Wednesday, 28 October 2015

This story began way back

We're speeding along, playing old songs by Eurythmics and Simon & Garfunkel, reminders of another era. I'm laughing because Tim knows all the lyrics, and because it is good to see his younger self coming out to play after months of back pain and hard work.

We drive past the port at Casablanca, the largest in Africa. It was from here, 23 years ago, that Tim and his buddies shipped their two Landrovers to Ivory Coast, after facing closed borders that prevented them from taking their long-planned trans-Sahara route.

This time, we cruise along the motorway passing Casablanca en route to Marrakech and from there to Essaouira. In all the newness of this recent season, we carry with us a sense of history. It is a story that goes further back than our 14 years of living in sub-Saharan Africa, further back than our shared hitch-hiking adventures and Tim's trans-Africa trip, to 1977 when his parents drove the family from England to Nigeria. On that occasion they had been able to cross the Sahara, in so doing weaving a story that has found its way into the crevices of our lives, in the same way that sand is found in odd places long after a trip to the beach.

It is a curious thing, this newness following on the heels of an older narrative; as if we write on pages left blank in a book already half-filled. The pages written before lend a familiarity, a sense of normality to that which is new, unknown, unfolding.

We are not untethered. We are anchored in a story that belongs to us as much as today belongs to us.

Adventure, risk-taking and discovery are part of who we are. The first pages of our storybook feature chapter upon chapter telling of God's faithfulness, goodness, and nearness even as we ventured further and further away from home. Many chapters are illustrated with pictures of landscapes much like the one through which we now pass - spiky plants in arid soil; sun-kissed passersby in their colourful clothes; bartering in markets filled with just-picked fruits and hanging meats; roads filled with crazy drivers in over-laden vehicles who, every now and then, are stopped at lengths of upturned nails manned by local police.

The last 4 years of living in England and Spain have felt unfamiliar. At times I have wondered whether I am still recognisable as myself in this new season. But a short ferry ride away and we are again on African soil.

I am reminded of the longer narrative of which we are part. I am reminded of who we are.

Sunday, 6 September 2015

Dig in

I set off for my run in the cool morning air. I planned to run an out-and-back route which, from where we were staying, meant uphill on the way out and downhill back. It’s hard to go into an uphill without having had the chance to warm up, but I settled into my rhythm as the dirt lane rose before me. 

The thing about a long slow climb is that it becomes all-consuming. I see just the short stretch of road immediately ahead, focusing on my feet and the loose stones that might trip me up. I hear my breath in my ears and the steady crunch of the earth beneath my feet. I feel the sweat as it gathers at my wrist, under my watch, but don’t want to break the pumping of my arms to wipe it away. I smell the sheep and the dust, and taste the salt on my lips. 

The muscles in my legs start to complain at the constant up-stepping. This is a slow, steady grind and though it is no one’s first choice for a recreational run, it is where reliable fitness is built. I hear Tim’s voice in my head from our earliest days of running together: ‘Dig in, babe.’ My mind turns automatically to my personal mantras that whisper in my head, ‘You’ve got this,’ ‘Keep going, don’t stop,’ and if all else fails I count my breaths up to ten, and again.

Eventually, after my watch has beeped the passing of several kays, I see the crest of the hill ahead. I fix my eyes on the line that marks where the lane drops away, hearing the whoosh of blood in my ears and feeling the tension across my shoulders. I’ve made it!

Hands on hips, heart pounding, I turn to look back in the direction I have come. Lifting my eyes from the path, the view back quite literally takes my breath away.

The vista ahead of me, from left to right, is a a vast drama of craggy mountains. Gullies and pinnacles create vertical stripes in the grey of the rock, reaching down into the tree line and up into the deep blue of the sky. I can hardly believe that the whole time I was climbing, this grand backdrop was right behind me. I feel as if a grand choir has been singing and I haven’t heard a note.

My breathing has slowed and I turn slowly in the soft light, grateful to be here. Moments like this make the climbs worthwhile and I am glad to have a body that can run, and breath, and pump life-giving blood from heart to muscles, and back.

