The Journey Home Begins With ‘Sorry’ ~ on reconciliation and relationships

The journey home begins with “Sorry” ~ on reconciliation & relationships

I’m a great procrastinator when it comes to Christmas things. I object to anything remotely Christmas themed until at least advent and I’m seldom in the mood for festive frolics till mid month at the very soonest. This means that the majority of my preparations are crammed into seven to ten days. I count myself ahead if I have managed to get the tree up by the 20th. The thing I procrastinate the most about is the cards and until this year I wasn’t sure why. Usually I finish them and think, why did I put it off so long?

This year, as we moved in the autumn I needed to do a round robin letter (never done one before) to give our new address and a brief resume of the year. I don’t mind other people’s round robins, even though there’s a general loathing of them that gets expressed through the media (and social media) and apart from one that began, brace yourselves I’ve got leukaemia and went downhill from there, they’re usually nice to read. So equipped with a sheaf of printed letters I opened my address book and found my reason for hesitation.

As I leafed slowly through, I realised it was full of people, not merely names and addresses and some of them were no longer in my life.

Some had passed away. Those made me sad, but I had good memories of them.

Some have drifted away. That’s normal. Not all friendships are forever; they have their moments, a shared experience, and they decline. You have good memories, a smile when you think of them and usually a card at Christmas. Sometimes those are rekindled, and it’s as if nothing has ever happened.

And some are sundered from me.

Not many. I’ve been lucky generally that I don’t make enemies. But in most of our lives there are people who hurt us. Those who can hurt us are generally those we let in, and trust, and care about. And in turn, we too hurt others. Either inadvertently, or deliberately.

I’ve seen a good deal of discussion lately via social media about cutting people out of lives, both from those at the hard end of the cut and those wielding the knife. There’s a school of thought that has it that we should remove from our lives anyone who is seen as being negative or not what we need/want. I’ve heard of people recently who have been told they are being ‘let go’ by friends. It’s horrible, frankly, doubly so at the Christmas season of goodwill. We do not really know what another person has been going through, and to judge someone else as negative and needing weeding out of your life is bad enough, but to tell them so in such terms… To me, that is needlessly cruel and desperately selfish. This year I had two people do it to me.

But when it comes to broken relationships, ones where the hurt still smarts, the last words echo in your memory, even years later, what of those? You may think, their loss. Imagine then you find one day they have died. If you find yourself thinking, I wish I’d…., then perhaps there’s unfinished business left.

Some there is no way back with. You have no idea where they are, or how to find them. These are ones you have to leave in the lap of the gods. I have a few of those,and for those I may have hurt or who have hurt me, I can say simply, “I am sorry. I wish you well in your journey. I am here if you want to talk,” and hope that somehow those words may carry on the wings of quiet hope. There is great, unseen power in such prayerful words. Someone hears them, even if we speak them silently.

But others, we look at their names and we think, they must hate us, they’d never let me back in. It doesn’t matter which side of the hurting you were on, there is fear in an approach, a fear that our overtures will be rejected, opening the wounds again. Perhaps this time of year is the safest. One may send a card, knowing that if they tear it up you will never know. But it may pave the way towards a little dialogue later, the proverbial olive branch.

I do not wish to live in conflict with anyone. I would make my peace with all, and offer my ‘Sorry’ as a hand towards any soul with whom I am not in harmony with. Sorry for my part, for every relationship breakdown has two sides(or more) and no party is completely innocent.

May your Christmas be filled with peace and harmony.

“For all my relations” ~ are we sitting shiva for the world?

For all my relations” ~ are we sitting shiva for the world?

When a Native American enters a sweat lodge to pray, the words uttered are, “For all my relations.” This has never meant a person’s blood relations but rather every living thing (and in that culture, the rocks are sometimes referred to as The Stone People) so the breadth of meaning for living is much wider than you might expect). The overall spirituality of the many tribal groups we refer to as Native Americans sees the interconnectedness of everything, all of us linked by invisible but powerful webs. You can see a parallel in Jung’s theory of the Collective Unconscious , but for me the “we” is much more than just us upright apes. It’s the sparrows who bathe so exuberantly in the margins of my pond, and the tiny froglets now settling to winter sleep, and the hedgehog who prowls the garden at night hoping for cat-food. It’s my friends halfway across the world whose faces I’ll probably never see in the flesh. It’s the whole of consciousness, human and otherwise.

