Our Covid response

I have found myself having a few funny responses to this Covid thing. Watching the First Minister of Wales just now, as he announced another lock-down throughout the whole country, I wondered “Has he had a decent breakfast today?” Odd response, eh?

But he’d just told us that the cabinet had been in discussions at the weekend and they’d met again this morning, and he looked greyer than usual, weary, his voice revealing his depth of concern. And I wondered how he’s doing.

Yesterday in our online church service, we prayed for our leaders and today watching Mark Drakeford I had to pray a bit more! If he was my husband or son or brother, I would be praying for him all the time – no man or woman can bear the responsibility for thousands of lives, for creating an effective and protective policy in a unique pandemic, without great cost to themselves.  What a cost! To most of us this time of lock-down and disruption is an inconvenience. To those who lose loved ones to the virus, it’s a time of separation and sorrow. But to our society’s leaders, it’s a cruel and impossible responsibility, and I’m sure that it will affect them for ever, it may blight their futures, haunted by the fear that they could have done more, or that they did too much. And in this situation, there is no proof of anything. No one will be all-right and no one will be totally-wrong.

In my last blog I remembered “What we value, we make time for.” And now I’d just like to say, also, that those we value, we pray for. There are some people I pray for every day, some of them several times a day, and some are present in my mind like a back-drop to my life, so that I often, often see things that remind me of them – a pretty notebook recalls a journaller,  a small boat on a choppy sea brings a family to mind, a lollipop (you know who you are!) reminds me of a sugar free pal, even a sausage roll can spring the image of a dear friend into my mind! All sorts of things remind us of those we love, and when that happens they get a prayer. Why waste a thought when it can be a prayer? It’s heart warming to think of those we love, and don’t you think that God smiles to share those thoughts?

Talking to my pal, Piers, this morning, he asked what my prayers are. It’s great to be asked these questions, to be given the opportunity not just to think and put into words, but to hear our own words coming back to us, so that we can weigh them up, and judge whether our thoughts are clear or a bit muddy and messy. I have some of both sorts! The trouble with blogs is that they don’t ask me questions. I say what I say and no one makes me question what I think. It’s just me blah-blahing into the ether.

So, what did I say to Piers? What are my prayers? Something vaguely along these lines: Well, of course thanks and awe come first, an acknowledgement of who God is and who I am, a period of wonder and joy and sometimes tears. You know, stunned stuff. But after that? What do I pray for those I love? I told Piers that I pray they will know the love of God, know that they are loved by him, that they will look for him. I know that when we look for God, truly look for him, we find him. I pray that those I love will be drawn closer and closer to Jesus so that they become like him, so that his nature shines out of them, so that they walk the way he leads them, full of joy because the Spirit of God is the centre of their lives.

And then I pray for a few other things, like “Please could Beth get her commission for two episodes?” and even “You know that rat in my loft, Lord? Couldn’t you just smite him with a mighty smiting?”

But today, particularly, I am praying for Mark Drakeford, and Boris Johnson. Not the politicians, the men. The sons who are Mark and Boris, the brothers who are Mark and Boris, the fathers who are Mark and Boris. May they, and leaders everywhere, of nations, churches, cities and towns know that however hard this terrible time is, God loves them, and in this time, as in all times, God holds all things together. And I pray for the leaders of my church particularly, because they’re a bit fab.

Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you. Hebrews 13:17

** When it’s a leader like Trump…… hmmm. Then I think we turn to God, BIG TIME!

This morning. 8am

With friends like this…..

Once upon a time, when Adam was a lad, I devised and wrote a series called Soldier, Soldier. I wrote it for only two series and went on from that to write another series for the same broadcaster. Soldier, Soldier carried on for several more years and after the last episode had been transmitted I had a letter from an Army Colonel who had loved the show. We started to write maybe once or twice a year, sometimes more, and the friendship, warm and now familiar, has continued although we have never met. His wife died, he became frail, stopped travelling, and then, yesterday, the postman delivered a typed collection of his memories, and it really is fascinating. And very funny.

His account of joining up in 1946 is quirky and accident-prone and hilarious. He’s 92 but, like his letters, his memories are wonderfully lively and ageless. We have a strange little friendship. We chide each other. He was feeling glum as he approached his birthday so I sent him a quick short telling-off and prescribed sipping a good whisky and a sneaking a snooze in the garden. He did both. When I told him that I’m not writing any more he sent me a brief and strongly worded (!) instruction to get the digit out and stop mucking about. I grinned and obeyed.

He’s a good friend I have never met and will never meet. I always recognise his letters because he is the only one who ever addresses me as ‘Lucy Gannon MBE’. He’s military and correct and old-school. We just ‘get’ each other. Sometimes it’s easier to have friends at a distance than those who are close up and can see all our flaws and failings and meet us on our bad days. We never even have to forgive each other because we’ve never hurt each other. He doesn’t know how horrible I am. Hurrah! An ideal friendship.

That’s me being daft. Of course it’s not ideal. When we meet friends normally, bumbling through life with them, relatives or neighbours or whoever, we are bound to bump into each other awkwardly sometimes. We get close enough to tread on each other’s toes, but we learn from each other too. We grow together. Or we try to. And yes, it’s painful, but it’s worth it.