I check my watch and turn my feet in the direction of home. Now I am flying down the hill, eyes lifted to the beauty of the crags that are my horizon, only momentarily glancing down to find the best route. I trust my feet to find solid ground, occasionally pushing off boulders and half-jumping, half-soaring into the next footfall. My arms are low and loose, my breath easy. As I feel the sun on my face, it’s like I could run forever.

In running as in life …
I have a number of friends who right now are facing circumstances like the slog of an uphill climb. Constantly there seem to be loose rocks that cause their steps to falter, cause them to lose energy and focus unnecessarily. Their world has narrowed to the next step, the next push. The grey challenge of the hill immediately ahead fills their vision. They are sweating with effort and exertion but cannot break their stride to take a rest. They tell themselves ‘you can make it’ but somewhere in the back of their minds is the scratch of a doubt that says they might need to stop running altogether.

I long to take them by the shoulders and turn them gently around. I want to remind them that just behind them, the backdrop to their personal toiling trail is a majestic vista of beauty and grandeur. I feel that if they can just see the big picture again they will find strength and determination to climb to the top of the hill. The climb has been unrelenting but this view is energy, endurance and enabling; it gives meaning and redemption to the uphill slog.

The rocky path ahead of you is not all there is, I want to say. Right now you feel a mess of sweat and breath, and aching, and tears. But all around you, if you have eyes to see it, is something so grand and so breathtaking that it will fill you with its splendour. Only don’t give up, the crest of the hill is coming.

Dig in, my friends. Dig in.

Friday, 14 August 2015

Your Kingdom Come

Today, I am thinking about those friends who, in real ways, face the bitter reality of our busted-up lives. There is loss and pain, fear and longing. There's a deep weariness in living with a reality that was just not meant to be. I mean, we know that God's Kingdom is coming ... but it's not fully here. And a good dose of brokenness sure makes us long for it.

The Kingdom's not fully here, but we're told that it is already here in measure. What does that mean? Just where is this Kingdom?

This evening I will attend the concert for which Keziah and her group of fellow musicians have been practising all week. She's thrilled to be performing alongside so many different instruments, excited to have been part of pulling together something beautiful. I'm sure it will be great!

When I listen for sounds of the Kingdom, though, I am not necessarily expecting the polished symphony of a practiced orchestra playing in the town’s public hall. Beautiful although that is. I am listening also for the whisper of the wind as it bends the grasses in a way that reflects the sunlight. I am listening for the soft lilt of the teenage mother as she sings to her baby. I am listening for the sound of “Sorry” and “I love you.” 
I am listening to hear the note that I play alongside the God-notes - and the note that you play - that makes this ordinary music beautiful.
Where are those places in life where the colours are a little brighter, where the pieces are woven together in such a way that it allows some distinct and particular beauty to shine through? It is in these places that I see the loving movements of God, sometimes in ways I am aware of at the time, other times in ways I only see as I look back.
In these intersections, I see the coming of the Kingdom. More love, more beauty. Broken pieces coming together. The light of revelation, the weightiness of encounter. God shines through, in words and pictures, in poems and songs, in tears and laughter, in bread and wine. 
Even in our places of brokenness, you and I get to participate in creating these intersections. We point them out, describing them so others see them too. “Look!” we say, “The Kingdom shines through.”
I see a time of wholeness, when
Everything that is broken is set together.
Both the great blocks of discord 
And the small shards of disunity,
Undone together, re-knit together, 
Made one together, now whole together, 
More together than ever.
Because of You.

I see a place of beauty, where
Light shines a million rainbow colours.
It lights on what was unseen
And sets it in its place of glory.
It sweeps over scenes so majestic
In breadth and grandeur, that
We catch our collective breath.
As we see You.

I see a realm of order, whose
Predictability makes space, for
More freedom than we knew to be
Possible. Everything finds the place it fits,
Like notes in harmony and
A beat in time, that
Makes the music soar.
We sing for You.

I see an era of abundance, which
Flourishes and flows with
Everything that is good, and right.
No lack, no meanness here;
More goodness than we know
What to do with.
All we are, and have, and do prospers.
Because of You.

I see your Kingdom, Lord.
The place we long for,
The home our hearts have dreamed of
Since time began.
Let it come, we cry -
In all the small ways, 
And then with cosmic shockwaves.