I heard recently the phrase “Misery loves company” applied to how on social media you’ll often find that people rally round someone in distress. It’s one of the things that I like about social media in that while there can be great cruelty there can also be great kindness too, but for me I think there is another reason why those in mental distress will often band together.

It’s because there’s an unspoken understanding, a fellowship if you will, among those who suffer this way. You’re unlikely to get told, pull your socks up, or that you’re choosing to be miserable etc, by others in similar distress.

And believe me, there can be a lot of judgement that goes on. Believe me, I am aware that next to someone in the slums, I’m living the life of Riley and ought to be bloody grateful for it and ought to be happy.

I’ve also noticed something else too among the loose community of those who suffer with this sort of distress(depression etc) and that is it’s getting worse. People who thought they’d found strategies for coping, or even a cure, are finding their methods aren’t working so well. The medication seems to have lost its edge, the mantras seem hollow, you have to exercise to damaging levels to get the same effects, the longed-for holiday is forgotten within 24 hours of the ‘plane touching down. These are good people. They’re not ungrateful wretches who are greedy for more consumer goods or whatever. They’re people like me who in the midst of our wonderful First World Life are finding themselves crying for days and not really knowing why. They’re finding that the gaps between down times are getting shorter and shorter, and the up times feel tinny and empty. Success might be sweet but it feels short-lived and hollow. We’re finding that this persistent sadness pushes through loving families and supportive friends.

And it won’t ever quite go away.

I woke up today thinking about it all and wondering why.

I’d also read a tweet in the small hours reminding me that there are only 50 months to go before we as a planet reach the tipping point where the environmental changes are(supposedly) irreversible. I’d tried not to see it but I saw it and that was that.

Now I know that I personally have not been responsible for any of the decisions over the last two hundred or so years that have created havoc with the environment. I know I’m not the one hunting rhinos to extinction and pouring crude oil into the oceans. But I belong to a people who have done these things. I belong too to the people who will be blamed if there is a posterity. I probably won’t live to see the damage. There’s a Native American saying that sums it up. “We do not inherit the earth, we borrow it from our children.” I doubt they’ll thank us for it.

So, why not eat, drink and be merry because it’s not my problem? Vast amounts of people seem to be able to do just that, shrug it off saying that it’s not their problem and they’ll be long dead before it all happens.

I can’t. Remember, we are all connected, through time and space too I believe.

Whatever the physical causes of depression might prove to be, trauma is also implicated. Grief often leads to profound and prolonged depression. Some days I wake and I feel as though I have suffered a huge loss but cannot remember it, just feels the pain. I strongly suspect many folks will relate to this feeling.

I also woke with a phrase in my mind. Sitting Shiva. This is the formal mourning process, ritualised to some degree practised by Jews across the world. I first heard about it when I was a student. I cannot remember when or where now but one thing struck me was the collective part of the process. People come and respectfully sit with the mourners, often in silence, to comfort them. They share stories of the deceased, too, if initiated by the mourners. Once, many years ago, I saw my cat Watson go through a ritual of grieving, when his companion William was killed on the road. He wailed, and refused to eat for several days, and lay on the grave in the garden for a week. We sat with him, sometimes, silent or talking depending on his lead, and grieved with him.

I’ve begun to wonder whether those of us who feel this persistent, unconquerable sadness (depression if you will) are in a strange way sitting shiva for the world, for the living planet and her creatures, human, plant and animal. If this is so, then let us talk, let us comfort each other with words and stories, and be respectful of the unspoken, unknown griefs another may be feeling without being able to articulate it.

Seeing potential or seeing reality ~ why I’m not a good judge of character.


Seeing potential or seeing reality ~ why I’m not a good judge of character.