The friendship between Robert and me exists over the miles, but this is a time of distant friendships for everyone – Covid has separated us all. It’s a strange time when friends don’t meet, when phones don’t ring, when hugs are… oh, wait, wait! I haven’t told you about this; I saw two friends of about my age meet on the harbour wall at Aberaeron. I had been watching one of them as she walked up and down, anxiously, looking first one way and the other, obviously waiting for someone. And then her eyes lit up, she dropped her bag, ran forward, arms wide…. I don’t know what the story was, I don’t know who they were, I couldn’t hear what they said, but they ran into each other’s arms, and they hugged. They hugged and hugged and hugged. One had her glasses fall off and she didn’t even notice, both were crying… they hugged and hugged and hugged, unable to stop, unable – I think- to believe it was really happening. That they really were together. People walking by slowed down to stare… it was wonderful. Wonderful! Everyone was smiling. Wonderful. They cried and laughed and hugged again. They stood back and gazed at each other and dissolved again into tears and laughter. Wonderful.

Sorry, that was a segue. I just wanted to share it. Share the joy. The world is a bit sad and semi-detached just now, and it’s good to remember the joy of being together. And it’s very very good to remember that Covid separation won’t last for ever. It’s a painful time. I have friends who haven’t seen their grandchildren because of this pandemic, ex-pats living here who have been separated from their loved ones for far too long, longing to hold their grandchildren, to scoop them up and just love them. It’s good to remember the joy, to know that it will be ours one day. It will.

Back to Robert and his written anecdotes: It couldn’t have been easy, at 92, to type all these pages, to conjure the words and images, to get the envelope, ask someone to post it…. This old frail man, who I will never meet, took the time and defied the miles to step into my quiet house today and make me laugh, and he made me remember those two women hugging , and he reminded me to thank God for friendship. Today I have spoken to absolutely no one, apart from a few words to the dogs. I’ve waved to friends in the distance on the beach, but I have been alone, door closed, a silent and lonely day. But Robert has, somehow, been here.

Oh! And an email has just pinged in from a very very dear friend, who lives just down the road, and we’re going to walk on the beach together soon and talk about God and eternity and other stuff we don’t understand and don’t have the words for.

Right, listen up, I’m going to tell you something now – hang on while I reach for my stern look, and extend a wagging finger…… this is to all of you…. one day all you will care about in this world is your God and your friends. The longer we live, the nearer we get to popping our clogs, the less everything else matters. God and friends. That’s it.

I heard something in a sermon two weeks ago that really struck home… “We make time for the things we value.”

I value friends. I am going to make time for them.

What’s in a name?

This week I decided to skim over the Preseli Mountains (a range of hills really) to go, as a treat, to Marks and Spencers, a 50 minute drive away. I took the dogs, and parked on the highest point, to give them a run. My foster-dog, Piko, is a sheep chaser so he had to stay on the lead but Percy and Pip ran off happily, excited and full of joy. We met a youngish bloke who stopped to make a fuss of all three of them, telling me that he loves dogs but can’t have one because he works full-time, and then that his old sheepdog died a few weeks ago, up in Sunderland with his parents. They’re self-isolating and he lives down here so he hasn’t been able to see them, or his old dog, for months. That dog was his companion all through his teenage years, they went to sheep trials together, camped together, were inseparable. As we walked on, talking about isolation and loneliness and all the usual stuff, he told me that as a single man he’s sinking into despair, and he doesn’t know how to keep on going. For the purposes of this blog I’ll call him Guy, because he was a definite guy, hiking boots, hairy calves, bearded face. He was at the end of a three hour hike, while I was pottering around the car park, so we took a circular route for a while, and then we went on a little mini-hike on a level track (at my usual pace of 4 miles per fortnight – he must have felt that he was in slow motion).

I suffered from depression for chunks of my life, and in my twenties after a rough start in life and a bad first marriage, the black dog could floor me, defeat me completely. It’s never helpful to tell someone in the depths of despair that you know how they feel, but when the opportunity comes to walk alongside (literally and metaphorically) it’s good to take it and, mostly, to listen. It was a bright squally day, and the wind carried a suggestion of rain, but the sky was amazingly blue over the sea with great tumbling cathedrals of cloud inland, whiter than the whitest white. It was just wonderful up there, with Wales at our feet, the sea to one side, the distant chimneys of Milford Haven on the horizon, a patchwork of fields and moors below us.

After quite a few minutes, trying to understand first what his life is like, hearing the flat monotony of his lonely daily routine, I was able to tell Guy that I once saw the world as he sees it now. I told him about the hopelessness I once felt, empty and cold, about my attempted suicide, and how, when I was recovering in hospital my witty Military Police friends sent me a large bottle of joke-aspirin with the ‘Get Better Soon” card amended to read “Do It Better Soon.”

I told him how, as a non-Christian, I found a key that kept me going. I’m sure it’s different for everyone, but for me it was the realisation that this misery would pass, fade. Sounds easy? It wasn’t – it took years to recognise that simple fact. I remember very clearly the effort that it took, the determination and sheer bloody mindedness to say to myself, in the very depths of suicidal thoughts “This will pass, just like it passed last time, and the time before. Hold on. Hold on.” It’s exhausting, jaw clenching, just dragging from one day into the next, such effort, such exhaustion. Guy’s eyes lit up at that “Yes. It’s exhausting. That’s right!”

My determination back then to ‘hold on’ wasn’t born of hope, or a promise of certain cure, it was knowledge born out of experience. I had been that way before. “This is not for ever’ was what I knew, and that kept me plugging on. Holding on. Even when my mind screamed disbelief and despair, my intellect said “This won’t last for ever. It never does.”

And we spoke about the cyclical nature of most depression, about Samaritans and counselling, about the unreliability of emotion, the strength and drag of emotion, the lies our emotions tell us, and then… then I told him about Jesus.