It’s all for You.

Monday, 10 August 2015

Two year milestone

A couple of days ago, this photo popped up on my sister's Facebook page. It's the photo she took two years ago to record the moment we opened the door to our new home - and our new life - in Spain.

As I look at this photo (look how young Manu looks) it feels like the past two years have just flown by. So much has happened but where did the time go? And at the same time, I wish I felt further along in this process of making Spain home.

I arrived with so many good intentions and as much energy as I could muster to make them into our new reality. Most especially, I was determined that I did not want to live in an English-speaking bubble ... or a missionary bubble, come to that. I enrolled in a month of intensive language-learning, followed that up with weekly lessons and tried my best not to get immediately sucked into the vortex of doing, to the point that I would have no time left for simply building relationships.

Yet here I am, two years later, and 95% of my time is spent among English speakers, many of whom are directly or tangentially involved in similar work to me. So what went wrong?

Generous helpings of gumption and energy are helpful in breaking up new ground and preparing it for sustaining a new way of living. A natural initiator, I am not averse to making the first move in building relationships with new people. But somewhere along the line, this energy does wear thin. And as doubts creep in about how things really work here, I find myself slower to initiate. "Is this how things are done?" I wonder, as I pop in on a new friend and find them just waking from their siesta. Sometimes I fear I am too enthusiastic and at other times not enthusiastic enough. No culture comes with a manual and the more aware I become of how I am not supposed to do things, the more I flounder in the sense that I am likely to be causing unwitting offence (or bemusement) and that perhaps I should hold back.

Hold back I do. I wait for others to initiate with me ... one or two do (thank goodness for those moments that rescue my fragile sense of belonging) but most don't. Taking the initiative is perhaps the most under-rated skill. I develop the habit of fake-texting in the school playground so that I don't have to look so stupidly alone. It's not that people aren't nice but there seems to be no obvious reason to engage me in conversation, and all my usual social skills are lying flattened beneath the weight of my over-sized dictionary.

This is not what I am used to. I say used to, but you know what I mean. This is the third time that a move to a new country has meant learning a new language. The first time was on my Gap Year in Switzerland and, as I moved in with a family, I had no alternative but to speak French (and they had no alternative but to speak to me, as broken as my language was at first). The second time was when Tim and I moved to Mozambique and learned Portuguese. Now one step removed from the language because we had each other, we were nevertheless surrounded by the language when we stayed with local people. They all seemed to take on the linguistic challenge of communicating with us as a necessary part of  building relationships. Why else would we be there, after all?

This is a different season of life, of course. Now we have kids and our own home to live in, a home where we speak English. Should I leave home for a while? Get a Spanish-speaking lodger? Walk around with a T-shirt that says, Quiero aprender espaƱol - ser mi amigo (actually, that one might be worth a try)?

Slowly we are developing a circle of friends. Nearly all of them speak English. It's not what I wanted but maybe it's early days. I wonder if I will have to get fluent in Spanish so that I can initiate friendships with Spaniards, but there's something that seems backwards about that. Will I 'find myself' again within the Spanish language and culture, or will I always be on the outside?

In spite of all this, there are things to celebrate at this 2 year milestone. Manu is navigating her way within her circle of friends, both Spanish and English. Keziah is excited about starting a new school and has good friends; she understands most of the Spanish she hears spoken around her. I am forever grateful for my Spanish teacher and friend, Luisa, with whom I wish I could spend more time. We are getting to know the area close to where we live and have found a few 'life-giving' sweet spots.

And for the rest, time will tell. Meanwhile, next time you think I am on social media far too much (after all, all this started with a Facebook photo), make it a prayer that a real life person will stop and speak to me ... in Spanish!

Thursday, 6 August 2015

Say what you mean and mean what you say

Yesterday we all headed out in the thickness of the evening heat to take part in our community worship time. Each week we gather, putting aside our studies, or ministries, or favourite TV programmes, to remember and to celebrate the Big Story we are part of.

It's a funky wee thing, you know? These times always are and that's what I love. The meal is late, the kids would prefer to be on their iPads, one of the instruments is slightly out of tune, and there's a trickle of sweat slowly making its way down your cleavage. But it's family, and it's truth and in our sweet, messed-up way we are proclaiming something so glorious we only grasp the very corner of it.

