Doing their bit

The fascinating thing with this current situation, this covid 19 lockdown, has been peopled reactions. Yes there have been some who have not taken it seriously, not followed the guidelines, but the vast majority have pulled together and asked the question “how can I help?”

Last week I made a mercifully brief appearance on Radio Solent to talk about the District initiative to provide mask extenders to the NHS. In three weeks our Circuit alone has created over 600 mask extenders. It’s an incredible effort by a dedicated core of knitters and crocheters. After the radio appearance I had several phone calls offering buttons and one was a perfect example of that “how can I help?” attitude.

A woman in her late 70s called me. She explained that she was in disabled and having to self isolate and was feeling disappointed that she wasn’t able “to do her bit”. When she heard we needed buttons she went through her inherited button tin and found 100 buttons of the right size. She said to me that she was really pleased to have been able to provide buttons because now she felt she had done her bit, even though it was quite small.

Her part isn’t small. 50 NHS workers will be able to work in comfort thanks to her and those 50 will make a difference in hundreds, possibly thousands of lives over the coming weeks and months.

Everything we do to help makes a difference and it all has a wider effect than we imagine. Jesus took seven loaves and two fish and feed thousands, in a less miraculous manner our smallest gesture of 100 buttons ripples out and touches thousands.

A big thank you to the ladies of the district who have been busy making mask extenders, and the knitters of St Peter’s in Bishops Waltham who have joined our effort. Your work is much appreciated.

Matthew 5:16. Let your light shine before others, so they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.

What I do when I’m not doing this.

It can be very hard to know your own identity. We are all made up from the results of so many experiences and we often show only a part of who we are depending on who we are with. When with other parents I’m a parent. I have a work face and a church face and on and on. At the core of all these facets of our personalities is some stronger, more basic, more primal. Peacemaker. Nurture. Protector. Joy bringer.

For me that primal core is artist. Being an artist affects every part of my life. Art affects how I look at the world. Everything is one of a kind. Even baked bean cans have differences if you look. And if everything is one of a kind it affects how you treat it. When I draw I’m trying to capture something of the essence of my subject. I like things I draw to be recognisable. A sparrow needs to look like a sparrow but it has to look like the sparrow I “see”. The biggest lesson with art is that there is no wrong as long as you’re being honest.

It took a long time for me to feel comfortable calling myself an artist because I had silly ideas about what an artist was. But that’s what what I am, I make art, I’m an artist.

Hobby horses

The Cambridge English Dictionary defines a hobby horse as “a subject that someone often talks about, usually for a long time.” If you talk to anyone who writes, whether it’s blogs like this, poetry or a national newspaper column you will find they have favourite subjects, hobby horses, they return to again and again. It is often something close to their hearts, something that connects with their beliefs and morals.

Two favourite writers of mine were the late Keith Waterhouse and the wonderful John Pilger who both wrote for the Daily Mirror in its heyday. Waterhouse was a great satirist who delighted in skewering petty bureaucracy. One of his most memorable columns was about the three wise social workers who wanted to take the baby Jesus into care because of conditions in the stable. Pilger was an investigative journalist who took no prisoners in his writing as he took on subjects like the heroine trade and child poverty. He was never afraid to name names and point his finger.

Poets to have subjects they return to many times. Benjamin Zephaniah often focuses on themes of racism and national identity. Dylan Thomas followed themes of nostalgia and dealt with lost innocence in his poetry.

Not the kind of hobby horse I’m talking labour

I have my own hobby horses, and while I’m nowhere near the writer that these writers were I have themes and subjects I return to time and again. Community is important to me, mental health is important to me, storytelling is important to me. These are things I will often come back to. My faith is central to who I am and it is in every thing I do.

I am currently on a journey back from a bad bout of depression and it is something that will inform a lot of the posts coming up. I don’t know who reads these posts. I might just be shouting into the void. But I will continue to write about the things that are dear to me and I’m they impact one person then it will have been worth it.

Where is God in all this?