I told him that now, when the black dog creeps out of the shadows, as it does sometimes, I no longer say ‘Hold on, hold on.” Now, I say simply “Jesus”. Calling to him. Knowing he’s there, even when I feel that he isn’t. Knowing for certain, born out of experience, that Jesus is steadfast and present and reaching out. The only lasting true answer to all our broken-ness. I think Guy, big and young, was bemused to be called broken, but he got it – and I think he forgave me burbling. You know, up there at the top of the world, on a fabulous day like that, talking about the God you love… you gotta burble a bit, eh? And I was well into it now, talking about Jesus. Not as smoothly as I do in the written word.. lots of stumbles and back-ups and loads of ‘you know’ as I shamelessly name-dropped, again and again, about this God I know, about our relationship. Amazing! Me and God! I mean…me!

That makes me smile and reminds me of someone – someone who’s a terrible, terrible, incorrigible name dropper. She’s sort of famous for it. We met for coffee a few weeks ago and she claimed a close acquaintance with the biggest name she’s dropped yet. EVER! I had to put a hand to my mouth to hide a grin. How I missed being able to hurry over to Jane’s cottage (she died last year) , where she would have been waiting with glee for the name-drop news… I can hear her now, “Come on, count up… how many MP’s, Booker Prize Winners, Nobel laureates, members of royalty today?” If she was still here, she would have done a little dance of delight, and together we would have chortled with satisfaction.

I hasten to say that my name-dropping friend is not a fantasist. She really has met all these luminaries, in a long life full of achievement and adventure. It’s just funny, and endearing too, because she basks a little in the reflected glory of people I don’t give a hoot about. Whenever we meet I have an old ditty playing in the recesses of my mind, “Lloyd George knew my father, father knew Lloyd George.” That’s one of the few names she hasn’t laid claim to.

Names are powerful. They summon an image to mind. A reality. The name of Jesus is the most powerful name the world has ever known. As we spoke about him, he came into our minds, into our awareness you could say. I’m sure his name meant more to me than it did to Guy, but there was a common sort of ‘background knowledge’ between us. We were in one of those scattered-rocky places and I sat on a granite slab and turned to Biblegateway (iPhones are great!) and to a verse that says it all,  from Psalm 40 “I waited patiently for the LORD; he turned to me and heard my cry. He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand. He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God.

Guy grinned and said he knew the slimy pit. I said I knew the cry, sometimes a simple word, ‘Jesus.’ The power of the name of God, and the Word of God (here comes a memory of Jane again – Psalm 40 and that verse was something we often turned to in her last few months).

Up there on the Preselis, two tiny blots on the landscape, there was no denying the might and power of the creator of the Universe, but we thought too about the silent meekness of a crucified man, the soft breaths of a child born into poverty, a man living simply and humbly, alongside the mighty roar of triumph as the gravestone rolls back, the rocks split, the earth shakes, and the Son of God rises again. Past and present and future. Up there, under God’s great canopy, we – both of us – spoke the name of Jesus. And there was all of history in that name, all of existence, all of time. Time stood still in that simple sound. Every thought or deed of love, every longing of the heart since time began, reflected and honoured in that one simple name. Jesus. Yes, yes, maybe the name held more meaning for me than it did for that young bloke at that moment, but at that moment, on that inch of earth, we both were near to Jesus.

I don’t know what my walker friend made of our conversation, but I hope that he went away with thoughts of recovery rather than despair. I never did get to M&S. I have a small zip-up Bible in my car and I offered it to Guy but he wouldn’t take it, saying it was too ‘good’. Shame. Next time I’ll have a paperback edition. But he made a note on his phone of Psalm 40.

Some of you, right now, are fighting with the lassitude of lock-down, a sense of ennui, emptiness, even ‘what’s the bloody point?’. I think maybe half the world is struggling with thoughts like this. In the Times yesterday a ‘counselling psychologist’, Sarah Davies, warned about the effect of long term lockdowns, saying that the signs we may be suffering from burnout include “irritability, fatigue, hopelessness, memory difficulties, disturbances in sleep or eating habits, increased anxiety, and maladaptive coping strategies. You may experience racing or self- critical thoughts; even panic attacks and obsessive compulsive behaviour. Stress is as much physiological as it is psychological,” she adds. “Physical manifestations might include racing heart, palpitations, IBS-type symptoms, muscular tensions, aches and pains, and headaches.”

Flip me! Good job I didn’t recite all of that list to Guy. He’d have careered off down the hill and flung himself in the Rosebush Reservoir.

If you are feeling down and defeated, can I recommend Psalm 40 to you, recommend calling on the name of Jesus? It’s not a magic spell, not an enchanted sound, but it could be a prayer. Wherever you are, however bogged down, cry out. If one word is all you can manage, one word is all you need. One word can be a prayer. And prayers are always heard. Don’t be alone. Call on him. He is the answer.

Do I want to be kind, or to be me?

I’ve just read the glowing recommendation an actor friend has given to my autobiographical novel. Because he’s a friend I knew he would be kind, and although I respect what he says, I don’t expect others to agree with him.

The publishers sent me his ‘review’ so that I could OK it as publicity for the book, but normally I make it a firm firm rule never to read reviews, ever since my first stage play when the reviewer of a national paper could see no further than a) I was a woman, and b) I was living in a council house in Derby and c) my director was a political activist. That stoked all the prejudice of this dyed-in-the-wool conservative and so he wrote about Gannon the radical-leftie-harridan and her socialist polemic. Actually the play is about a woman killing her mother out of a sense of tortured pity and it’s full of sorrow and laughter. Nothing to do with politics at all. And as for me…. I’m sometimes to the right of Genghis Khan and other times I veer to the extreme left just for the hell of it (and to annoy people). I met this reviewer a few weeks later, at another play, and at curtain up he was already drunk and bewildered, dropping his coat, spilling his drink, stumbling into an aisle seat. In the interval he was asleep. That was it. Never read a review again.

