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The Road Well Travelled

Image: Sharon Court ©

I’m a fan of Doctor Who. Have I mentioned that before?

I re-connected with the Whoniverse at the tail end of Christopher Eccleston’s incarnation, when David Tennant took the reins (and boy did he!). I loved the way each episode was full of humour and insight, frustration and compassion – and of course a generous helping of mild peril and running around a lot! I was shopping for new trainers at some point during this re-connection and settled on a pair of red converse style shoes, as my nod to Doctor Who.

They’re a bit worn out now. You can see from the photo, the scuffs and dirt and the cracks along the edges. Not entirely waterproof either (though they were never meant to be I guess, being mostly canvas).

There’s a parallel at the moment, between my old, worn out trainers and some of the people I’ve been connecting with. Part of my role as in the Youth Chaplaincy project is to come alongside people; to travel with them on their journey of life. To offer companionship, a listening ear and empathy, even though, as a Chaplain, I can’t personally change anything.

Thing is, this journeying business has been happening, not at work, but at home.

I’ve been travelling with a young Mum whose husband died of cancer (he was 35 years old).

I’ve been journeying with a young woman who is struggling with a restrictive medical condition (she’s in her early 20s).

And now my journey extends to include this young woman’s mother, whose own mother is gravely ill, as well as another woman whose older husband is seriously ill.

Each of these situations are distinct and disconnected from each other (apart from the family link between the young woman and her grandmother). Each of the people involved is feeling a wealth of emotions at different times, and weighed down by a burden of love and anxiety which is hard at times to put into words.

And I can’t change any of them.

So what does it mean then, to take ‘the road well travelled’? Most of us have heard of the phrase ‘the road less travelled’ but it seems to me that lots of people are on this well-travelled road of pain, suffering and uncertainty.  We’re all of us familiar with the stress, anxiety and even powerlessness that comes in certain seasons of our lives.

And yet, despite all the people on this road, having these periods of struggle in your life often seems to be a very isolating experience – we don’t talk about it, we share our pain with only a few people and we hide away our vulnerability from others saying “Oh it’s ok.” “We’ll get by.” “It’s been worse!” or the classic “I shouldn’t complain!”

Shouldn’t you?

Why not then?

Who said that how you’re feeling isn’t worth complaining about, or sharing with others? Who declared that suffering is somehow a gradable thing, and that some types of suffering are more worthy than others? By keeping things in, our feelings can intensify. They can become concentrated and begin to manifest themselves through our moods, behaviour and even as physical symptoms such as headaches, muscle pain and indigestion. Sharing our pain and burdens is how we heal each other, and how we help to form a community. But I’m digressing a bit…

The thing that struck me about all this is not whether or not I can change anything (which I can’t) but actually the importance and value of being on the journey with someone. Mostly I’m cheering from the sidelines – praying, texting, popping in to visit sometimes and listening – giving time to listen and care about what’s being said. Offering my time, my empathy and at times even my tears, for the situations we find ourselves in.

My trainers are tatty and old. Worn and marked by the journeys I’ve taken in them over many years. But I think that’s good thing. Those marks and scuffs are the signs of the journey I’ve made and am making. The holes and tears in the seams are the marks of the things I’ve gone through: the grief, loneliness and burning frustration that I’ve felt at different times in my life.

And in some ways, those scruffy old trainers might be more valuable, more useful, more flexible and responsive to the unexpected puddles and grit of life, than a pair of shiny new ones? With shiny new trainers, we might be wary of getting involved; worried about splashes of mud, or sharp stones. But scruffy trainers have seen it all and they don’t mind a bit! They’re not bothered by grass stains or mud splatters or anything else for that matter. They’ve done a few rounds in the washing machine and they’ll no doubt do it all again.

Because you see, we need each other.

We need community, relationship, friendship and honesty – to hold us up, and root us to the ground. To lift our heads, but also to offer a place to hide.

We need each other – not in our perfection, but in our weakness.

We need each other in  our battered, worn through, holeyness, rather than our shiny, new, untouchable ‘successful and got it sorted’ apparel.

We need each other.

I hope that you may learn to value your battered, worn out holeyness as something worth sharing with others. I hope that you slowly gain the courage to be vulnerable enough to share the truth of your journey with others. And I hope that you and I might find some joy in amidst the difficulties, on this well-travelled road.

The face of Janus: thoughts from the other side of 2016

illustration by Sharon Court

Towards the end of December I noticed a common theme to the tone and content of my friends Facebook comments. They read basically: “Good Riddance 2016 – you were all kinds of awful and I’m glad to see the back of you!”

To be fair, I can kind of understand their point of view: we saw the deaths of a number of well-known and well-liked celebrities (perhaps no more than previous years but the loss of these individuals seemed to resonate with a lot of people my age). And let’s not forget the shambles of the EU Referendum or the US election… But in addition to that, I know of personal tragedies that people faced: the onset of cancer, the sudden death of a close family member, heartbreak, loss and disappointment. Perhaps 2016 does have a lot to answer for?

I was taking my dog for a walk one day, amongst the mulch of dead leaves and the shadowy silent figures of sleeping trees, and I thought about how much people wanted to reject the year – to push it away and maybe even pretend it had never happened, and I wondered whether we could actually do that? Turn our backs on it completely and simply refuse to accept the pain, disappointment and grief.

I looked at the landscape around me and it occurred to me that nature doesn’t do that. It doesn’t turn its back on the year just gone, but in fact it draws from it intentionally.

During the autumn we see the spectacular effects of nature preparing itself for winter: deciduous trees draw back into themselves any unused chlorophyll and any remaining sugars show in the amount of red in the leaves – the more red there is, the more sugar is present. Yellow or golden leaves have much less sugar.

That chlorophyll becomes the storehouse for the following year, allowing new buds and leaves to be grown, drawn from the growth of the previous season. Nature doesn’t turn its back on the old year when the new one comes; it doesn’t disdain or despair. Rather it keeps the good and uses it for renewal.

Now this is where my analogy starts to get a bit wobbly, because of course if the soil quality is poor, or the local water supply is tainted, the trees might also draw in bad things as well as good. Trees, you see, can’t make choices about their water supply or soil quality.

But we can.

We can choose to keep what is good, wholesome, healthy and encouraging and we can choose to let go of the pain, loss and disappointment. Certainly we will be impacted and changed by it – the rings inside a tree bear testament to the rainfall of previous years – but even loss and bereavement can bring strength and hope after a time.

2016 may have had its challenges, but there were good things too: the long-awaited pregnancy, the chance to go to university, the security of a permanent job, the reassurance brought by making new friends at a new school. These are the chlorophyll moments of 2016: the life-affirming experiences which bring joy, hope and peace.

So will we take our lessons from social media, or from nature, whose quiet presence offers a consistent reminder of the opportunties and choices before us?

The choice is up to us.




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