Who ya gonna call? Ghostbusters! Me and Poltergeists

Who ya gonna call? Ghostbusters! Me and Poltergeists

I’ve been skipping down Memory Lane a lot lately; probably a sign of middle age if not worse. A good deal of the events in my books have their roots in real experiences, and real heart-break too. Some have their roots firmly in events that would have most of us humming the tune from the Twilight Zone or possibly reaching for a rosary.

I lived in a Victorian terraced house as a student in Liverpool; it had been divided into four neat bedsits of varying size (each with a fourth share in the bathroom and hot water). During the two years I lived there, I occupied three of the four bedsits. I started in the ground floor front bedsit, moved to the back of the house on the ground floor six weeks later (it was a temporary occupancy) and a year later, following two break-ins that had made me feel unsafe, I moved to the upstairs back bedsit. Like most student digs it was down at heel and scruffy but it was extremely cheap to rent and my landlady was a decent sort. The other girls I shared the house with didn’t give me much cause for complaint (one is a good friend to this day) and given the issues many faced with damp, dangerous properties and uncongenial flat-mates, I was on to a winner.

Except for one thing.

The house had certain problems that are very hard to explain. Things as nebulous as atmosphere are notoriously easy to dismiss as being either figments of imagination (I have quite a good imagination) or the result of old, poorly maintained houses rife with damp and draughts. Small items within each self-contained flat-let went missing, only to reappear in places it was improbable if not impossible for them to have ended up. On one occasion, my door keys vanished from my kitchen table, only to reappear on a shelf so high I had to stand on a chair to reach. If you have read Away With The Fairies, you’ll know the kind of weirdness I am talking about. Had it just been me, I could accept it might have been a sequence of coincidences or imagination, but over the two years, all the other girls mentioned odd things happening. Lights would dip and electrical things would falter; you might hear footsteps and there was no one there. Eerie but not terrifying. Counter to what you might expect, I wasn’t that bothered about any of it, though missing items did make me get very cross.

Until one morning when things took a turn for the worse.

It was about eightish and I’d just woken from the alarm clock and was lying there thinking about getting up and making some tea. I’ve always needed plants and green things around me, so I had a few potted spider plants and that year I’d grown a hyacinth bulb. The flower was splendid that morning, emitting one of my favourite scents at that time. It was growing in one of those glass pots shaped so you can grow the bulb without soil; the reservoir is filled with water and the roots grow into it. I’d put the thing on the chest of drawers across the room from the bed.

Without warning, the plant, glass pot and all, rose up and hurled itself across the room at me, missing my head and hitting the pillow, drenching me with water. I lay there stunned (and wet) and was unable to move. I lived entirely alone in that tiny flat; my fiance lived a few streets away and visited most evenings but went home to bed.

The room felt unusually cold and not just because I was soaked with hyacinth water. Something sort of clicked and I leaped out of bed, dressed rapidly and exited the flat at high speed. I was so spooked, I didn’t stop for a cup of tea or breakfast or even a wash. All I wanted was to get out of the building and among other people. I stood and shook at the bus stop and eventually, a bus arrived and took me in to the university. Over the course of the day, I went through every rational possibility that could perhaps explain what had happened, and nothing worked. In the end, I concluded that something of supernatural origin had hurled that hyacinth at me. Later research suggested a poltergeist; I simply don’t know. We were all slightly too old to be triggering classic poltergeist activity. I was at that time the youngest in the house, and was around twenty one at the time.

Some years later, I saw something that defied explanation. A shop in Guisborough (a small market town in North Yorkshire) had weird things going on; the owner was a pal of mine and she was genuinely worried by it all. Candles that lit themselves at night are causes for worry. I was in the shop one day; my friend’s youngest son was at the till. We had been chatting when he went white and pointed to a shelf near where I was standing. The shelf held a selection of china oil burners; one at the back of the shelf had risen in the air, all by itself, and hovered for a second before hurtling across the room at the lad, only deviating at the last moment to smash on a wall rather than on his head. I can promise there were no fishing wires or booby traps.

You may wonder what I did about my flat. I did nothing. I went back that evening, and carried on as normal. I was unnerved for a few days, slept with a light on and a crucifix under my pillow. I’ve always been a pragmatist and scary as it sounds (and indeed was) it wasn’t scary enough to make me quit a decent flat where I paid around half the rent usual for such a place. But I have often wondered whether the girls who lived there in the years after I left ever had the same sort of uncanny goings-on.

There is one coda, though. It took me about two decades before I ever grew hyacinths from bulbs again. I didn’t want to take any chances.