If you’re a writer you have to decide which arrows, if any, will be allowed to pierce your skin. You learn it pretty quickly and professionally I have the skin of a very thick skinned rhinoceros. I don’t mind one bit if you intensely dislike my work, but as a human being, outside the profession, we all have more tender sensibilities.

The words we speak to each other are sometimes like reviews, but they’re personal and so they can hurt and mark us for years, maybe for a whole lifetime. My stepmother would whisper to me, when I was a child and in her care, so that no one else could hear, that I was loathsome. That has stayed with me. I think it will always be with me. I walk into a room … loathsome. I see someone I know… loathsome. I knock on a friend’s door… loathsome. Maybe that’s why I write, because when I write I am unseen.

The harm we wreak with our tongues is terrible. My step-mother isn’t unique and I’m not innocent either; I’ve hurt people with my cruel tongue, both spoken and in the written word. I’m only now beginning to recognise my own schadenfreude and self-justification (or is it self-righteousness? It’s ‘self-something’ anyway). I too often use words to point and poke and prod.

My evening reading is the book of James. I’ve been reading James for about two months now – I ‘finished’ it 6 weeks ago but somehow I can’t move on. I know that God has something to tell me, to hold me there for so long. So, what is he telling me? What do I need to absorb and understand and then bloomin’ well do? I think I have it: This is the Passion Translation but very close to the NIV.

We all fail in many areas, but especially with our words. Yet if we’re able to bridle the words we say we are powerful enough to control ourselves in every way, and that means our character is mature and fully developed. Horses have bits and bridles in their mouths so that we can control and guide their large body.  And the same with mighty ships, though they are massive and driven by fierce winds, yet they are steered by a tiny rudder at the direction of the person at the helm.

And so the tongue is a small part of the body yet it carries great power! Just think of how a small flame can set a huge forest ablaze. And the tongue is a fire! It can be compared to the sum total of wickedness and is the most dangerous part of our human body. It corrupts the entire body and is a hellish flame! It releases a fire that can burn throughout the course of human existence.

I get the message. I’m sorry for the words that tumble out and hurt others. And I’m sorry for the thoughts that create those words. I’m really sick of my deadliest weapon. I want to decommission it. I want to stop using words to justify me and condemn others. But we are a selfish, self-centred lot, and it’s quite a struggle to let go of all those self serving impulses, or it is for me. I love being a bit sharp, a bit naughty, a bit acerbic, a bit clear-sighted, cynical, irreverent. I cut through humbug, ignore mealy-mouthed platitudes, have little patience with either small talk or specious arguments, gleefully recognise the games we all play… and that might be all very clever-clever but it’s not good. It isn’t. It’s pretty awful. While I’m doing all that, I’m missing out on the opportunity to love.

Cop an eyeful of this, from 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 : Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

I know why God has kept me in the book of James, and that’s why I’m asking something special of him today: Will he please slow me down, shine a light on what I say before I say it, hold me in check, help me to see others with his eyes, love with his heart.

Am I wearing a hair shirt and sprinkling my head with ashes? No way, José. No blinkin’ way! I know that I am forgiven, and that God will help me, in spite of my me-ness! Not because I’ve earned his forgiveness and help but because he loves each and every one of us. Our fabulous, fabulous God.

Update

This blog has been read in, so far, 41 countries. I wonder what you readers in China or the Philippines or Pakistan make of my village life here in West Wales? What do you make of my idiomatic language? I write as I think, and I return to my blogs to edit only mistakes and typos, not to rewrite, so you always get a first draft, a stream of the subconscious along with the conscious. You poor things! Anyway, I am very aware as I write that the tentacles of this little piece of nonsense stretch across oceans to other cultures, and sometimes I forget that I have three or maybe four readers in my own village and church. Yesterday I had a fabulous reminder of this!

On Friday I wrote that I was going to replace a rotten handrail in my yard and that I wasn’t sure how it was going to happen but happen it would (teeth gritted, determined, defiant in the face of my own incompetence). But yesterday morning a friend called and asked if she and her husband could come over for coffee. COME OVER FOR COFFEE???? You betcha! They duly arrived, but the tool box in his hands suggested another reason for the visit and as soon as the coffee was done and the pastries eaten, the handrail was dismantled and gone! The problem has been taken, literally, out of my hands, and in a day or two I will have a new, smart, varnished handrail to hang onto.

Not only that, but I had a text from another of my local/church readers that they would come and help me with it.

Sometimes, shush, whisper it… church works! I am so very very touched. A few years ago another church person mended a much loved ancient chair, one I was very regretfully preparing to dump, (and it’s still as good as new) so yes, yes, sometimes church is family. Sometimes even us singleton are not quite alone!

Have you been watching the news about the weather here in Northern Europe? You know how bad it is? It’s so bad that this morning we didn’t even get to the beach – Pip and Piko ran back to the car before we were even out of the carpark, and there they sat in the dry, watching as Percy and me walked away, bent over, horizontal against the rain and the gale. We did a quick one-two around the car park and the picnic area and then HOME…….. snug and dry…..

Oh, oh, listen. It’s SUNDAY! That means church online.