I dreamed last night of someone I’ve had no contact with for five years, someone who I was close friends with at university and for some years afterwards. Five years ago, our sputtering friendship sputtered out altogether in a heated exchange of emails that began as what I thought was an exploration of an area of metaphysics she’d become heavily involved with and ended with me being lambasted for not choosing to take on everything she believed to be true. At the time I was shocked and upset because it felt as though one of my oldest friends had turned on me and tried to rip me to shreds. It felt like it had come out of left-field and was completely unpredictable.

After years of intermittent reflection, I’ve realised it was very much a part of the patterns she’d already exhibited. I’d just never got in the way before. My only big hint was when I’d remarked that a company she was involved in back in the mid nineties, (which sold over-priced aloe vera products with some very grandiose claims) came remarkably close to being pyramid selling. This provoked a brief but fiery diatribe (fronted with those immortal words, “with respect”) along the lines that I knew nothing whatsoever about it and should just shut the **** up. I did. Analysing every scheme, company or church she was ever involved with now makes me see that she was far from the person I believed her to be.

We met when I was 18 and she a few years older and at that time she was very kind and caring. She helped me through some tough times. The long nights putting the world to rights, not to mention each other, showed me what at the time I thought was her true self.

Now I am far from sure. I think I saw her potential, and I acted for the duration of our friendship as if that potential were a here-and-now reality. So the final bitter exchange of words in email came as a huge shock to me, as if she’d changed so drastically from the person I’d thought I’d known. I can see now that she hadn’t changed at all. That in itself was the problem. The person I saw her becoming never arrived.

I’ve done this constantly in my life, but thankfully, so far only four friendships have ended in this way, when reality and my belief in someone’s potential have collided so violently there has been nothing left to salvage. It last happened over a year ago, and the pain it caused me was immense. But conversely, the discoveries it brought me might actually be worth that distress.

I seldom see just who a person is now without also seeing beside them a kind of ghostly hologram of their possible self, which shines and glows and is sometimes so compelling I can become entranced by that potential I forget ( if I ever realised) that this is not what they are now but who they might become. It’s this aspect of it that makes keener the grief of loss when a friendship ends, because it’s not merely the death knell of a relationship that enriched me, but it’s also a very real death of an unborn, unrealised shining soul. Of course, this seems very arrogant to imagine that the severing of my links with a person means that they won’t become a greater being; that’s not what I mean. It means that I will never get to see that transformation.

In the case of my old friend, I can only see a deepening of her flaws and when I saw a recent picture of her, I can see no joy in her eyes, joy that I know I saw once, when we were both young and hopeful of what life might bring us.

Time brings wisdom if we allow it, and now I wonder if I ought to try and NOT see the shining being standing alongside those I meet. Have I the right to impose my visions on others, with my unconscious expectations of their journeys? I do not know the answer to this. But treating everyone as the person they might one day become may be just the factor they need to achieve it, by having someone who believes in them now.

If you treat an individual as he is, he will remain how he is. But if you treat him as if he were what he ought to be and could be, he will become what he ought to be and could be.”
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe



Ties That Bind Us 2 ~ a poem about the bonds of love and loss

Ties that Bind 2

Do not cut those ties

To those you have lost.

The blade hurts beyond bearing

And cuts more than you know.

Let those ties fray rather

In the winds of passing time.

Thread by thread

Strand by strand,

Time wears the fabric down.

The first to fray is need;

Wiry like old roots,

It shrivels without feeding

Becoming dry and brittle

Before finally snapping

And becoming dust

That the wind catches

And blows away.

The next to go is illusion:

Flashing through rainbows

Of coloured pasts

That become slowly

Monochrome and clear.

You see things as they were

You see the truth

A skilful pen and ink sketch

Showing the bare lines

Of what there truly was.

Anger goes next,

Serpent-strong, writhing

Shrieking with fury

Dull red and thick with misery;

It grows quiet, finally

Stills its thrashing

Lies quiet and subdued.

You look again,

And it’s gone.

Each strand that bound you

One by one wears out

Frays to nothing


It’s gone.

And when each tie is gone,

You may find that one alone remains,

Bright shining silver,

Gleaming in the kinder light

That time will bring you.