Desert Journey

Desert Journey

In the wild places, life loses its confusion
And shines instead with the brilliant clarity
Of fresh-hewn crystal, sparkling with light
And edges so sharp they would draw blood.
The final tent is lost in a shimmer of heat,
Long miles behind me in the sand;
I cannot see my destination
Though mirages try to distort my vision
And lure me from my straight path.
I lay the compass on the baking ground
Follow where the arrow points me
Even though I can see nothing ahead
But sand, sand and yet more sand.
It will be cold tonight, surely,
The ice glittering in the moonlight
Mirroring the hard stars in velvet sky
Singing with high voices like distant angels.
Tomorrow, the sky will be too bright
But I will remember the stars
With their haunting piercing songs
I shall walk to that rhythm
Till I reach the other side.

Do Not Wash My Feet ~ a poem for Maundy Thursday

Do Not Wash My Feet

I would ask you:
Do not wash my feet
For I have not walked
A thousand miles in dusty lanes
that coat sandalled feet in grime,
Nor yet barefoot on the pilgrim way
Wincing at every step away from grass.
My feet have not carried me through
The smoke and filth of battle,
Nor have I stood amid the wives
Who wait to see their men return.
I would ask you:
Wash my soul instead,
For though I have been spared
The trials of life
That others suffer,
Mine have left their soil
Upon my soul as well.

The Picture Left Behind

The Picture Left Behind ~ on serendipity & happen-stance

I’ve moved house more times than many in my life, though I’ve rarely had much (if any choice) of where I have lived. On the one occasion when I did get to choose what house I was to live in, the process of house-hunting had to be fitted into ONE day, where seven possible properties were scheduled. It’s a long story why we had to do it all in such a short time but we settled on the second house; awareness of budget and other factors made it clear enough that there was no point in looking further.
It’s never bothered me (much) that when it’s come to housing, the default is pretty much Hobson’s Choice (this, or nothing). I’ve never thought there was a perfect home for me somewhere if I just kept looking; and since our residence also comes as part of the package of my husband’s job, I’ve learned to see that every home has draw-backs and advantages. My favourite house so far (in terms of practicality, looks, comfort and location) also happened to be on the flight path for East Midland’s airport, so every two or three minutes a plane would roar across the sky, alarmingly low, and drown out the birdsong.
When we moved into our house on the east coast, it had the advantage of being a half hour walk from the sea-shore, but moving in was part of a traumatic change of life-style and the first six months were cramped and confusing. I kept walking into walls, believing in a sleep-befuddled state that there ought to be a door into another room. Like any house move, we found small items left behind by the previous owners. Mostly junk and the usual detritus of bits of paper, the odd rug, oven tray and so on, there was one item I saved. Every move we have made we have usually found that previous occupants have abandoned or deliberately left behind furniture and other possessions; we once acquired a huge box of interesting old books, several (useful) beds and a wardrobe. I’m not fussy about where my belongings come from, and if they suit out uses, they are welcome (indeed, I have the three piece cottage suite donated by an aunt the year before we got married; it was over twenty years old even then). But the east coast move the single item I saved was a picture. It stayed stacked in a corner with other of our own pictures that I never got round to hanging on the walls of that house. Only after our most recent move did I look at it properly again.
Initially, you’d maybe not see why I didn’t bin it when I found it in the last house. It’s a print, framed many years ago by Boots (the Chemists) who used to do quite a range of things other than cotton wool, aspirin and toiletries, in a dark wood frame. There’s no intrinsic value and yet something made me keep it to one side and not throw it away. The signature of the artist is not legible (or I’d perhaps have tried to find the history of it). It’s a night time or twilight scene, somewhere exotic, probably Arabic or Persian, of a caravan of camels leaving a walled city or caravanserai by lamplight. The camels are being led through a high arched opening in the shadowy walls; moonlight seems to catch the tips of the long spears carried by turbaned figures. The lead camel is carrying a sort of covered palanquin, the colours of which are reminiscent of a Persian carpet, and inside sits a serene-faced man, dressed in rich robes quite unlike that of the camel drivers walking beside the animals. There’s a feeling of expectancy, a journey being embarked upon in hope and some trepidation.
In my mind is conjures words like Istafan, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isfahan and a sense of the deserts beyond, the Silk Road and other such evocative things. And even though it’s an old, slightly faded and probably cheap print, it’s filled for me with mystery and stories waiting to be told.
And yet, when I found it, I had no story that would ever touch upon the images and the atmosphere this picture holds.
But now I do. Whether the memory of the picture has worked within my unconscious or whether the story has created the need to incorporate the feelings and the images and the connections from this picture, I do not know. Whatever the process involved, the picture now hangs on the wall of my study, near the door. I see it many times a day and it works upon my imagination.
Sometimes life throws us gifts we don’t realise the value of, when they arrive, because they don’t appear to fit our needs or wants at the time. But something can make our instincts prick up, and if we listen, we might see that this thing, this person, this occurrence is a way-marker or a guide or some kind of clue or prompt that has greater meaning that we at first can see.

