Rainbows and bird boxes

Frosty Sunday morning

My day began with the dog bringing me a gift of a dead sparrow. Fortunately this is not typical behaviour of Lacey. In fact I’d dare to say that she had nothing whatsoever to do with the demise of the poor thing, although considering the very hard frost on the ground, its body was quite warm, indicating recent death. Sadly, one less bird to count. My sister and I, although 300 miles apart, drank tea and watched birds together this morning. She’s very organised and has a spreadsheet. I’m not and had the back of a piece of paper.

We’re getting our practice in for the RSPB big bird watch at the end of the month. It’s interesting to compare notes. We both live in suburban areas, but Frances is probably closer to the country than we are here in East Belfast. She has visits from woodpeckers and wood pigeons which I certainly don’t.

Yesterday Lacey and I walked along the Knock River through Orangefield Park. We often see herons there and apparently there are kingfishers and otters to be seen too. But I had a treat on this trip as an egret was gracefully stepping through the water.

Inspired by our bird watching and the fact that Frances has all her birdboxes cleaned out ready for nesting season, I spent the happiest hour doing the same and relocating them all a bit higher in the trees and facing the right direction a little more accurately. Here’s hoping for some new families moving in to our garden.

Ready for immediate occupation

I wrote another post once (Wellies and Wheelbarrows) about getting out in the garden and how much healing it does for me. It’s not just healing from difficult things though, but general healing of the soul from the everyday, inevitable thoughts and wonderings.

Everyone is a bit apprehensive about this new year. All of us hopeful for what the vaccines will mean for our communities, but all of us very aware that this is not an instant, overnight solution. As a parent and a teacher, I am apprehensive about these next few weeks. Online learning for my two at home. For the boy its for the whole month of January. This is a real challenge for him. Unstructured days with no one-to-one support. For me, its back to school tomorrow, working together with my fantastic colleagues to keep each other and all of our wonderful students as safe as we possibly can.

All of 2020 seemed to be about taking one day at a time, and I think 2021 is going to be pretty much the same. That’s a good thing though isn’t it? Living in the moment, this moment. Breathing in the frosty air of my Sunday morning garden. Breathing out thankfulness for the time and space to be present with nature’s beauty and her creator.

River Lagan, Belfast

On New Year’s Day I walked along the river Lagan. Behind me was a murky, atmospheric mix of rain and sunshine. Ahead, a bright rainbow. A symbol of hope. It seemed a poignant image of the year we are leaving and the year that lies ahead. There was definitely some murkiness in 2020, but also the gift of sunshine. Especially for me, where the support of family and friends was concerned. People finding creative ways to bring some kindness to the lives of others. We are entering this new year with some hope and everyday, in my ‘one day at a time’ I am going to be looking out for rainbows.

River Lagan, Belfast

Will you?

This is a piece I wrote for our Advent service last Sunday. Mary, the mother of Christ, was our focus and I have tried to capture some things about her and place them into a slightly different situation than some of the traditional images we have.

We don’t know an awful lot about her from the Bible, but from the culture and history of the time we can suppose a few things. She was young. A young teenager. She was engaged to a man twice her age. She lived in Nazareth which was a very small town, surrounded by hills, where everyone probably knew or at least recognised everyone else. The Bible makes reference to angels as appearing in human form, and yet, having a strange man approach this young girl, would have been quite frightening and Mary would have feared for what he intended to do.

I hope you enjoy reading it and that as we continue in this Advent season, we will all find our hearts mulling over the question ‘will you?’.

She lifts her soil-stained hand to catch the hair from her eyes.

Her skin, darkened by the sun, shines with the sweat of a labour-filled day.

Tapping her foot to release the dust and husks trapped in her sandal, she rises and stretches to relieve the tired muscles beneath her tunic.

There is a shout. ‘Water!’ and she moves to join her brothers and sisters for this brief communal drink.

She lifts the chalk-stone jug and pours. Dipping her fingers into the cool, clear water she frees them from the soil and considers the cleansing of her hands.

The cleansing of her heart.

‘Create in me a clean heart, O God.’

As she drinks, the cold water refreshes her dusty, dry lips and her heart is full.

Thankful for this moment to rest.

Thankful for this moment to sit.

To watch.

To breathe.

To live and laugh and love and be loved.

There is water and wine and bread.

There is safe, familial talking of ordinary things and sorrow and hardship and hope and future.

Her future.