This is the thread that never frays

Never breaks, never snaps.

If at the end of all the threads

This one remains,

Then leave it be.

Cutting this one

Only cuts your heart.

The Christmas Conundrum ~ what is the spirit of the season?

The Christmas Conundrum ~ what is the spirit of the season?

Every year it sneaks up on me and every year I am unprepared and become anxious and then grumpy. Yes, Christmas.

I struggle with Christmas these days. I struggle with balancing my own views with those of the society around me. I struggle to avoid being a nasty grumpy, Grinchey old killjoy who hates pretty much everything about Christmas. I struggle to keep quiet about my views because in the end, they’re just my views and everyone else is as entitled to theirs.

But I don’t hate Christmas. I do hate what it seems to have become, in our current society. I’m not even going to go into the faith-based ideas about Christmas, because when it comes right down to it, actually most theologians would pour cold water on most of the so-called facts of the Christmas story. It doesn’t stop it being a beautiful story, though, or stop me from believing in it even though I know that the events almost certainly did not happen as the tale tells.

At the moment, I see and hear on a daily basis what people are doing and planning and buying for Christmas, and I also notice the increasing levels of stress and worry that accompany all these preparations, and it worries me. We’ve all hear of the traditional blazing rows at the dinner table on Christmas Day and all the accompanying nastiness.

 The following short extract is from Terry Pratchett’s Hogfather: 

The wassailers stopped and watched them in horror.

Neither party noticed, as the beggars oozed and ambled up the street, that little smears of black and grey were spiralling out of drains and squeezing out from under tiles and buzzing off into the night. People have always had the urge to sing and clang things at the dark stub of the year, when all sorts of psychic nastiness has taken advantage of the long grey days and the deep shadows to lurk and breed. Lately people had taken to singing harmoniously, which rather lost the effect. Those who really understood just clanged something and shouted.”

 For those who are psychically inclined, there is great truth in this. It’s one reason why for thousands of years in the cold Northern countries (I cannot speak for warmer ones) a festival has always taken place in the midpoint of the year, when the winter has begun to bite, but when the sun has begun its slow climb again. Humankind needs a midwinter festival to get them through the darkest of days that are coming, and whether this is Saturnalia, Yule, the Natalis Invicta , Christmas or whatever, it’s something of a psychological necessity. We need the hope and the light of gathering together against the dark and the cold.  

Apart from the odd sulk over washing dishes, I don’t think we’ve ever had a Christmas day row in my home. But I also think I know why. It’s all about expectations. Let me tell you a story. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I shall begin.

The first Christmas we spent in Darkest Norfolk was probably one of the best Christmases we’ve ever had. We had friends come and visit, bringing partners, children and assorted hangers-on, to such an extent that I think virtually every item of bedlinen got used, and people were kipping on couches and pretty much anywhere there was space. There was food and drink and music and laughter; the living room stove was made up each morning and was kept stoked and used for roasting chestnuts and toasting marshmallows and warming ale until the last of us crawled to bed at 3am or later. People turned up, with other people, and the house was full to bursting. All the guests got on with each other and tasks like cooking and washing up were done communally and with a lot of giggles and joking. Scented candles were lit at dusk, and the house was an oasis of fellowship and love. It was agreed by everyone it had been a totally magical time, and we’d do it again next year.

Big mistake. We had more or less the same cast of characters, and the same food and drink and music….but a year had gone by, life had happened to folks and the magic was gone. Two friends managed to have one of those rows that never blaze up but become acidic and nasty within half an hour of arriving; it took another 5 or 6 years before they were on good terms again. Everything was the same, externally, but the whole thing was flat and rather lifeless.

We’d tried to recreate the magical atmosphere by assembling the same ingredients, the same components, but this doesn’t work. Think of the money and effort and thought that is spent on a great number of weddings, to recreate a fairytale wedding for the photographs. My husband has seen weddings where the marriage failed within three months; some even failed by the reception. Seriously, I do not jest; the bride used the honeymoon to go on holiday with her mother.

You cannot make Christmas by buying every “essential” item, or by eating or drinking certain things, or by attending carols services or Christmas parties. In fact, you cannot make Christmas at all. Because Christmas exists beyond all the external manifestations we think ARE Christmas.