“O why do you walk through the field in gloves, missing so much and so much?” ~ on being still and connecting with life

O why do you walk through the field in gloves, missing so much and so much?” ~ on being still and connecting with life

Last week I had the excitement of going into London to go to a service at Westminster Abbey. It followed on from a week off from usual activities that had originally been intended to be a week away but for various reasons, we stayed home except for one night away.

I enjoy travelling by train because it’s simple and because once you are on that train there’s nothing you can do to get their any quicker. You have to just sit there and wait. I enjoy looking out of the train window and watching the world go by. The late autumn landscape glimpsed from the train was full of wild life and very lovely; snapshots of life flashed by as the train chugged onwards. It’s not a terribly long journey from our nearest station and while we were aware we had to be in the Abbey by a certain time, our attitude was that should we not make it, it was no big deal.

Yet I noticed something about many of our fellow passengers that I’ve noticed before: a total inability to just sit and do nothing. On the return journey was a young man who was watching a film on his laptop, while playing a game on his phone; he’d also been trying to converse with a friend on the phone but got frustrated and angry because of poor signal. The call was of no importance, merely a chat about possible weekend plans and their mutual friends. But his rage and frustration at being obliged to sit on a train for an hour or so without full-on entertainment and company was palpable. Others around us immersed themselves in books, papers, electronic devices of all sorts. Only the occasional child gazed out of the window. A young soldier in civvies opened a conversation with us about half an hour out of London and that half hour passed in lively talk, and exchange of thoughts and a feeling of connection. For a brief time strangers connected and became potential friends. His concerns about a forthcoming interview for a job outside the forces had meant he had sought not distraction but rather connection and interaction. He strode off at Liverpool Street station with visibly renewed confidence.

Everywhere we went that day, we had to dodge people walking along so focused on their smart-phones that they were oblivious to their surroundings. I’m sure some of it may have been important or even vital but surely not all? I spend a significant amount of my time alone at my desk and I don’t get out much these days. I’ve always found long journeys hold for me plenty of space to think and daydream and since until the arrival of the Kindle I was incapable of reading on a bus(and often a train) without being rather sick, I couldn’t lose myself in a book.

It seems that people are terrified of being bored, of spending time in silence and their own thoughts. Every moment needs to be filled with entertainment or work or anything that is not the empty, waiting silence of the unacknowledged thoughts that wait for us to stop being active.


O why do you walk through the fields in gloves,
Missing so much and so much?
O fat white woman whom nobody loves,
Why do you walk through the fields in gloves,
When the grass is soft as the breast of doves
And shivering sweet to the touch?
O why do you walk through the fields in gloves,
Missing so much and so much?

Frances Cornford.   1886-1960

While I understand only too well how frightening life can be and how the desire and need to retreat can overwhelm, I would urge everyone this: Once in a while, take off the gloves, take off whatever it is that stops you truly connecting with life and other people. Touch life and let life touch you.

Ice Age Art ~ the arrival of the modern mind?

Ice Age Art ~ the arrival of the modern mind?

Last week I went to see an exhibition of Ice Age art at the British Museum:


The subtitle of the exhibition was ‘Arrival of the modern mind’ but more or less as soon as I stepped inside I questioned this. The first of the pieces were also the oldest, some forty thousand years old

I found that my reactions were of awe at the sculptures and irritation at the explanations. The irritations were simply because the small snippet of text for each artefact used both simplistic ideas and simplistic expressions; none of which does justice to the artefacts.

The idea that suddenly there was a leap of massive proportions from brutish empty-minded cavemen to exquisite primal artists annoyed me. The concept that human beings had gone from no art to fully formed and finely tuned creations is ludicrous, but in essence that was what the text in the display cases suggested. To be fair, the multimedia guides one could pay to use, and also the book that accompanies the exhibition may well go into much greater and more subtle explanations, but the impression someone would garner solely from the explanatory labels is that ‘as if by magic’ human beings learned to create art overnight.

Art of any sort is a process of long hours of practise, on top of generations of other artists’ work. All art is derivative of earlier forms. So the Ice Age art here is not the first art at all, but the first art that has survived for us to see. I imagine a great deal of early human art was ephemeral: body art, drawings in the sand, patterns with flowers, dance, song and so on.