So there we all are, just going with the flow of this cool dialogue that's happening between us and God, made up of songs and prayers and bits of people's stories. And then we started singing this song that I didn't really know and, maybe because I didn't know it so well and had to really pay attention, the words struck me as just, well, wrong.

"You came to save every man."

I know, I know, you gonna think me churlish to take exception to this. And yes, I know we use 'man' as a generic term for men and women (you want to try suggesting that we switch things around for a change and include the guys when we say 'ladies?' Would love to see how that'd go down.)

And, I mean, it's true isn't it? He did come to save every man. But that does sort of leave out half the population. So what are we saying, here? If you're a guy, you might just want to take what I'm saying on trust 'cause you won't get it. Just like white people don't know in their guts what it feels like to be black and to watch commercials of happy white families, to watch films where the bad guy is more often black and to go to buy 'skin coloured' band-aids that can only be described as pink.

You see, the thing is we don't learn our beliefs by being told they're true. We sort of catch them.

You can tell a kid a million times that you love them, but they absorb the truth of it because you're present and reliable, and you make them feel 'felt.' And if the same government minister who expounds on the success of state education sends her own kid to a private school, it's hard to take her seriously. And, when you see the doctor who just gave you a health check and told you to look after yourself, standing in the parking lot smoking a cigarette you take his words with a pinch of salt.

It's not what we say we believe that counts, it's all the myriad details of our lives that either bear out the truth of our words or give them the lie.

Tim and I are raising two amazing girls. They are both bright, strong, courageous and kind. I believe in them and in their capacity to live in the fulness of who they were made to be. And I think - call me crazy - that when they see me singing along, with a roomful of other people they trust, to words that imply even slightly that their femaleness means they come to God obliquely, or as a second thought, it calls this into question.

I know that language fails us, that the English language in particular doesn't offer us a way of embracing both male and female in one noun or pronoun. But we can do better than this, can't we?

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

A vision of surrender

I've been reading a lot by David Benner recently. But when I opened his book Desiring God’s Will and began to read, it felt quite honestly like a set-up. My eyes were still puffy from the previous night’s cry-fest: were we now going to be thinking about surrender, really? 

This came during a season I have likened to wilderness, and it was. It was dry, it was lonely, it seemed never-ending. But more than that, it was a season of choosing to surrender to the wilderness: not trying to save myself from it, create ways out of it, self-medicate so as not to feel it. Tom Wright prayed, “Give us the grace to be your wilderness people, that we may one day rejoice in the Promised Land". And this has been my prayer too.

Sitting one day in the quiet of a rural Spanish farmhouse, I took time to contemplate the nature of surrender; to think back on my own journey towards surrender and to ask myself where I was on that journey. I saw that on my personal journey, my concept of surrender and attitude towards it have passed by three different metaphors, as though by milestones of my own state of heart.

Surrender as the roll-over of submission

This is surrender in the way one dog might roll over to demonstrate submission to another dog, one further up the pack’s pecking order. In many ways, particularly as I heard my mother speak of surrender and as I observed her marriage to my father, this is how I first understood (or misunderstood) surrender. I thought it had more to do with determined denial of what one desires than it has to do with desiring God. How could what I perceived to be an almost complete denial of one person’s desires and selfhood be God’s will? I failed to appreciate at the time that her surrender was an inner surrender to God and his commitment to her, not a surrender - a giving up - to my father, his preferences and his dysfunction.

This model of surrender overlooks the intrinsic value of the one who is surrendering. It fails to see surrender as the way for her to become more fully who she is, and sees it instead as robbing her of herself. This kind of surrender focuses on the superior status or value of the one to whom one is surrendering, not on his or her goodness. Surrender of this kind might just as well lead to having one’s throat ripped out as to a soft nuzzle of affection. ‘Keep your wits about you!’ it says, for the results of this surrender are unpredictable.

This is where I started in my journey of surrender. Surrender was really unwise but sometimes necessary, a process during which one should remain poised for action; to fight or to flee.