Christmas is about love. Love. Not tinsel or presents or mince pies or films or music or anything that you can hold in your hand or look at. It’s intangible and elusive; if you try to grab it, it vanishes. And yet, a home that is filled with love will be filled with Christmas throughout the entire year…..and probably little will change for the month of December. That’s the spirit of the season, and it lasts all year in the hearts of those who are filled with love.


Heart and Hearth – how a sense of belonging can heal the soul

Heart and Hearth – how a sense of belonging can heal the soul 

Despite the fact that I go away for work often enough to keep a separate bag of toiletry essentials, I really struggle to leave my home for holidays. Even for work, I over-pack and take things that might
baffle a Customs official if they were ever to search my bags. But
going away for a holiday often fills me with a greater degree of
panic than you’d expect. Somewhere deep inside me lurks an agoraphobe who still clings to home with her fingernails.

This most recent holiday was no exception. While most look forward to holidays, I find preparing so stressful that I don’t have that
excited sense of anticipation most enjoy. Once we are gone, I am
usually happy by the time we reach the end of the road. The weekend before we left, I had something occur that upset me badly enough to give me sleepless nights and a terrible weight and pain in my chest. This enormous and unspeakable sadness meant I really wanted to dig down into my pit, hide from the world and lick my substantial wounds. And fester, frankly. I packed instead, and forced myself to remember the various items I’d promised to take with me on our tour of the north.

Come Monday morning and I’d had probably four or five hours sleep in forty eight and my chest felt like an elephant was sitting on it, but by midday, we’d loaded our gubbins into the car and were gone. The usual relief I feel once we have departed did not happen. The sense of impending doom remained, the gnawing ache in my heart twisted and I found it harder and harder to breathe.

Until I saw the White Horse, carved into the hillside as we entered the Vale of York and like a ghost at the feast, the pain vanished.
Tightness remained, but the pain had eased.

When I saw the mini Matterhorn of Roseberry Topping, the North Yorkshire hill my friend Kate lives under, the tightness loosened its grip, and when we walked into her home, it was gone. Talking late into the night, and sitting by the fire, I felt such a sense of healing, I was almost shocked when I went to bed that I did finally sleep. I’d been so locked into a vicious cycle of pain that I didn’t think anything
could end it. And yet, a simple image of a white horse in a chalk
hill, and a familiar landmark had released me.

I’ve lived more than half my adult life north of Watford Gap, that mythic cut off point between north and south in England, and seeing the White Horse made me remember the numerous happy years, not to mention the family and friends who live in the North. I had an instinctive sense of homecoming when I saw the Horse. Seeing the almost iconic image of Roseberry showed me I was within close reach of dear, loving friends. Kate and her sister were at sixth form college with my husband, and we shared three years of university life with her sister, before later living within a few miles of each other. Our kids played together as small children and kept in touch despite our peregrinations through the British Isles. We’ve laughed and cried
together many, many times. In arriving at this special, welcoming
place, I came with a sense of being loved not even in spite of my
imperfections but possibly because of them. To be accepted, and not
rejected, is the goal of all human relations, and the rejections I’d
suffered before the journey had scored deeply into my soul. Kate, her family and her home poured a sweet balm onto those hurts and helped me to step away from the relentless pain.

The power of love, gentleness and acceptance to heal emotional pain is incredible but there is another factor in my recovery that is harder to explain: the hearth.

The hearth is the symbolic heart of a home, and in many cultures, is
sacred. Rituals and prayers were and are performed at the lighting of
the fire in a home and there is something special and magical about a real fire. Even symbolically, a home needs this heart-hearth. My home has no hearth as such but I have a small altar where there are sacred images, and candles, and I say a simple prayer here every day. The sacred heart of a home is what creates the atmosphere of love, tended by family members and is too often missing or neglected in our homes. Being welcomed at the hearth of another person is an act of benediction that blesses all, and builds a sacred trust between people; to eat and drink in the home of another reinforces our common humanity and our connections. Some of my sense of being welcome in the world had been damaged, and I was in danger of not only withdrawing myself from the wider world, but also of withdrawing my own welcome to others because of that trust being broken.