So what made the difference? Why do we have such tangible art remaining from artists whose bones have been dust for tens of thousands of years? The answer: enforced leisure time.


This remarkable sculpture is thought to have taken around 400 hours to change a mammoth tusk into a figure that even today holds immense numinous power and visual impact: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lion_man_of_the_Hohlenstein_Stadel

But it cannot have simply leapt into the mind of the artist one day when he or she picked up a piece of ivory. The figure existed within the mind first, perhaps borne of legends already ancient, of myths already lost in time and drawn back for the tribe by a clever carver. Perhaps it was a familiar face, drawn on the sand in front of shelters since time immemorial. We’ll doubtless never know, but whatever it was, it mattered enough for someone to spend hundreds of hours creating it from raw ivory.

The Ice Age was a time of enforced inactivity and stillness. Long winters around the fire, with the same people, with little to break the monotony, meant that, as the saying goes, people had to make their own entertainment. You had to keep busy in some way or go mad So a project that might take all winter would be something to treasure. A reason to keep going when the snows piled higher and higher and when it felt like spring would never come.

Art is what brings hope. Whether it’s art that you can see, or art that you experience in other ways, art is what keeps us going, whether we know it or not. It may also be something that is crucial in retaining our humanity during tough times both personally and tribally. Both the creation of art and the appreciation and participation in art lift us out of the mindless fog we can easily slip into when winters literal and figurative drag on and on.

One of the pieces that moved me the most was not a depiction of a person or an animal but rather a possession. A flute crafted from the leg bone of a griffon vulture drew my eyes. It held the fine patina of an instrument polished by continual use, by perhaps generations of fingers that played tunes for others to listen to, or kept a lonely wanderer ‘s spirits up during dark cold nights. It made me wonder about its maker and its owner. Was it buried when the owner died, did it fall out of a pocket on a journey? Was it passed from generation to generation.

Art is cumulative, tribal, personal and above all, vital. Without art in our midst, civilization itself begins to crumble and vanish.


I’d like to end with a snippet of a work in progress, currently entitled Tabula Rasa. It’s something quite different from other work I have done but hopefully you will enjoy it and find it interesting.

“The men make bold figures of reindeer, wolf and whale from their scraps of bone, antler and firewood, and I watch carefully their craft. They seem to be freeing the creature locked inside the solid substances, finding clues to what lies within, and then whittling and carving till the shape becomes evident to everyone. They must sharpen their knives at times for the bone and antler especially are harder than they look. My guardian’s son sees me watching and decides to show me how to carve, taking my hands and directing them. I am still weaker than I ought to be, but I learn the techniques and when I find a piece of knotted root among the firewood, I can see within it a shape.

It takes me some weeks to free that figure from within the hard old root, and once I have found that shape and refined the lines, the sight of it brings a whistle of admiration from both the men.

You have the right sight, girl,” says the younger man. “That came out well. Now you must polish and finish it.”

They show me how to smooth the wood by rubbing it with sand, finer and finer until the grain begins to gleam. Then I must rub it with a mixture of fat and charcoal to darken it so that the wood appears ebony black and shines slightly. The figure is small enough to hold and almost cover with one hand, a kneeling woman, her head bowed and her hair falling in an arc over half her face. When it is completely finished, and every inch is polished to a soft black shine, the family admire it.

That is beautiful,” sighs my guardian.

I place it in her hands, and I bow my head so that my hair falls as that of the statue does.

It is yours then, Mother,” I say and when I lift my head again I see the glitter of falling tears.

I will cherish it,” she says and after an awkward moment of throat clearing, we all begin with our tasks of settling down for the night. There are dogs to let out, reindeer to be tended. But as I climb into my sleeping skins, I see that the figurine has been placed in the niche at the back of the cave where my guardian keeps a light burning even when we all sleep. The light dances on the soft sheen of the burnished wood and as I fall asleep I see that somehow out of that unnoticed root I had carved a facsimile of my own form.”


The Magician’s Nemesis

The Magician’s Nemesis ~

I have a very special knack of getting things wrong sometimes. Really, really wrong. I sometimes unconsciously pick up on the underlying currents of relationships and somehow come out with the precise remark that was either in the mind of the other person, or the very thing they would rather never hear. I do it a lot, and sometimes it’s a little spooky and sometimes it seems to be enough to topple a whole house of cards. I’m working at becoming a bit more conscious and censoring it long enough to consider what I am saying. But when I get tired, ill or stressed, it seems to happen even more and things can go wrong.