We are so many weeks into lockdown now that I, like many other people, am having trouble keeping track of what day it is. I worked through my regular day off , convinced it was Tuesday rather than Wednesday. Things are starting to blur into one without things to clearly differentiate between the days.

But in this blurring of days, what is God doing? Well if you watch the news or visit social media sites you could be forgiven for thinking God is busy raining a plague down on us. There is much being reported of Christian’s proclaiming this current situation is God’s judgement on us for a whole variety of things. And of Christian’s in the USA protesting against lockdown and demanding the right to gather as a church despite the obvious risks. They are convincing themselves its all a conspiracy to deprive them of their right to come together. God is getting a fair amount of bad press at the moment.

So where is God really? As ever I think God is busy working through the hearts and hands of others. At the hospital trust where my wife works, the hospital chaplains are a very visible part of a team working to provide emotional and spiritual support to frontline staff. I read yesterday that a group of 18 brothers from a monastic order have intentionally put themselves at risk by going into quarantine so they can provide support and church services and sacraments for Covid positive patients. Several churches have set up websites and Facebook pages for their local communities to request prayer. There are churches making food bank deliveries to those in need. There are frontline staff meeting in small prayer groups to support each other. There is so much going on where God is in the midst of it.

There is a whole line of Christian thought that says that the whole of the Bible and the last 2000 years of church history are about God trying to get back to the relationship where he worked with us and walked with us in friendship and companionship in the Garden of Eden. If that’s right then Hes a step closer to achieving that with many today.

Blessings

Liminal space – the day between

The upper room.

Today is Holy Saturday in the Christian Calendar. It is the day between the crucifixion and the resurrection of Jesus. It’s what is called a liminal space. It stands on the threshold of something new and something old.


It is a day about fear and loss and mourning for what was and what could have been. The 11 apostles are all in hiding together, fearful of being caught and executed, heartbroken at the loss of their friend and teacher and mourning for their expectations of him as the Messiah. Despite what Jesus told them, I imagine that they all still held to their cultural expectations of the Messiah freeing Jerusalem from Roman rule.


We find ourselves in a similar position today, afraid of this pandemic, many of us afraid also for our loved ones, mourning the loss of so many people and the lost potential of those futures, what could have been. We live in the possibility of our own death or the deaths of those around us and this pandemic ending, a vaccine being found, seems impossible to believe.
Like the apostles we are huddled together waiting for the hammer to fall, unaware that a new day is coming, that hope exists.


When Jesus was crucified the women were last to leave. The women followed as his body was taken away and watched as the stone was rolled across the entrance to the tomb. The women too were the first to see the empty tomb and the first to meet the risen Christ.
When this pandemic passes, as it surely will, the women will be the first to see. It is still predominantly women working in the caring professions, nurses, carers, home helps, and they will be the first to see the change.
Sunday always follows after Saturday, the sun always rises after it sets. Good News is coming. On Sunday Jesus rose from the dead and met with his disciples. Sunday will come for us two and we will be able to properly mourn our losses, hold close the loved ones we’ve been separated from and feel hope again.
After the resurrection the followers of Jesus grew as a community, they shared the hope and joy they found in Jesus’s return.


This pandemic has taught us many lessons but, I think, first and foremost has been the fact that we are stronger together. That community and looking out for each other is not a weakness but a strength. My prayer is that we will hold on to these lessons when we finally return to normalcy. That the age of “me first” will have passed. That we will stand in mourning with those who have lost loved ones and we will remember to value all those who got us through this, shop workers, delivery people, doctors, nurses, carers, the bedrock of our society

Loss, Easter and the Quixotic

There is no formula for dealing with loss. It’s a labyrinth we all find our own way through at our own pace. As with most things though we can benefit from hearing each other’s stories.
11 years ago tomorrow (10th April) my dad passed away. He was blessed with a long, full and eventful life but we all felt his loss sharply. I was stunned at his funeral to learn how many lives he had touched and the number of people who saw him as a surrogate father.


My father served in the Royal Navy during World War 2, something he rarely talked about except to share humorous events. I don’t want to focus on that though.