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCFWZ7h6zEtBsdT_-fDJgfiQ

And another great message about being a disciple, a learner, a follower. It goes online at 11am and is available afterwards of course.

Lead on Macduff! I’m following. Come wind and rain, snow or Covid.

Back from the rain.

This is easy and I can do it.

As a young student nurse, on my first medical ward, I was encouraging an elderly woman to walk down the centre of the ward, after a stroke. This woman had come to the UK after the last war as a German Jewish refugee and her hard life had made her a strong character, but now her recuperation was slow and she was struggling to get back to the independence she longed for. She was a delight and a nag and an outrageously funny woman, and we couldn’t bear that – having survived so much – she would be defeated now. She tired easily and soon became exasperated so that the more we tried to coax her to walk, the more stubbornly she shouted “Enough! Enough! I vant my bed!” It was hard to deny her, we loved her a lot and she had been through so much.

That day, as she struggled to lift her feet, just wanting to be back in bed, disorientated and anxious, she had taken just about as much ‘recuperation’ as she could take. I was trying to be encouraging as I recited a mantra of the times “This is easy, and you can do it”, trying to find a natural rhythm for the words, to match her steps “This…. is…. easy….” but she was exhausted by the effort of putting one foot in front of the other. Finally, as I again murmured “This… is ….easy… and… you…. can …. do …it.” she shoved my guiding hands away and shouted “If it’s so bloody easy, darlink, you do it!” and with that she folded her arms, buckled her knees and sank defiantly to the floor. And yes, we all saw her triumphant grin as we carried her back to her bed.

She’s long dead now, of course, but I think of her often. I thought of her last night, as I clambered up the steep steps into my tiny yard. It’s just big enough for the dogs to do a late night wee, and for me to look up at the moon and have a few daft late-night thoughts. I love the night sky. The steps leading up to the yard aren’t just steep but also deep, and the passageway is narrow and twisting. Four years ago when I moved in, the builder said “You’ll never manage them without a hand rail.” and he put one in, in spite of my airy protestations that the steps were no problem at all. Well, now the steps are a bit of a problem, sciatica doing for the leg and ear problems doing for the balance, but I can no longer use the hand rail as it’s rotted away. Last night I was stranded, four steps up, neither leg lifting, nothing to hold onto. I stood there, trying to work out which bit of me to tackle first and I thought of my old German friend and sent a little smile her way, telling my three dogs (all watching me, with question marks above their heads) “This is easy and I can do it.”

So. You know what I’m going to do this week? I’m going to measure that hand rail, I’m going to work out how to remove it from its anchors (should be easy as it’s as the consistency of soggy weetabix), I’m going to find a place that sells lengths of that sort of and shape of wood (wood shop? woodery? handrail emporium?) and then I’m going to buy a replacement lump of wood. Handrail. Then I’m going to work out how to fix it on the anchors and then I’m going to varnish it or paint it or something. And then…. how fabulous will that be? Me, Lucy G, actually doing something practical. Amazing! I’m almost looking forward to it.

No, I’m not. I’m just grimly determined. And if it all gets a bit much, I’ll sing out that mantra.

Times like this I remember another of the advantages of having a husband. I do love blokes. I admit it. I love blokes. I love the blokeishness of them, the can-do ness of them, the way they know stuff. I even like their unfunny jokes. Men. They’re lovely. When George died and it was suddenly a two woman household (me and my daughter) I missed not only George, his humour and calmness and Scottishness and wisdom, but the blokeishness of him too. I remember driving through Derby and watching men with a sort of hunger, not for their company or their attention, but just to feast my eyes on their other-ness, a beard here, a hairy arm there, a deep laugh, a broad shoulder. All things bright and beautiful, the Lord God made them all.

“So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them.”

He didn’t have to make men and women, two genders. We could have been hermaphrodites. But we are men and women. Vive la difference! I think God likes the difference. I think he likes blokes too.

Hey, when I do the measuring of that handrail, I will be using this….

It’s the only momento I have of George! It’s treasured and special, because when I look at it I can see his hands, remember him so clearly. How strange that this is the only thing I have of his, apart from photos and a snatch of his voice on a tape. But I love this little lump of metal. I see it in his hands, I see him slipping it into the pocket of his sawdusty jeans, I see him measuring a piece of wood on his radial arm saw, dropping it into his toolbox, I hear him humming as he works.

Do you want to buy my Stanley Powerlock Measure?

Hard luck. There isn’t enough money in the world.

Oh, pull yourself together…..

This morning there was a seal shadowing us on the beach. The tide was high and so the water was a little deeper than usual and this seal was quite close to water’s edge. Usually I would just enjoy the privilege of being in the company of this silent shadow but this morning I was concerned because this is the season when pregnant seals come ashore to have their pups and this is not a seal-friendly beach, being far too dog-friendly. It was pouring down and cold and grey but I thought that maybe by staying there, moving along the wave’s edge with the dogs, I would scare her off to find a more sheltered nursery. We stayed as long as we could, until my dogs were beginning to look as cold as I was, but as we turned away I saw another seal out there, and then another. What to do? This really isn’t a good stretch of sand for seal pups, too many walkers and too many excited dogs….too exposed. As I walked off I met a swimmer preparing for her daily dip so I consoled myself with the thought that she would continue to scare off the maternity ward. I’ve since learned that the cove where the seals usually calf has been reduced in size because the cliff there has subsided, so the poor things were searching for a new home, and just looking in the wrong place.

She came much closer but I fumbled with the phone.