When you come home and sit down, before you turn on the TV or the computer, why not light a small fire, a candle perhaps and connect with the sense of belonging that a heart-hearth can give you? These hearths of symbolic light draw good things to you, and are beacons of light to the world. I light a candle and send prayers for those I love, and for those who are no longer in this world and I take a moment to re-sanctify my own thoughts and my own welcome to the world. We all need to belong somewhere and even if that belonging is more figurative than an actual location, it’s still needed. I belong among those who love me, appreciate me, faults, failings and all. So do you.

(This one is for Kate and Mike, with my great love. Thank you!)

Announcing my new baby ~ Introducing Away With The Fairies

Announcing my new baby ~ Introducing Away With The Fairies

I’ve been away for a fortnight on holiday (more of that soon) but the day before we headed off, I hit the publish button for my new book. I’ve had limited and sporadic internet access, not to mention not a lot of time to go online, and when I did try to write a blog post with my net-book, both WordPress and my net-book refused to play and only allowed me to post a photo. So this fanfare-and-trumpets post has had to wait till I got home again and had the time and the technology to write a suitable “press release” for it.

That said, the small amount of publicity I was able to give it has
resulted in sales, which made me grin like the Cheshire Cat.

So without further ado, I’d like to introduce you to…..Away With The Fairies. Originally entitled Fish Out of Water, I wrote this novel
some years back and it was one that very nearly landed me a
publishing contract. It landed me an agent, too, who proved to stink
like rotting fish, metaphorically speaking and who threw me out of
the keeping net when he failed after a few tries to find a publisher
to take it on. Since I have changed the name, the fishing metaphors
need to be dropped…sorry, I could never resist a bad pun.

The following is the synopsis of the novel:

Irrepressible artist Isobel has survived most things. She’s coped with everything from a sequence of miscarriages, her husband’s ordination, the birth of two small and demanding children, and finally the recent death of both her parents in a bizarre suicide pact. She’s managed to bounce back from everything so far. A sequence of domestic disasters finally signals to Isobel that perhaps things aren’t
quite as rosy as she’d like. With her half of the inheritance,
Isobel buys an isolated holiday cottage where she hopes to be able to catch up with some painting, as well as have the occasional holiday.

The cottage is idyllic, beautiful and inspiring, but odd things keep
happening. Doors won’t stay shut, objects go missing and reappear
in the wrong places and footsteps are heard when there’s no one
there. One of Isobel’s new neighbours suggests that it is the
fairies who are responsible, but Isobel is more than a tad sceptical:
there’s not a hint of glitter or tinselly wings or magic wands.

Isobel’s inner turmoil begins to spill over into her daily life when she hits a deer while driving back from the cottage. Her family hold crisis
talks, deciding that she needs to have time alone in the cottage to
get over long repressed grief and to paint it out of her system. As
she works at frenetic pace, the odd happenings begin to increase
until even Isobel’s rational, sceptical mind has to sit up and take
notice. And that’s when she gets really scared. Up until now, her
motto has been that there’s nothing in life that can’t be made
better by a cup of tea and some Hob Nobs. This time it’s beginning
to look like it’ll take more than even chocolate biscuits to make
things better. 

I’ve long believed in the existence of fairies, but defining precisely
what I mean by fairies is hard. Beings that inhabit our world but are
not human is possibly the simplest definition and it encompasses all
the possibilities from a pygmy race of primitive humans (like the now
extinct Homo Floresiensis), to spirits of the dead and to the devas
that guard the natural world. Folk-lore and literature are packed
with stories and anecdotes about the fairies(also spelled faeries; I
chose the modern spelling deliberately to ensure I kept the story
firmly in this century) and like ghosts the subject divides people
between believers and sceptics. I’m cool with that.