Surrender as waving the white flag

The classic image of surrender, this signifies the end of a battle. The conceding side has given all they have to give, and yet it is not enough for them to vanquish the opposing side. When I think of this image, what comes to mind is not whether the victors are the rightful winners, or whether those waving the white flag of surrender deserve to lose. No, the focus for me is that ultimately one side was - rightly or wrongly, justly or unjustly - stronger than the other.

I know at times I have approached God in this way: ‘Okay, you win!’ I have tried things my way and have come to the end of my own strength. He is the winner but I kind of wish he wasn’t; I still wish things had gone my way. This is a physical surrender, but not a surrender of the heart. This is the child who says, ‘I am sitting down because you tell me to, but in my heart I am still standing up.’ 

This kind of surrender is the source of insurrection. The posture of the heart is not dealt with, it has merely been pushed underground until an opportune time. This is the sort of giving up of rights that later leads to indignant and self-righteous rebellion. This kind of surrender looks like the end of a war, but it might just be setting the scene for the next battle.

Surrender as a child with her parent

My mind turns towards my daughter, to those times when she has lost sight of herself for a moment. Out of fear that we will not take care of her in the way she feels she needs, she gives way to anxious grasping. A feeling of insecurity incites a panic of childish control, a rush of noise and tantrum. In that moment she has forgotten who she is - beloved child - and she has forgotten who we are - trustworthy parents. Her lack of clear vision causes her to lose her mind.

What she needs at such times is help to remember. To remember who she is and who I am. Not a lecture about the wrongness of her thinking, but an expression of love that dispels the fear and causes her to come to her senses. Invariably, emotionally spent and physically exhausted, such an episode ends finally with her curled in my arms. As I embrace her - whispering into her still-damp cheek assurances of my love, reminding her that she does not need to meet her own needs, that she is not alone - she comes to a place of peaceful surrender. Her body relaxes, her expression is one of rest, she has remembered that she is safe and she allows me to love her.

This is surrender that comes from seeing clearly, knowing who we are and recognising the true goodness and love of the one to whom we surrender. This is surrender that allows us to be who we are truly meant to be, for our choices to flow from a deep knowledge of love and belonging.

In this surrender there have still been tears shed. In my own experience of this surrender, I have still wrestled as I have transitioned through the renewing of my mind. Surrender, in its very nature, does not seem to be an easy thing. Jesus himself shed tears in the garden of Gethsemane, as he faced what his surrender would mean.

The Struggle to Surrender

Mary, the mother of Jesus, modelled perfect surrender. As Dallas Willard has said, “Mary was the first to accept that redemption should take place in the way we do not want it to take place; ruining all our plans, all our expectations, causing them to fail.” David Benner underlines this: “Mary agreed to allow God to deprive her of the one thing we count most basic among our natural rights, the right of self-control.”

This is the surrender I have faced and, as one might expect, it was not a one-time thing. All my own ideas about how my life should be - the sort of person I am, the way I might make certain choices - all of these are seemingly in tatters as a result of both past choices and current decisions. Right choices and right decisions, it must be said.

Here’s the thing: throughout my life I have consistently chosen to say ‘yes’ to God. When he has offered me the opportunity to follow him in ways that ran counter to my culture, my instincts and my plans for self-determination, I have chosen to do so. (Since this has not always been for the right reasons - as my exploration of surrender metaphors illustrates - it really says little about my own goodness!) What I do know is that this has not been easy and it does not get any easier. In fact, it seems to go deeper and become more heart-wrenching as we go along.

Why is this? Is it because somehow I still have a distorted view of God and of how he will handle my life, of how much he loves me? Is it because somewhere inside I thought that surrender would lead me to self-fulfilment, just in a more roundabout way? Is it because, as I go along this path of choosing I feel that past choices now leave me with a far reduced freedom, such that now my choices are not really choices at all? 

Or is it because I sometimes forget where I am and with whom I am, curled up in the arms of my Father, with my older brother alongside me and Holy Spirit assuring me of my inclusion in their commitment of forever-love?

I think about Mary and I wonder about her heart. We say that she ‘models perfect surrender’ - do we mean by that that she graciously and gently submitted her heart to God and his will? That somehow inside herself she knew his will was perfect and good, that she would be safe? Was there no struggle? 