That unsettled me strangely, even made me feel a bit… well, not weepy, but conscious of the vulnerability of life, all life. At home we dried off and I fed the dogs and lit the fire, and eventually settled down to read The Times online. One article (I slipped quickly past the Trump/Biden nonsense) struck a chord….maybe because my emotions were already a tad raw….

One of the world’s greatest pianists, who was forced to retire after a series of injuries, said he was overwhelmed with emotion after a pair of “bionic” gloves enabled him to play again at the age of 80.

João Carlos Martins, who was celebrated for his interpretations of the works of JS Bach during his long career, released a video on his Instagram account of his slightly faltering return to the keyboard, playing one of the composer’s adagios.”

And there I watched the video of this grand old silver haired man weeping with joy as he played, from memory, faultlessly, tenderly. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mDXuk9xo8hQ

I was just recovering from that when a friend Skyped and told me of someone she knew who had lost a child many years ago. This grieving mother would visit her son’s grave every year, on his birthday, and she would say “Well, here we are… you’re eighteen now.” or nineteen, or whatever age he was. And that again stopped me in my tracks. A mother saying to her dead son “Well, here we are, you’re eighteen now.”

If that doesn’t break your heart…..

A day of tears.

I feel a bit overwhelmed, my friends! So much love and longing and birth and death all around us.

Birth. Death. Sorrow. Joy. Love. A grey sky, a cheerful fire, and aloneness. Such contrasts, how do we comprehend such great contrasts? My friends, today I am so lonely, and so filled with thoughts I can barely put words to. But my loneliness isn’t a sad thing. It’s just there. At times like this, what can we do, us feeble creatures? How can we understand and accept the heartbreak and the ecstasy of life, when both are there before us, in equal part?

I’m humbled by this awareness of our vulnerability, our helplessness, our love. It throws me back to this week’s lectio, gives me a new understanding or insight maybe… “He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. ” Deuteronomy 8:3

Every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. The word ‘word’ is everything – it’s God’s grace, and wisdom, it’s creation (God breathed the world into being) it’s Jesus Christ Emmanuel, it’s the Bible, the Holy Spirit, it’s GOD. And we can hear it, know it, experience it.

That makes me think of another verse Romans 11:36 ‘For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen.’

All things! And then I go skittering over to Colossians 1:17 ‘He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.’ All things! The sky and the sea and the roaring fire, three damp dogs, a weeping man, a grieving mother, the miracle of birth… all things.

The pain we observe, or experience, and the love we feel, the longing we have for each other and for God…. all these are lessons, brought to us by God, to draw us closer to the one who longs for us, who yearns for us, who desires our most intimate and desperate passion. All these things, if we submit to them, accept them, pain and sorrow, joy and love, the lowering sky and the glow of the fire… they bring us to Jesus Christ.

The only thing that keeps us from him is our stubbornness, our desire to go our own way. Give that up, and there is God. Right there, in that moment of submission and trust and love.

Lectio Divina

If you’re sick of me talking about the beach, turn away now. I’m actually talking about words but the beach keeps sneaking into everything.

Many of you know that I go to that one place every day, whatever the weather. I go there earlyish, and I’m usually home by 9, but it’s the most important part of my day. This little beach isn’t tropical, or even particularly beautiful – it’s an estuary and across the water there’s a caravan park, so no great sweeping vista of mile upon mile of golden sand. Just a wonderful sky above us, and the sea in front of us, and the hillsides behind us – dotted with sheep and cattle, and cottages nestling into the cwm.

Dawn down there on the sands is magical, but I don’t make the dawn deadline very often! Most of us dog walkers arrive a little later, waving to each other in bright sunshine, dripping gloomily at each other in driving wind and rain, and sometimes emerging, ghostly, out of thick sea mist. Whatever the weather the regulars are recognisable even when they’re in the far far distance, not just by the colour of their clothes, or the way they walk, or the chucking toys they carry, or the dogs at their sides, or the routes they take, but by a combination of all these things. I know when it’s the girls and their whippets even when they’re down by the estuary and I’m up by the life station, and I know Angela and Ellie by the mad circles Ellie makes on the end of her lead, and Sue and Tiggy are unmistakable and Janine and Dave with their ball-fixated collies. My doggy pals mean a whole lot to me, especially over the last six months, when they have sometimes been the only people I’ve had any interaction with all day.

We’ve had some real life sorrows and some mini dramas since the start of the year; Two of our band have died, and there’s been a heart attack, a hypoglycaemic collapse, a dog bitten by a snake, another dog has had to be carried off the beach due to a fit. Less dramatically, we’ve been joined by a growing group of doughty female swimmers whatever the temperature (they call themselves The Blue Tits), we’ve had lost dogs and stranded cars and far, far, FAR too many signs about all the things we are not allowed to do, dolphin sightings, dead seals, illegal fires and campers (the signs don’t work) and some very bad anti-social goings-on of the scatalogical kind.

Those early morning walks are when I settle down to a time of prayer in a big concentrated lump. Or were. Used to be. Until lockdown I would wander along the water’s edge for an hour or two, dogs paddling around happily, and I’d read the Bible on my phone, and pray and sing and have a right rip-roaring time all alone. And then lockdown arrived, and the beach became important for many people not just as a place of ‘me-time’ or exercise, but as an opportunity to talk to someone, laugh together, care for each other.

At the beginning of this Covid time, realising that the church building would be out of action, I hoped that I’d be joined on the beach by those who wanted to pray, thinking of all sorts of possibilities… open air services, little morning prayer groups, a beach group instead of the usual house group, but none of that happened. No one came. At first I was disappointed that the best laid plans of mice and men gang aft aglay, and that there were no impromptu prayer meetings or al fresco services, but now I am so glad – and I understand why no one came on all those early mornings. Other lives are busier than mine and of course we all have our own devotions. The one time something was arranged it was noon on a sunny day and the car park was heaving with people, dogs and children.