Revived she returns to her place on the terrace. Brushing past tall white lilies she disturbs their sweet, strong scent. The fragrance lingers as she bends low to till the soil.

As the day journeys and the shadows lengthen, her eye is caught by a movement on the hill above. A man striding. Purposeful. Not a wanderer. But a stranger. Not from here. Not from this place. Not from her people.

Her heartbeat quickens. Her eyes search far below for her father. Her protector. But he doesn’t see.

‘Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow, I will fear no evil’

She opens her mouth to cry out. There is no sound. She lifts her tunic and frees her feet to run. She trips. She falls. Into the dust. Her trowel clatters among the stones.

‘The Lord is my light and my salvation – whom shall I fear?’

A voice now. ‘Mary!’

A voice now. ‘Don’t be afraid!’

A voice now. ‘God is with you!’

She lifts her head and looks below. At last, her father sees. She rises to run and the stranger reaches out, steadying her as trembling knees struggle to carry  her.

His hand is warm and strong and gentle.

‘I have a message for you.’

The stranger continues with his startling message.

It is all too confusing.

Too much for this tender-strong heart.

Too much for this child.

He talks of a baby, her baby. He talks of the gift of a son. A son that she must give away for the sake of the world. He talks of a king and a throne and a kingdom that will last forever. He talks of an overshadowing of the most High. He talks of Yeshua. The Holy one. The son of God. The son of Mary. Her son.

‘Will you?’ asks the stranger.

She thinks of how this could possibly be. She thinks of her beloved. Her betrothed. Of her father, nearing now, his eyes fierce, his hands fully ready.

She thinks of the gossip and the shame and the casting aside and the pain of birthing and the kingdom that will last forever.

‘He who dwells in the shadow of the Most high….’

‘Will you Mary?’

The words hang in the stillness of the sunset air.

Her heartbeat slows.

Her eyes well with the tears of burst emotion.

Her trembling hands, still.

In the embrace of her father she senses within herself a strengthening.

A growing peace.

A rising hope.

Fear turning.

Confusion clearing.

Determination settling.

‘The joy of the Lord is my strength.’

She lifts her soil-stained hand to catch the hair from her eyes.

‘I will.’

The Balcony

Torada Heights, Montego Bay

This balcony is 4, 463 miles away. It is on a dormitory block at the Teamwork Associates Christian Centre a few miles outside of Montego Bay, Jamaica. It overlooks the North of the island and the Caribbean sea. From it you can watch electrical storms light up the night sky. And the sun dance on the surface of the sea during the day. It is the very spot where I had an overwhelming feeling, thirty years ago this very weekend, that Tony Fyfe might somehow be connected to my future! He didn’t quite feel that at the same moment, but that is a whole other story and far too long for right now.

We celebrated Tony’s 36th birthday that weekend in true Jamaica style with cake and ice cream, hot chocolate and of course the birthday song… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MrZ-yBzsd-M

Before we left for Jamaica for those two weeks, I had never met Tony. In fact when people asked us where we met, we laughed that it was actually at the check-in desk at Gatwick airport. A dozen people from the length and breadth of the UK, all ages and stages of life, meeting up for the first time, to travel to the hurricane devastated island and hopefully lend some helping hands.

It was an adventure to say the least. My second trip and Tony’s first. We built walls and repaired broken things and we also met beautiful people in great need. I had honestly been very focussed on this trip as a work trip. And a planning trip. I was going back to Jamaica at the end of the year to volunteer in the school that was one of the community programmes run by the centre. It wasn’t supposed to be a falling in love trip. That bit was totally unexpected.

The story that followed, the one that is too long for here, the one that spans three decades, involved long distances between us, phone calls that crossed several time zones, letters, poems, a blue VW beetle, a cathedral, sunflower costumes, a heart operation, separation, courage, patience, joy and deep, deep sorrow.

On Monday, with some friends, I will raise a glass for Tony’s birthday. I’m sure there will be stories and tears and laughter. And I will remember and be so very thankful, for that moment on that balcony, filled with a sense of future, all those miles and years away.

The Climb

During the month of June I have had the privilege to be a part of a group called ‘Grief in my own words’. It’s an online group run by Rachel Smith (Cancer Focus NI) with daily quotes and prompts which help us process our thoughts about our grief journey. We are encouraged to write and share our words with each other. As you can imagine, it has been an emotional month. Tears and laughter and painful honesty and many memories. I just wanted to share one piece with you from my month of writing.