I also have a knack of being in completely the wrong place at the wrong moment. At school, I was a great fielder at baseball and rounders because I kept getting hit by stray balls. Over the Easter weekend I was at Phantasialand near to the city of Cologne for work. The group I was with all loved roller-coasters and rides, so it was quite a lonely day for me. Added to which it was so cold and snow kept drifting down, and I was suffering with an ongoing migraine attack that meant I was hazy and unfocussed, and the cold had got to my kidneys(which are somewhat scarred after infections), making them ache like crazy. I loathe roller coasters; they make me ill and I simply cannot see the point of them, so there was no way I was even going to go on any. I’ve tried enough in my time to know I’m never, ever going to enjoy them and I’m not going to do something that will make me ill just to prove something.

But one thing I did really want to go and see was the magician. I love magic. Even knowing it’s all fake makes no difference. I love watching even when I know how it’s done. There’s something so incredibly clever about it all. Christian Farla’s Sieben show was superbly Gothic, with elements of steam-punk and delicious costumes. I was a little late, and was the last person into the theatre, scurrying to the back where I thought I’d seen a spare seat. But when I got there it wasn’t spare at all, so I sat on a box at the back that I thought was probably something to do with storage. Almost as soon as I sat, the show started.

Mesmerised, I watched. But about halfway through I was startled to find a man in black coming down a ladder next to me and informing me (in German) that I wasn’t sitting in a good place, and needed to move, now. I shifted off my box and sat on the floor, feeling horribly embarrassed. Ten minutes later, the escapologist act that involved a giant, steam-punkish scorpion and a circular saw showed me why I had been sitting in entirely the wrong place. The box was where Mr Farla descended from the gods once he had escaped from the fatal scorpion. Had I not been moved, he’d have landed on me. I felt a complete idiot. Perhaps I am.

Or perhaps I am simply The Fool. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Fool_(Tarot_card)#Symbolism That person who does and says the things that exist behind the serene surface of what we think is reality, that dark underbelly that most are oblivious of. That person who taps into what’s really going on and like the small child in The Emperor’s new clothes, actually blurts it out to the horror of all who would prefer to keep a lid on it all. That person who instinctively knows that things are not as they seem and somehow manages to blow the whole illusion sky high, showing all the naked flaws and ugliness beneath the masks.


Seals, saints & soul friends ~ unravelling my Celtic knots


Seals, saints & soul friends ~ unravelling my Celtic knots


The seals sang to us the first evening on Lindisfarne. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lindisfarne  We went down to the beach after dinner to watch the sunset and I was stunned to hear this plaintive, mesmerising sound emanating from a sandbank not far off shore. Softer than wolf-song and not as melancholy and bone-shivering as whale-song, the sound echoed along the shore line while the singers remained unseen, too far off in the gathering dusk to be visible. We picked our way across mussels and rocks to St Cuthbert’s http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cuthbert island and stood breathing in the magic of the place till we saw the tide was covering more and more of the rocks and we scurried back to the mainland before it became impassable. The next morning, before much of the island was stirring, we returned to pray, to reaffirm our marriage vows some 25 years after we made them. Our witnesses were the seals and the sea-birds who watched us and called their blessings on us. I cried.

I’ve long had an affinity with seals, and with many creatures. I rescue worms. I cry over dead birds. I talk to frogs (and anything else for that matter). And I know that probably makes me as mad as a biscuit in the eyes of many. But it would seem I am in good company. Cuthbert kept vigil on that rocky islet, up to his knees in icy water, and was guarded and warmed by wild seals and otters. It only takes a short trawl through the lives of the saints to find that many Celtic saints experienced extraordinary encounters with wild beasts. Hagiography aside, these stories have a ring of truth. Once, some years ago, we found a young seal who was undernourished and storm battered and I sat for 5 hours on a freezing beach waiting for the RSPCA to arrive. The seal slowly made his way up the beach to sit next to me, leaning his bulk against my leg and gazing up at me, and singing his lonely song.

While we were away, I read a book called Water From An Ancient Well, which was about these mad saints of the Celtic world and found my own faith in that strand of spirituality reignited. I’d turned away because the external trappings had become more important (or so it seemed) than anything deeper. But I began to think again about certain aspects of this deep, ancient and life-affirming strand and found that it chimed ever more deeply with my own experiences. God-in-everything, that panentheism that many Christians disdain or denigrate or even demonise, seems to me so much more relevant that it did even ten years ago. To care for the environment, for the living beings around us is so much more vibrant when you encounter it with the realisation that they are as sentient, as alive and valued as we are. My new garden has frogs(we move this week but took our bees there last night) and tiny ones no bigger than my thumb abound. I scooped one up, and after she climbed out of my closed hand, pushing her cool nose through the loop between finger and thumb, she sat on my thumb, watching me, bright eyes shining with life. That something this small sits blinking on my hand makes something long buried deep within me leap for joy.