My prayer time, thinking time, time of praise and wonder, has continued, but now it’s subtly softened, made less selfish, because most days now it’s broken into by my dog walking friends and I so welcome that intrusion! It’s what it’s all about isn’t? Isn’t loving people about being available to them? And you know what? God is still there and my prayers are still there when my friends have walked on. And maybe they’ve sensed his presence as we catch up, sharing tears and laughter, because God is in all these things. I just love the thought that my friends walk into my prayer time, and are included in it, as we talk about cabbages and kings, and that as they walk on I am reminded to pray for them. That’s just plain LOVELY!

Isn’t it?

Masks hide lips and when you’re a bit mutt’n’jeff like me, it makes understanding and following what’s been said really difficult but on the beach there are no masks – just a reasonable distance. It’s grand. A lot of the walkers are, of course, down there with their partners and I’m fascinated that people who have lived together 24/7 during Covid , still have so much to talk about! They seem to never stop communicating with each other… what on earth do they find to say? As someone who’s been a singleton for 30 years, I’m bemused to see them talking, talking, talking as they walk along. What on earth are they on about? Do they share grand lofty visions, or are they trumpeting about Trump, baffled by Boris, vexing about Brexit, renewing their marriage vows? What? It can’t all be about the weather, surely?

But talking about talking, here’s what I really want to say; having just written a book I was asked how long it is… how many words ? Fortunately the software counts them for me and tells me that I’ve churned out 70,000. Last week I was talking to a friend about the words of Jesus and we wondered how many he had spoken. Well, in the English translation, I have a count for you. This is from the Quora website:

once you exclude the duplications of Jesus’ speeches in the four gospels, the total number of words spoken by Jesus is 31,426.

Just 31,000 words that changed all of human history, think of that. My rubbishy book will change nothing. If I wrote a million words they would change nothing. All the libraries in the world…. every single encyclopaedia, text book, every tome of great importance, scientific thesis… none of them have the impact of the simple words of Jesus. Nothing I say or you say or my pals say will have a scintilla of the power of Jesus.

In Matthew 4 Jesus says, quoting Deuteronomy 8:3, “Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.”

Every word that comes from the mouth of God! Wowzer! What a thought. Think on that. Selah.

A few months ago, encouraged by my church adopting the practice, I intentionally developed the habit or practice of ‘lectio’, In this practice a portion of the Bible is read, maybe a single word, or a short phrase, maybe a verse or a completed thought, and it becomes a focus for meditation, for prayer, for contemplation. At first it seemed that there was little difference, if any, between meditation and contemplation but there’s a whole lot! Meditation (I think) is deliberate and logical and thoughtful… but with prayer and submission to God’s teaching, the meditation enters into the marrow of your bones and stays there. You know what I mean. It takes you over. Becomes the environment of your thinking, the scenery, backdrop. The meditation grows, and deepens and permeates through the whole day. Doesn’t leave you. Sometimes it lasts several days, filling the mind with wonder and a growing appreciation of the depth of God’s truth. This, to me, is contemplation. Submission to the teaching. Psalm 62: I am standing in absolute stillness, silent before the One I love.

That verse in Matthew 4, the words of Jesus, quoting Deuteronomy, have filled me and enchanted me for a week, since my friend and I first wondered how many word Jesus spoke. That verse has silenced me, stilled me. The power of the words of Jesus, these 31,000 words, changing the world forever, and the power of the Word, the power of the Scriptures, Jesus the Word… the living Word, risen and victorious, here in my heart, I am paralysed with wonder.

So. Tomorrow, on the beach, that’s what I’ll be thinking about and praying about. Meditating on the word ‘Word’.

If you’re down there, wander over and share some thoughts, you, me and God.

On a handy log

While I’m here…. want to know more about life with God?

There’s a great series on discipleship, simply go to

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCFWZ7h6zEtBsdT_-fDJgfiQ

The Amazingly Astonishing Story

My autobiographical novel will be published on 21st of October. That’s what it’s called – ‘The Amazingly Astonishing Story’. Because it is.

It’s a strange feeling, to know that my perspective on my childhood will be shared with whoever wants to read it. Whoever. The good, the mad, the bad, the ‘other’, the pals, the family, whoever. Strange, eh? Although I find it really difficult to talk in conversation with one or two, if I’m facing fifty or a hundred people or a thousand, or if I’m writing to the whole damn world …. easy peasy! Hold me back!

The person in charge of publicity at the publisher’s office has asked me to write 500 words about the book and why I wrote it. So, here goes, I’ve copied you in:

One of the questions writers grow used to, and tired of, and flummoxed by, is “What makes a writer?” and another one is “Where do you get your ideas from?” 

The answers I give are usually apologetic shrugs followed by lame and unsatisfactory suggestions, because both those questions are unanswerable. Until now. From now on, in answer, I can point to this book and say “I think the clues are in there.” 

The book tells, of course, just the beginning of a long and eventful life. It’s a start, you could say. 

Dickens was onto something when he said “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” That’s life. And my life has been an adventure from first cry right through to now and Covid, losing my mother at 7, living through a crash landing at Orly Airport, nearly drowning in the Med, surviving a boating disaster in one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world, coming off a motorbike on an icy road, spending  Christmas Eve in a small tent in a gale on Beachy Head, going through a divorce, being broke, marrying again, becoming a Mum, finding faith, winning The Richard Burton Drama Award, being widowed at 43, and going on from there to have a successful and happy career as a dramatist. 