Is surrender really surrender if there is no struggle? 

Later, we read that Mary “pondered these things in her heart." She thought about what was happening with her son, and possibly about the implications for her as she surrendered again her right to have him with her to old age; her right to have some say in how he managed his life. She thought about these things, possibly she wrestled with them. But it seems that she kept quiet, and that is not something I find easy!

I confess my longing for a vision of surrender - of my present and particular surrender - as worthwhile. Surely this is what Jesus had in the garden? What Mary had at the foot of his cross? I want a vision that would supersede (not remove) all the discomfort, all the anxiety, all the angry expressions of my Self as she writhes on the altar. I find myself focused instead on the nature of these choices - to be a mother, to be at home, to have no reputation - and they seem to lack value. I long to keep in mind the bigger story, the story of Jesus and his kingdom breaking into this world, into my life, reconciling, restoring, recreating. 

I wonder how Mary did that? How did she keep her eye on the bigger story, rather than on her own personal part in it, that was at times painful in the extreme?

“I say this prayer to you, Yahweh, for at daybreak you listen for my voice; and at dawn I hold myself in readiness for you, I watch for you” (Psalm 5,3).

Thursday, 9 July 2015


A couple of days ago, a friend gave me a cutting from her Frangipani tree. For ages, she'd been talking excitedly about her Plumeria, but since I wasn't at all familiar with that name I just made agreeable 'that's nice, dear' noises to let her know that I was happy she was happy.

Turns out Frangipani is the common name, which makes Plumeria the more official one. And there I was, just about ready to decry another Americanisation of a decent English word.

When eventually I visited and saw the tree in bloom, I suddenly found tears prickling my eyes. Not because I am emotionally invested in gardening; the truth is I struggle to keep anything alive that won't pretty much take care of itself. But the heady scent transported me across years and continents to our garden in Cape Town where, in a heavy terracotta pot, we grew our own Frangipani tree. It had been a gift from Tim's parents for our 20th wedding anniversary and it stood right outside the patio doors so that, with the right breeze, the perfume would trail into the sitting room.

Perhaps the tears came easily because right around then I had been feeling horribly homesick. I don't really know what to do this feeling, since I have always been one of those people who poo-poos homesickness. I guess I wasn't big into attachment, and therein lies a tale. Anyhow, my lack of attachment served me rather well, I thought. I have moved home from England to Mozambique, then to South Africa, along the way spending anything from a couple of months to a year in places like Switzerland, Portugal, New Zealand and Uganda.

Never a twinge of homesickness, a fact I felt quite proud of. A rather misplaced sort of pride, as it turns out.

Since leaving Cape Town four years ago (gosh, is it really so long?) I find waves of homesickness rolling over me at unpredictable times. I never knew homesickness could be so corporeal, that it can feel almost tangible as it courses its way across synapses of time and space.

The whiff of the ocean, a walk in the craggy hills, sitting for coffee in a place with a certain kind of vibe, particular blends of colour and design, the yellow and green of my daughter's football shirt. Any of these things could set up in a me a longing for home so strong that I am tempted to take to my bed.

I know what you're thinking. It's kind of presumptuous, isn't it, for this Anglo-Irish Brit to call South Africa home. Maybe so. But there was something about the place, the quality of the air and the light, the rhythm of our days, the thrum of a deeply embedded story, the blending of cultures that seemed to match an echo in my own soul. I felt a sense of belonging that was about more than my daughters being born there, it was visceral.

The mystics say that this yearning to belong is part of our human condition. That there is a whisper inside us that tells us what we were truly made for. And all this activity, all this striving for things and position, is part of our anxious effort to make our way to that place. We've got it all wrong somehow, we've been sold this cheap version of something called The Good Life and we're all trying in our own crazy ways to get there. But the yearning, the energy, the instinct is part of a deeper truth, like salmon who somehow know to follow the river upstream, to home.

We are homesick for a place we have never been. When I was growing up, the picture that was painted of heaven failed to awaken any hunger in me. I would sing along with hymns speaking of golden-paved paths and eternal rapture and wonder at the way the words slid off me without finding any place to stick. Perhaps I wasn't Christian enough, but I was damned certain I wanted to enjoy this wonderful world a bit more before settling down on a cloud somewhere.