One of the other features I began to look at anew was that of the Anam cara, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anam_cara the soul-friend. I’d read the book of that name http://www.amazon.co.uk/Anam-Cara-Spiritual-Wisdom-Celtic/dp/0553505920/ref=sr_1_cc_1?s=aps&ie=UTF8&qid=1346750049&sr=1-1-catcorr years ago, but had let a lot of the thought behind it slip away. A soul-friend is hard to define but it’s someone with whom you have a deep, mutual connection that goes beyond either the usual bounds of friendship or even that of blood kinship. There are many examples I could give of such a friendship, but this would become a vast and unwieldly essay verging on a thesis. A soul-friend is someone with whom your connection is so deep that time and distance matter little; there is something eternal about them. There can be a phase where one is the teacher of the other but the relationship is also mutual. It’s a love than is quite different to either a romantic love and yet can be too easily mistaken for it. Many marriages though can be between soul-friends, because having one does not preclude the other.

We live in a time when communication has been easier than at any time in history, and yet there is a deep loneliness in society. I have long thought that a growth in understanding of this ancient form of connection would ease this burden of loneliness; indeed, I talked a great deal with someone I believed to be a soul-friend about how it might be possible to create a renewal of this to act as a powerful soul medicine, or therapy. That friendship ended (devastating me) but not that kernel of thought of how to bring back and encourage others to seek their own Anam Caras for the solace of all.

I’m going to be working on it.


10 Days in Nicaragua: Lessons in Human Nature

 Some times you come across someone whose ideas and ideals resonate with your own.  This guest post from Jonathan who writes the Serving Others blog is from very much such a person. Over to you!

10 Days in Nicaragua: Lessons in Human Nature


by Jonathan Lareau


“The greatest risk in action is the risk of revelation, and that is also action’s greatest joy. No one can know us fully, not even ourselves, but when we act, something of our inner mystery often emerges, and it can shock or delight us when it does.” –Parker Palmer



I knew it would be a challenging experience, but I could never have imagined the extent to which it would push all of my boundaries, and how it would ultimately expand my mind and soul.


From March 9-18, 25 people—from various parts of Ontario, Canada—travelled to Nicaragua to work in Granada, of the poorest neighbourhoods of the capital city of Managua. Ten adults and 15 teens coming together for a common purpose.


The trip was led by Companeros.ca, a social enterprise that improves the lives of the people there. In 10 years, more than 1,000 participants from Canada, the US, and beyond have made this trip to Nicaragua, still one of the poorest countries in the western hemisphere with most people living on less than $2 per day.


In the six months leading up to the trip, our group talked about what to expect. But nothing could have prepared us for the complete assault on our senses that would occur, challenging our reality and everything we were accustomed to. Young kids sleeping on the street. People living on garbage dumps. Barbed wire everywhere. The heat. The smells. Most people live on next to nothing, on dirt floors and in tin shacks. Natural disasters, corrupt governments, and wars have torn this country apart over the last 40 years.


We were divided up into groups of three or four and hosted by various Nicaraguan families, interacting with our hosts mainly over meals. Despite the language barrier, we managed to communicate, with lots of effort on both sides. We were divided into smaller groups and assigned specific jobs in Granada, based on our experience and how we could best contribute. Some were put on house-building teams. Some taught English. Some painted huge, colorful murals. Others went to work building a security wall around the school—digging trenches, mixing cement, laying stones, and building reinforcement bars.


After short stints chipping stone, moving rocks and debris, and building re-bar, I finally found my niche—building book shelves and room dividers with Jack, a retired minister and experienced carpenter. We all worked alongside local Nicaraguans. They—and we—were somewhat guarded, skeptical, and distant at first. It is human nature to distrust and fear what you don’t know. But within a day, once we got to know each other, the language and cultural barriers just melted away. It didn’t take long before we were laughing and joking together, and making real progress on all fronts.


Perhaps the most powerful moment of the entire trip for me was when we first arrived at the school on the first work day. All the school kids, families, workers, and teachers were gathered to greet us. As I sat with these people—the bright-eyed school kids smiling up at me, fascinated, watching my every move, trying to connect—it really hit home why I was there. I felt love and goodness in an almost dizzying way, unlike anything I have ever known.