This morning, at 71 years old,  I stood on the beach, deafened by the roar of the wind, under a wild and beautiful sky, and it was as if I saw myself, on this small stretch of sand, on the edge of an ocean, and then as if I saw beyond and beyond – to the billions of stars and suns and moons and the wildness of the cosmos. My eyes saw only waves and sky and wheeling gulls, but my mind saw everything.  My wonderful mind. Your wonderful mind. Our minds, eh? They reach out to each other. That’s what my book does. It reaches out. I hope it finds you. 

I wrote it for many reasons, but the essential hope was to show that from the coldest of beginnings, life can spin into something rich and warm and wonderful. To say that there is more to every life than whatever we are going through at this moment, that the future can be tumultuous and exciting, and that, even in the  middle of loneliness or need, we all have wonderful internal worlds, and we can carry on a funny, loving conversation within our own minds, to more than ourselves – we can reach out to the eternal and wonderful life force. We can meet that life force. We can meet God. 

A rich life is made up of the best and the worst, both the greatest joy and the deepest sorrow. I am very, very blessed to have had both in great big spadefuls and I wouldn’t change a single day or hour of it, and I wouldn’t miss out on  meeting any of the rich characters in all the crazy episodes along the way.  

So, should I have called this autobiographical novel “The making of a writer”? 

Maybe. 

Dark thoughts, on a rainy night

I have it back! I have my lovely shiny sleek computer back on its desk in the corner of the room, and it’s working.

I’ve been so shocked by how much I missed my Mac while it was undergoing repair. I realise now that ALL my life is tied up with this machine… without it I couldn’t study, or look up an online concordance, or zoom anyone, or Skype my writer friends, or read the online paper (couldn’t log into anything on my phone – no passwords!), or write the treatment that’s due tomorrow, or prepare for the script meeting that’s also tomorrow, or write up last week’s sermon, or complete a photography project or… you know… just be busy. Kid myself that I’m a busy old beaver. It was surprising that even when my no-computer schedule involved a dozen errands and cakes to bake and deliver, the day was still half empty. And it was a total bummer to realise that I now can’t concentrate on what I’m reading for more than an hour at a stretch – when did that happen? Do I need the quick click of the mouse to keep me alert? Has my brain deteriorated that much?

And all the people shouted “Yes, your brain is rubbish.”

Oh, hush. You all know me too well.

This computer has to stop being a substitute for real life, but how?

That’s my thought for today, that’s what’s niggling at the back of my mind. Last week I was asking myself if there was anything I would not be willing to give up for God…. is this my answer? Would I be willing and able to give up this Mac, this online life? Without going completely barmy, I mean. Here I am, reading a book on the monastic life, and I can’t even face 4 days without a computer! Some contemplative I am.

I’m not feeling contemplative because I’ve been watching TV, far far more than usual. I’ve worked in TV for 35 years but if this is a window on our world right now, it’s a sad and heart-breaking view that it reveals. A world where entertainment is murder after murder, rape after rape of (mostly) women, disguised as who-dunnit or why-dunnit dramas. TV pretends to explore the twisted and malicious lives of serial killers and sociopaths, while neglecting the true and inspiring stories of good and selfless people, so that it portrays the human race as irretrievably carnal, saturated by evil. Our TV screens explode with the cheap, the tawdry, the sexually explicit, the gratuitously graphic, the prurient. They celebrate a society where sexual congress is as fleeting and as meaningless as a sneeze, where nothing is perversion as long as it serves our demand for instant gratification, where there are no consequences beyond this week’s episode of any soap opera, where the word ‘God’ is qualified by obscenities, where every desire and inclination of man is commercialised, sold, offered, bargained, promised. Where there is no shame, no personal responsibility and where morals are to be pitied and dismissed. This is the world we are passing on to our children. This is where my three granddaughters, where your grandchildren, and their children, and on and on, will grow up. This is what they have to swim through, this sea of excrement and cruelty and selfishness, as they search for the meaning of their lives.

This is what we have made of the beautiful world that God has given us. This is what we have done with the minds and hearts he has created.

And all we can do is pray, and light a lamp, and tell the world that it doesn’t have to be this way.

Grim? Yes, tonight I feel a bit grim. And it does no one any good to pretend that the world is as it should be. Honesty. We need more honesty. Where is it to be found?

You know my greatest sorrow and guilt and grief? One that I can’t think about much because it really breaks my heart? It’s a socially unacceptable thing to say, but I am going to say it: my greatest grief is that we have , going on all around us, at all times, day and night, the murder of the unborn. Slaughtered embryos. Millions of lives ended in surgeries, operating theatres, chemically, in back streets…. and most because the birth of these children would inconvenience the parents. This is the worst obscenity because this has become a political matter, and to speak this way is unacceptable. To say ‘Let us instead make it possible for these children to live, and to be loved.’ is unacceptable. Madness.

I think I will probably delete this blog pretty soon because as I write it I am growing …. something. I don’t know… upset. Angry. . But for now, I need to say it.

Well, while I ponder that, and take it to God, alongside the tough stuff there is still beauty and grace. Here’s a photo I took this morning, between rain and hail showers here in West Wales, and it just sings a truth from Psalm 19

The heavens declare the glory of God;
    the skies proclaim the work of his hands.

Oh, hang on, the King James version says it so well….

The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork.

Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night sheweth knowledge.

There is no speech nor language, where their voice is not heard.