without fuss and with none of the science-based trappings of medicalised birth that have become the norm, at least in the west.

It was just Mary and Joseph and the grace of God. 

The arrival of Jesus is the true miracle of Christmas, the annual reminder through the nativity story representing the basis of it all; it is all too easy to lose sight of this simplicity in the materialism that we have come to accept as being intrinsic to our Christmas.

Sometimes we need to pare down to the nub to get to the profound truth, and the message of Christmas is no exception.

It is virtually impossible for us to find silence today, with the clamour of everyday life ruling our every move.  From the electronic tones of our mobile phones to the cacophony of different tunes in every store in the shopping mall, we are constantly surrounded by man-made noise.  Our devices talk to us, our computers bleep at us, even our household appliances beep and flash lights at us.  At night, even when all the lights are out, there is a subtle hum of background noise that never seems to stop.  It often feels as though it is beyond our control.

My moment of silence in Cyprus was precious for its rarity and its ability to stop me in my tracks and connect ahead of time with the Christian message of the festive season.  Discovering the purity of that moment’s silence in that sacred space, feels to me like a Divine connection.  In birth there is joy, in life there is challenge, in loss there is the hardest trial, but love transcends everything, and the true meaning of Christmas is there for us to access if we want, and to share in the greatest love of all.

I am reminded of the start of Desiderata: Go placidly amid the noise and haste and remember what peace there may be in silence.

 With love to all this festive season; may you seek and find your silence and your peace.

blogpicchurch