Grief is like a mountain climb.

There are times when your emotional muscles are aching and sore and there seems that nothing can ease the pain.

There are times when the path levels out a bit and the steps you take seem a little easier and your breathing becomes calmer.

There are times when you get a stone in your boot – a memory, a regret, a remembered conversation that aggravates and annoys and no matter how many times you shake it out, it seems to lodge somehow and get stuck.

There are times when a blister forms. The pressure on the same place in your heart causing rawness and exposure that a plaster can’t fix.

There are times when the weather, totally beyond your control, interrupts. You have to take shelter, cocoon yourself, protect yourself and be alone.

And then there are times when the sun comes out. When everything feels ok. Warm and wonderful. And you can soak up that goodness into your skin. You can feel the closeness of him, the memory of him that soothes your soul. You can turn and look at the spectacular view – beautiful. A distant time and place of goodness, sharing, dreams, plans, laughter, bravery and happiness.

And then you turn back to the path and the climb, and the weather, and the stone in your boot, and the blister, and you keep going.

The Rhododendrons are humming

It’s 9.45pm and I’m sitting in my garden listening to a blackbird perform an evening solo and watching swifts (or swallows or housemartens) sweeping in arcs through a blue sky. The crescent moon is alight and it’s not quite dusk enough for the solar powered lights to come on.

I am enjoying so much, these sunny, still and quiet ends to my days, nearly as much as I am relishing the mornings. Stepping outside at the beginning of each day, the grass damp with dew, the sun warming up a spot for me to sit. Its heat on my skin as the first rays creep into the garden, soothes my soul. The symphony of sounds that surround me offer joy. All those birds! The hungry cries from a wren’s nest just over my shoulder. The noisy squawks of a magpie family as they flap among the sycamore branches. The chittering and chirping and chirruping announces the new day.

Another sound surprises me. The hum of a thousand bees (well, maybe 30) raiding the rhododendron pollen, ripples through the still air. It’s a busy but stress-less hum. In a happy key. A ‘whistle while you work’ kind of hum. They are all about their day’s work with heavy legs under their featherlight wings. They are so busy and focussed and yet there’s a simplicity to their activity. Eat, work, rest, although I’m not sure in which order and how often they do each.

All around the world right now the pattern of life for everyone is unusual. And uncertain. No-one is unaffected. As we take tentative steps on a path, not back to normality, but onwards to who knows what, I realise how much home has been a wonderful cocoon for me and my little family. The absence of rush has been so welcome. The simple rhythm of life: eat, work, rest (with a few Zooms thrown in) has been very easy to get used to. I’m honestly a little reluctant to let that go. Actually, a lot. Reluctant to let that simplicity slip away as the demands of schedule undoubtedly begin to loudly announce themselves. Maybe I shouldn’t let go. Maybe now its time to pursue and prioritise a better balance.

Less rush, more hum.

Pot Noodle Wednesdays

*Alert! There is no mention of Covid-19 or lockdown in this post*

Believe it or not, I can remember exactly what I was doing 40 years ago today! I was sitting in my grandparents’ back room, eating a pot noodle, having had school orchestra practice and before heading off with my sister to youth group. Frances and I made our way round to Nana and Grandad’s every Wednesday after school. I’m not sure why we had pot noodles. (Who would have thought they’d been around that long?)

Nana and Grandad lived in a two up, two down terrace in Alfred Road, overlooking the cemetery at the back of the High Street. My memories of time spent there are very happy. Of chives and dahlias growing in the back garden. Of scoring holes in the brick wall with a nail. Of old Aggie who lived on the other side of the street and watched the world go by from behind her curtains. We visited my grandparents a lot during the school holidays when Mum and Dad were working and I mostly remember that the sun shone. Didn’t it always back then?

We always used the back door to get in. Down the alley at the side of the house and into the tiny kitchen which led to the back room. This room was also small, with just enough room for a table and two chairs, a couple of armchairs beside the fire and a heavy wooden sideboard on which sat a clock with a mesmerising tick and a reassuring chime.

The stairs led off this back room, but you had to open a door to access them. It was like stepping into a wardrobe to go upstairs. We didn’t go up there too often, but when we did I admired Nana’s tortoiseshell backed mirror and the height of the bed with its heavy eiderdown. Upstairs is where Mum and her twin were born. Where they slept inside a chest of drawers. Two tiny babies.