Isobel is very close to my heart; in some respects she’s the me I’d like to have been: capable, rational, practical and pragmatic but with a streak of artistic madness that can drive her like a demon. She
played “best supporting actress” in another novel that pre-dates
this one, set when Isobel’s husband is at theological college and she
teams up with the rebellious Chloe to play merry hell with the staid
and bigoted wives at the college. She also appears in two other
novels as a pretty vital character, but Away With The Fairies is
Isobel’s own unique story.

The book is available right now from Amazon Kindle US, Amazon Kindle UK (also the Amazon sites for France and Germany but I can’t see it being a big seller in non-English speaking countries) and will be
available as a paperback from both Amazons in due course. It is
already on sale at Lulu, and will be listed on Amazon in due course.
Likewise it will be listed for Nook and in the iStore at some stage.
For those of you who do not possess a Kindle yet, it is possible to
download a Kindle app for your pc or Mac and then download a free
sample to read. My husband doesn’t yet have a Kindle but he uses
Kindle for pc and buys and reads books on his laptop.

Anyway, one final thing. The cover art was done by the very talented Andrew Meek whose book I will be reviewing soon. The image was suggested by our very own Wherearetheheroes, and he has a mention in the acknowledgements for reminding me of the very striking description of one of Isobel’s paintings. I am so very grateful to both you guys for your help and support.

Pearls Before Swine ~or Why You Can Lead A Horse To Water But You Can’t Make It Drink

before Swine ~ or why you can lead a horse to water but you can’t
make it drink!

In my daily job of being a teacher of English as a foreign language, I long
for the summer when we get the hordes of invading students from all
over the world and the chance to really get my metaphorical teeth
into teaching. During much of the year I have a class for a maximum
of five mornings (often only three) and almost always those classes
consist of young teens(often only 12 or 13, maybe 14 years old) who
have come as part of their school trip. Their level of English is
often so low that I find I have serious frustrations offering them
lessons that are fun but challenging because they have insufficient
language skills to understand instructions. I recycle the same five
or six lessons more of less ad nauseam ( that is for me, anyway). By
mid May I am quite sick of it all, and of my own materials and

The summer time is usually different, and I get a chance to do what I
really love doing and it isn’t teaching English. It’s about finding a
chink in a mind, inserting a suitable tool and levering till that
young mind pops open like an oyster being prised apart. One of the
tools is language.

I had a class last summer who I adored. I went in every day really looking
forward to working with them. Of the 15 in the class, I am still in
contact with 11, and some quite frequently. I’m not saying it wasn’t
hard work, because it was. By the age of 14 or so, most people have
begun shutting their minds so fast you can hear slamming doors every
time they blink at you. It’s something I find deeply disturbing; it’s
too easy to find your answers to life’s questions and then preserve
them in amber, to remain undisturbed for ever, or worse, to mummify
them. Those gruesome parodies of living things are brought out and
paraded around like a Day of the Dead procession whenever that
subject is brought up; some of the debates I have had with kids have
been astonishing. It’s scary when people have no inclination to
review their beliefs and opinions and are incapable of listening to
those of others.

But sometimes I find myself surprised and delighted when a student, or
even a whole class, come to a point where they examine something,
often an abstract concept or theory or belief, and a light comes into
their eyes. Aha Moments in the classroom when someone suddenly “gets”
it are breathtakingly wonderful. It’s even more so when it’s
something more profound than the third conditional. I don’t want them
to find an answer though, something they can tick off and put away; I
want them to begin their own lifelong Grail Quest for personal
truths, living evolving things that change and grow as they do. If I
see from someone’s eyes that they have begun to think anew about
something, I have a very special warm glow that makes even the shitty
days feel worthwhile, and believe me, days like that are very common.
Days when I get asked at 9.15am when is it break, or get told they’re
bored, or when students just stare at me with suspicious shut down
eyes: they make me go home and weep.