The schedule was intense and relentless—between the job site, group outings, discussion, preparation—we were on the go for 15 hours a day. I would discover that the total cultural immersion and letting go of “my” ways of doing things would lead to incredible growth.


On the fourth work day I decided to stay late to prep for the next day, when the local workers began to congregate around me for some reason. Against my usual nature, I forced myself to stop planning, and simply be in the moment with the others, and just hang out with them. Turned out to be one of the most communal and connected moments of the trip as we let off steam, laughing and joking with one another as if we’d been friends for years. It’s amazing what happens when you are present and paying attention.


Although both cultures seem so different at first, once you scratch the surface I discovered that there is a commonality that binds us together. We all respond to love, kindness, enthusiasm, and smiles. The more you put yourself out there, the more you get back. If nations and governments were to put the same kind of effort into listening and understanding each other, perhaps the world would be a different place.


At the end of the final work day, we toured all the projects to see the progress that had been made. Three houses had been built and about 400 feet of the security wall erected. Two beautiful murals had been created. Six shelving units and four room dividers were completed. But most importantly, a whole lot of love and respect had grown between two very different cultures in a very short time.


When it was finally time to say goodbye, it was an incredibly heart-wrenching experience and it hit me much harder than I expected. In a few short days we had become so close with these people. Lots of tears all around.


On the final night with our host family, they threw a goodbye party for us. A simple and modest affair by our standards, but they all make such an effort and are so proud. It is not what they have, or how much they have, but rather the people and relationships they value the most. Unlike North Americans, this culture values living in and for the moment. They have so little, and have been through such hardship, yet they seem happy and hopeful.


After the group left, I ended up staying another week to see more of the country. But how empty, self-indulgent, and meaningless it all seemed, sitting on the beach or walking up a volcano, compared to the intense and rewarding time I had with my co-workers at the work site. Paradise, no matter how beautiful, is not a place, and can only be found in your heart, through meaningful interaction.


A few other things struck me during this trip.


In North America, time seems to move very quickly, days and weeks merging into the next as we go about our routines. But 10 days in Nicaragua felt like two months. The continuous assault on my senses, with nothing routine or predictable, seemed to slow everything right down. I felt like I was squeezing every last drop of life out of every day.


We spent a lot of time driving through the streets of Managua, to and from the worksite and other locations. If you think driving in North America is bad, a few hours on these roads makes our drivers look like angels! Yet not once did I see or hear anyone honking in anger, or giving someone the finger! There was patience, understanding, and peace amidst the chaos.


I travelled thousands of kilometres to help a small community in need. But there are so many people in need everywhere, it’s almost paralyzing as I think about where to start. It also makes me wonder if I am doing enough for those who need help closer to home. The simple lesson for me is to become involved in some way, any way. Separation breeds indifference, unity produces compassion. And when I serve others, I do not hurt them.


I know these experiences will fade, but I also know that I have become more conscious—I cannot simply slip back to life the way I knew it.


While I was in Nicaragua, I felt hyper aware and in the moment. I have never felt so incredibly alive. I know I brought the best version of myself on that trip, as well as openness, enthusiasm, and a willingness to stretch way beyond my usual comfort zone.


And above all, I will remember the incredible power of people coming together for the common purpose of doing something positive.







Tales of the Wellspring 3 ~ inspirations

Tales of the Wellspring 3 ~ inspirations

for part one visit Tales of the Wellspring 1

for part two visit Tales of the Wellspring 2

Once or twice in my life I have made a decision while under the influence of alcohol. Most of us have, if we’re honest about it and if we’re lucky nothing very untoward has come of it. The most life changing decision I almost made was on the strength of exhaustion, the exhilaration of moving to a new and very rural area, a childhood dream and several pints of Scrumpy Jack cider. Thankfully, I said I would sleep on it and come and view the horse the next day. Good sense kicked in with a mild hangover and though the horse was beautiful as a de-horned unicorn she had not been broken in and on the strength of the fact that I’ve never owned a horse before, let alone broken one in to bit, bridle and saddle, I said no.

I am relieved now that I didn’t go through with the purchase as I suspect it would have led to much heartache later. I’d also learned my lesson from something that had occurred in a pub about six years previously, though in that case it was the result of a pint and a half of Guinness and some persuasive friends.

It was a bit more than that really. My husband had been accepted for ordination training a few months previously, to commence to following autumn, and life was in a kind of free fall. We were gearing up to moving from Middlesbrough to Nottingham, selling our home and renting another and at this time our daughter was about 18 months old. There were so many uncertainties my head spins now to even think about it. We belonged to a Fellowship of Vocation group that supported those considering or entering ministry and it was after such a meeting that we decided to capitalise on having a babysitter and when the core of the group decamped to the pub afterwards, we joined them.