Nana and Grandad led a beautifully simple life. No TV. No computer. Just the radio. Grandad sat and listened, his fingers intertwined as he leant forward with his elbows on his knees and his eyes down, sometimes holding his walking stick and tapping it on the floor.

I remember the comfortable sounds of cricket matches coming through the air waves.

I remember laundry drying on a wooden airer folded box-like around the flames of the gas fire.

I remember the softness of the maroon, velvet cloth which covered the table. It had a twisted tassel fringe that attracted your fingers constantly.

I remember the sliding door of the bathroom with thin cotton curtains at the frosted window panes. And the crunchy Izal toilet paper. And the smell of Lifebuoy soap.

My grandparents, Thomas and Emily, were quiet, humble and generous. They didn’t have an awful lot, but from stories I’ve heard, they were always happy to share with those who needed it. Even prisoners of war!

In these times, on the whole, we have far too much and probably hold onto it too tightly. I know I’m guilty of this. On this Wednesday, I have a pot noodle and think long and hard about how I can help others a whole heap more.

Mirror Man

Today unusually I find myself a) on my own and b) not at home. What to do? Eat and drink and read and write. I’ve found a corner table in a very busy cafe. The food is great and the tea hot. All good.

The girls at the table next to me are chatting constantly, totally oblivious to me. In contrast, a man (of a couple) near me, keeps looking at me. Is there balsamic dressing dribbling down my chin? Or salad in my teeth? He looks at me and then conveniently looks at the mirrors on the wall behind me. Not even a picture – and he can’t see himself! So……. Now he’s distracted by his phone and I can take another bite in peace.

There is happy chatter all around me. Maybe conversations about Christmas just past or the new year that’s just arrived with a great ta-da! There are a lot of calories being consumed around me. It must still be the early transition stages of ‘being good’. We’ll all be good one day I’m sure.

I can never really put my finger on what it is about a new year that gives a feeling of hope. How can a new number, slightly larger than the last one, make a difference? Nothing magical happened when Jools Holland counted down to midnight on Tuesday and the pipers played Auld Lang Syne.

Or did it?

Maybe the hope is the magic. Hope that grows out of last year’s journey and strengthens our heart for the year ahead. Hope for some changes. New ventures. Adventures. Hope that the ‘same old’ will continue to be comfortingly so. That I’ll grow some more on the inside.

The ‘me’ that ended 2019 is definitely different to the one of 2018. That ‘me’ was reeling, shocked, numb and devastated. A bit like a rabbit in the headlights, dodging the juggernauts.

Now I feel like I’ve moved to the hard shoulder. I can nibble a bit at the grass through the barrier. I can see some safe places over there. The traffic is still thundering past, shaking my whiskers and giving me a fright from time to time. I can still see where I’ve come from and can’t quite believe I made it in one piece to be honest, and that sends chills through me.

This time last year, if mirror man had watched me sitting here all alone I probably would have cried – and not cared. Now I meet his gaze and wonder if he’d like some of my bacon and avocado flatbread stack. I don’t think he does.

Wellies and wheelbarrows

In the days after Tony died, it felt like my phone continually pinged with texts, messages and emails. Thoughts, love, concern sent from all over the world. It was wonderfully comforting, if a little overwhelming, and I found a few safe sentences in reply that I tended to repeat. One of them was that we were heart-broken.

We were.

Totally.

Yesterday I listened to a song and the lyrics spoke of ‘every heart that is broken’ and I had one of those ‘grief ambush’ moments. When you’re least expecting a reminder or a memory and you are blind-sided by it.

I cried.

I have found myself crying a lot recently. Just because I am sad. Sad and heart-broken. I feel it when I wake up in the morning like a heavy blanket. And it lingers. And grows. And then spills out in tears. Am I crying for myself? Yes. My children? Yes. Am I crying for Tony? Yes. Am I crying for what was, what might have been, what may be, what won’t be? Yes. All of the above. Is there comfort in my crying? No, not really.

But I do hope. I hope that there will be mornings when I wake up and there is a blanket of joy that feels lighter. And I hope for healing.

So, what about the wellies and wheelbarrows then? There is a connection, I promise. Back in the spring as I began to get out into the garden again, I had a real sense that this was a place where healing could happen for me. BBC2 Gardeners’ World on Friday past was all about the healing potential of gardening. It’s even an NHS prescription in some parts of the UK. (I was right!!) There is a communion between our physical, emotional, spiritual selves and nature. A communion that gently soothes our inside brokenness. Where our tears and the rain or the dew on the grass, mingle. Where a weed removed, leaves a patch of soil exposed and ready for the growing of a new plant. Where the cutting away of the faded flower encourages a fresh flush of buds and the anticipation of colourful blooms.