Because students (in fact anyone) who allow that subtle insertion and prising
open are relatively rare, and I am not yet an expert at understanding
who is ready and who is not. I look for the little chinks of light,
and I do and say stuff to engage interest. One of my lessons involves
heraldry. Yes, I know that sounds strange, but it’s all about
symbolism and self-hood. After exploring the topic each student has
the chance to create their own coat of arms. I send them off to leaf
through my books, my downloads of the language of symbols and to
think about who they are and how they might express this on a shield.
It’s a deceptively gentle lesson involving drawing and colouring and
thoughts deeper than they at first understand. I may do a similar one
with Medicine Shields( Native American) if I get a class I feel is
likely to enjoy it. I am always pleased with the results. While the
artwork is sometimes rather odd, the sense of engagement is always

But there are plenty of students who would then complain they haven’t
done enough grammar. And that makes me sad. Because that means they
have reacted to the exercises by withdrawing and redefining their
expectations. Ho hum.

It’s about being ready. My duty as a teacher(not just as a TEFL teacher,
which actually I suck at, to be frank) is to gauge when someone is
ready to open up and start exploring the mysteries of life on earth,
and sometimes I get it very wrong. Sometimes people are only ready to
go and paddle in that vast ocean and they panic(justifiably) when I
in my excitement, start assembling the deep sea diving gear and start
consulting the areas of the maps that only say Here be Dragons, and
they back away, saying, “I never signed up for this!”

Jesus had a saying that often seems contemptuous to us. Pearls before swine
is a pithy aphorism and yet, harsh but true. If you expect people to
engage in something for which they are not prepared in any sense at
all, they will often turn on you and trample what you offer and on
you. If they don’t “get” it, how on earth can you help them to
“get” it?

Patience is the answer. Like with the horse in the second proverb, you can
lead someone and let them take their own time about drinking. A horse
drinks when it is thirsty, not when you want it to, for your
convenience and comfort. It’s the same with people. People will drink
from the well of wisdom when they are ready to and not before then.
Some may perish before a drop passes their lips but that is their
journey in this life. It’s not for me to force their jaws open and
pour the waters in as they splutter and spit it out.

All I can do is learn to recognise when someone thirsts and hold out a cup
brimming with water and wait for them to take it.

Ties that Bind ~ a poem about love

Ties that bind

What are the ties that bind us?
Perhaps for some, like Marley’s chains,
They are forged link by link
Of heavy frozen steel
To weigh down butterfly wings
And hearts that would be away,
As sure as nail through foot
Would anchor us to earth.
The ties that bind should rather be
Ribbony tassels tied to the rag-tree,
Love-knots given as fairings
To a beloved who will treasure
Each and every bright strand
Long after the satin strips
Have all faded and frayed.

Slip Slidin’ Away ~ a reflection on a long-ago dream and a melancholy song


Slip Slidin’ Away ~ a reflection on a long ago dream and a melancholy song

I’m not sure when I first heard this Paul Simon song, but it entered my unconscious and stayed there. I was probably about fourteen when the dream occurred. I’d already run away from school and was pretty troubled. The overall anxiety that I experienced daily had become such that the doctor had prescribed tranquillizers, which turned me into a zombie till I stopped taking them.

The dream had a luminous quality that is a recognised sign of a Great Dream, and the fact that I recall it so vividly thirty or so years later is another sign. In the dream, I could hear the song Slip Slidin’ Away being sung in the background though I never saw the singer. I just accepted the song. I was walking along holding the hand of a much bigger person; imagine being about three and walking with an adult and that’ll give you the scale. I couldn’t see the face of the person who held my hand, but we walked at a steady pace. Once in a while, I would let go of the hand and tell them I could manage by myself now and they would step a little aside. Then, of course, I discovered that it was as thought I were on a moving pavement, going against the direction and I’d try to run forwards, and after frantically trying to make progress, exhausted I’d fall to the ground and be swept away.

But at a certain point, I would be lifted up and set back on my feet, and my hand would be held, and progress would be made. We’d walk along quite normally; I had no sensation of the movement beneath me trying to slip slide me away.

I woke crying. I still find tears welling up remembering it. I still don’t understand that dream, even now.

I do believe though that for me, that figure was God. While I hold His hand, I move forward; it’s me that lets go, not Him. In the dream I remember wondering why I kept letting go. I still wonder why I do it. At a different level, the dream might mean that we are inter-dependant, that in cooperating with others we move forward and alone we can be swept away.

I don’t know, but the dream still remains. And the destination is no nearer.