David, the group leader, was a Taizé fanatic and he set himself to convincing us to come that year. Taizé is a religious community in the far south of France famed for its music and its silence. Young people from all over the world visit for a kind of retreat. My objections were simple: we had virtually no money and we had a baby. Money? Ha, as we were at that time under a key age, we were able to pay the bare minimum, David told us. And there were lots of activities for children and so on.

So I said yes.

When the time came, I regretted the decision immensely. We were in the throes of selling our house and I was reluctant to go away at a crucial time. But we’d paid our initial deposit for coaches etc so we went. Let me tell you something: travelling from the North East of England to the South of France on a coach with a hyperactive two year old who doesn’t sleep was possibly one of the most challenging experiences. It took a full 24 hours and the last 12, driving across France was horrific. It got hotter and hotter. By the time we got there, the temperature was in the 80s.

I had had no sleep whatsoever and I don’t like heat anyway. Since I speak French, I sorted out where we were to be billeted and we trudged half a mile up the road to the farmhouse where those infirm or with tiny children were put. We found out later a minibus would have ferried us there but no one  thought to tell us. The old farmhouse was lovely, but in a state of some disrepair and the girl who was there to welcome us was Hungarian and spoke only basic English. She showed us to our room, which turned out to have a stone flagged floor and one single bed. At this point, I sat down on the bed and burst into tears.

We have a problem,” said the girl and left us alone.

Ten minutes later she came back with a very nice nun who spoke good English and found us first a room with two beds, and then a travel cot for the baby.

I didn’t like Taizé; it was full of too many people, and too much noise and bustle and confusion. I felt miserable and confused myself and I wanted to go home, desperately. I liked the Church, with its icons and its flickering candles but I didn’t like the service I went to the first evening. Hypnotic repetitions of simple songs wound my nerves up to breaking point and I could see everyone else falling under the sway of it, becoming entranced and I felt angry and excluded. I tried to get into the spirit of it but couldn’t. Total fail. We also had to share child care because it turned out at just short of 2 years old our daughter was considered too young to be in any of the kid’s activities without one of us being present. So we had to turn and turn about participating in services and study groups.

We’d been there about three days, and I had become resigned to being there and was just keeping my head down and trying to get as much out of it as I could. I felt a massive sense of disappointment; it was just not what I had hoped it would be for me. I blamed myself, because I’ve always been useless at anything with groups. Then my husband said, have you found the Chapel of the Wellspring yet?

Simple answer, no. I’d not even known it was there. I went and looked at it next time it was my turn to be baby-free. It looked…..intriguing. It looked like a cross between a B&Q summer-house and an Orthodox church. A rough wooden roof over decking but an onion dome on the very top. I stood for a moment looking at it. Inside, candles flickered by icons and in the middle was a trough of water. I went in and sat down. There were only benches or prayer stools and it was simply nice to be out of the glare of the sun. The little structure was filled with the fragrance of cedar-wood and of the branches of box that were stapled to the frame (I still don’t know why) and the sweeter smell of candles. The birdsong outside was muted and after a few seconds I could hear only a trickle of water. Below this structure was a real spring and the water was channelled from below into the stone trough at the heart of the little chapel. The heat of the day was so intense that the slow trickle of water from deep in the earth kept the trough filled but it rarely overflowed. After I had sat there for a while, I could smell the water: cool, and fresh, filtered through layers of ancient rock and earth. I went and knelt by the stone basin that held it and touched it. The refreshment went somehow beyond the coolness of water on a hot day; the water felt newborn and ancient at the same time. I did not drink, but I did touch my face with the water.

From that point on this place became my touchstone for getting to grips with whatever was raging inside me. I would come in and sit in silence and after a short while what had bothered me had melted away. There was a power there I cannot describe, and even writing about it now, I feel the silence and hear and smell the water. Before we left to go home, I bought a pendant with a simple representation of the wellspring, two lines of waving blue and it came with a tiny card that has sat on or near my desk in the 20 or so years since then.

It has the same quote from the Book of Proverbs in five languages, reflecting the multi-lingual nature of Taizé:

More than all else keep watch over your heart since here are the wellsprings of life.” Pr.4 v 23 

I’ve wished every day since we left that I had that Chapel of the Wellspring somewhere that I could visit every day; wanted to live in a home where the garden held a spring I could meditate by and be healed constantly of the pain life can bring me. It’s taken me those intervening twenty years to start to understand that in reality, I do.