I did know I was meant to be significant, though, that somehow - I was very fuzzy on how - I would end up playing my part in a story that was terribly important. I knew that beauty moved me, that nature and music filled me with a sense of the grandeur of life that spilled over the edges of my reality and spoke of something bigger, greater. I knew that I was made to love and be loved, even when the love I knew was a rather shabby version of the real thing. How did I know that there was something out there called The Real Thing? The way salmon know that by swimming they will find their way home.

I am learning to lean into this unfamiliar sensation we call homesickness. Though it punches me in the gut and causes me to catch my breath. I am allowing it to speak to me of a soul yearning for a place I have never been. I am listening to those whispers of longing for places of beauty and love, and to hear the echoes of the place I truly belong. I am making space for this ache in my heart to become my prayer that one day, though it takes thousands of miles and endless days, I will arrive.

And perhaps, though I don't remember it well, when I get there it will feel like I'm returning to where I came from, to the place I was made for.

Friday, 3 July 2015

The singing pilgrim

I haven’t written for a long time. Apart from shopping lists and notes to my kids. “Gone to walk the dog, back later.” Writing was the song I sang back to the world, the notes of my life finding some kind of harmony as I put them on the page. Writing helped me make sense of my world, as if the words I chose became way markers that I was discovering, following, painting for myself.

Then something happened. Someone took my song sheet, balled it up in their fist and shoved it down my throat. And the words just stopped, there was no space around the sides of the dribbled-on paper for them to get squeezed out. The letters got sort of mushy and they bled into one another until they were slipping all over the page and I couldn’t decipher them any more.

When I was kid we went to church almost every Sunday. My parents had been raised Catholic and then right after I was born they ‘got saved’ into a more happy clappy version of church, but still they brought their check list with them. Going to church once if not twice every Sunday was on the list awaiting its weekly ticks. I didn’t mind so much, everyone had to be nice at church which they weren’t always at home. And anyway the best thing about going was the singing. There were no guitars back then, they were slightly frowned on as though guitar music might somehow be intrinsically unChristian, but the piano accompanied the rich voices flowing together as they skipped their way through the Redemption Hymnal. 

Worship was an ‘as the Spirit leads’ sort of affair. Mostly, one of the more well-established church members would call out a hymn number for us all to sing - I remember my Dad doing it a few times and if I was standing next to him I would blush to the roots of my hair - but other times someone would simply begin singing a capella until everyone else joined in.

How I wanted to be that person, while simultaneously feeling like I couldn’t think of anything worse! To be able to flow in the space of a heartbeat from speaking words to singing them, with a roomful of people listening, seemed to me sort of like dancing in public but with very few clothes on. Yet there was something entrancing about it, the way everyone else would join in, following the Pied Piper along the staves and crotchets. You sure had to hope you didn’t start a song no one else knew.

Other than the tendency to blush if someone merely glanced my way, there was a deeper reason why a girl like me would not sing the notes of the Piper for the rest of the congregants. I had made the mistake one day of asking a friend, mind you a friend with a beautiful voice, if she thought I could sing nicely. And since that time, when she’d pointed out that there were times when I was off-key, I couldn’t get the words to come out of my throat. I had been silently mouthing the interminable stanza-chorus repeats every Sunday for months, convinced that so long as my lips were moving nobody would notice.

For a couple of years, my not-writing has been disguised behind the lip-syncing of Facebook status updates and photo captions on Instagram. A good quote here and there, a pithy comment or two and who would know the difference, right? But I keep feeling as though the words are backing up in my throat, there’s a heaviness in my chest where nouns, adjectives and verbs are piling up behind the dam wall. Something needs to give, to let them out.

It may be messy. There be the odd note that’s off-key; I may sing flat for a while, but sing I must. And nobody needs to join me, I’m not expecting to traipse along with my pipe ahead of a snaking column of singing pilgrims. I think singing in the shower would be more my thing, soap in hand as my personal microphone, letting out all those dammed up words to mingle with the cleansing rivulets of truth as they tumble over me.