I have worked away in the garden during this summer. Last year I didn’t and couldn’t have done. I didn’t have the physical or mental energy for anything other than getting through each day. I am very thankful that now I can. There is always something that needs to be done. And it is helping me.

My wellies are near to hand (because my garden is quite muddy) and I have prescribed myself time each day to step out and take a dose of nature’s healing goodness.

Changing landscape

A few weeks ago I was mowing the grass in the back garden and noticed that a little willow tree which was planted before we ever moved in, was trailing its branches on the ground. I was initially amazed by the growth, but then realised that it hadn’t actually grown at all. The trunk was completely broken and the whole tree was about to collapse. Once I’d removed it, of course it opened up a whole new space in the corner of the garden. In those short few weeks, new shoots have sprouted, plants have started to grow around the base of the trunk and branches from nearby trees are reaching into the new space. The landscape of the garden has changed.

918C82D4-DA50-4ADB-92BC-1572CC8D8C87 (Edited)

In our community recently, there have been quite a few structural changes. A couple of redundant police stations have been demolished to make way for new housing and commercial developments, vacant plots are slowly but surely growing new buildings, our neighbours are building extensions. I wonder what Tony would say about these new developments. He would be fascinated to know what was going on and who the builders were and of course he would have an expert opinion on the progress!

The physical landscape around us is always changing, sometimes imperceptibly, sometimes very obviously. And so it is with our lives. From dramatic and traumatic to the barely noticeable, life takes on a new skyline. The sunrise is framed in a new way. But the sun rises all the same. We encounter new obstacles on our path which invite decisions to be made. Climb over? Skirt around? Get help? Sit and rest awhile? Sometimes this is all just overwhelming. Sometimes it is a welcome change to the predictable. Sometimes it is our own making. Sometimes it is all beyond our control. But almost without a doubt, at some point, new shoots will sprout, branches will reach into the space and the bare ground will begin to show fresh green shades of new life. For that I am very grateful.

 

DSC_0278 (Edited)

I will never forget our little willow tree. It has stood and watched us play, swing, weed, laugh and cry over the years. I am sad that it has gone, but I watch the empty space with hopeful anticipation of new things.

 

Soaking up the empty

IMG_0454I had wondered how this season would be. And so far it’s been hard.

All the other difficult days we have faced so far, have been isolated, preceded by days of dreadful anticipation and followed by days of sad processing. But this season, this Advent season is prolonged. Part of me truly wishes to go to sleep and wake up in the middle of January. At the same time, I am struggling with leaving 2018 behind. Because Tony was here in 2018. He was a part of it. He lived in it. And I don’t want to let that go. There have been years, recently, when I have just been so glad to see the end of December. Hoped for something new and better in the next year. But now? I don’t want to turn my back on this year at all. I don’t want to lose that almost tangible connection to him being here.

IMG_0458

I anticipated that this lead up to Christmas would feel very empty. I had begun to feel just that, as the rest of the world around me began to collectively become excited, happier, sillier, over-the-top, loud and bright. I have felt empty.

And then, wonderfully,  something started to happen that brought us joy like shafts of light. It began on the first day of Christmas. A friend arrived with a beautiful white bauble for our Christmas tree and a written message of love and kindness which remembered Tony. The next morning another friend called at the door announcing herself as the second day of Christmas, carrying a delicate glass angel for the tree. It wasn’t until the next day though that I realised a pattern was emerging. Another friend had come to sit in with my two and she brought with her a glittering angel encased in a glass bauble. As the next days passed, the three of us began to look expectantly around IMG_0456the step of the front door and in the post box for any surprise packages. And over the days we discovered such a variety of thoughtful gifts and messages for us and our tree. The anticipation, the discovery, the delight in receiving such kindness, somehow began to soak up the emptiness. The 12th day saw the opening of a special Christmas Eve gift from the dear friend thousands of miles away who had mobilised all the other friends to this 12 days of Christmas giving! Amazingly friends who didn’t even know what was happening have gifted us with angels for the tree or our home, adding to the wonder of it all. Oh, how loved, protected and cared for we have felt as each one has poured in something of themselves to our little family. Some hope, some smiles, some joy, some kindness. Thank you.