My father was a reader. He had little in the way of a school education but he read everything he could get his hands on and he retained an awful lot of it. He was a practical man, good with his hands, and could build just about anything he put his mind to. His father had been a professional cabinet maker, a craftsman, and I think he guarded that area of his life very closely. For whatever reasons my father thought he couldn’t match his own father’s standards and never reached the heights he was capable of in working with wood.


I received many things from my father but three things above all, socialist beliefs, a love of reading and a love of art but I want to focus on reading


My father taught me to read before I started school, a fact that greatly annoyed some of my teachers. I consider myself fortunate though because it was the 1960s and 70s and there was a lot of experimentation in teaching and I’m not sure I would have been as excited by books if he hadn’t. He introduced me to not only Dickens, Stevenson, Twain and Cervantes but also to John Pilger, Keith Waterhouse, P G Wodehouse, John Wyndham, Jules Verne and H G Wells. Oh and Dan Dare. As I got older it became a two way street. I introduced him to Tolkein, R E Howard, Bill Bryson and a host of others.


After my father passed I would often see a book and think “Oh, dad would love this” and in that moment forget he was gone only for the fact to come crashing back. It was like being intermittently hit in the ribs with a hammer. I didn’t talk about it much, I’m not sure I ever cried, but I felt the loss in so many ways. After 3 or 4 years i would find myself thinking, “Dad would have loved this, I’ll read it for him”. The memory was still there but the pain was changing. I can only explain it as moving from the thought of what I’d lost to the memory of what we shared. Grief changes over time, if you let it.
The biggest problem with grief is the guilt that gets knotted into it. All those guilty thoughts of “I should have visited more”, ”I wish I hadn’t said…”, “I wish I had said…”, ”I’m sorry I didn’t get to say..” and a myriad other regrets. These are things we can’t change and we have to let go. We have to learn to be kind to ourselves at these times. If my father had lived to be 120 there would still have been things I would have regretted, still gave been things I could beat myself up about.
In these times the possibility of loss is greater for all of us and the possibility for survivors guilt if we do lose someone is enormous. We cannot be with loved ones who are unwell or in hospital, we are separated from vulnerable relatives, if we do lose someone we may not be able to attend their funeral. These are real possibilities but we cannot change the current situation or the choices we made in our lives. Nor should we allow guilt and regret run our lives. Our lost loved ones would not have wanted that.


Tomorrow I will say a prayer for my dad. I’ll read some of R.L. Stevenson’s “travels with a donkey”, the last book he recommended to me, phone my mum, maybe share a funny story about him and I’ll draw something.


Rather than thinking the world is darker for his passing I’ll focus on the world being brighter for him having been in it.

Staying sane isolated with family

When you’re living constantly in close quarters even the sound of someone buttering their toast can drive you insane. This Covid 19 isolation is a trial most of us have not ever faced before. If you are with family you’ve probably never spent this amount of time confined with them before. It reminds me of being on holiday as a child in a static caravan in the wilds of Devon on those rainy days when you were stuck inside. Three kids and two adults in a tiny caravan with no way to escape and nothing much to do, I don’t want to think how close we came to killing each other. I’m experiencing that feeling now with my own family but with slightly more space over a more prolonged period of time. Escape from each other is hard.

It’s no better if you live alone. Then the danger is it becomes like those evenings when you’re in on your own with no contact with anyone, alone with your own thoughts constantly.

Introvert or extrovert, we al need time alone and time with others in varying proportions and we are all being deprived of it at the moment. None of us, introvert or extrovert are getting what we need in terms of social interaction.

So what do we do? How do we get what we need to stay sane? Looking around there seems to be a boom in use of web meeting software like Zoom (other software is available), Facebook Live, Messenger and Whatsapp to enable people to stay in touch. I’m currently writing letters to people to share the story of how our family are coping and to ask after them. Digital and non-digital communication are now essential for staying in touch and maintaining a sense of community.

Rather wonderfully people seem to be connecting more in a lot of ways. My church has a Messenger group and a closed Facebook page and people are engaging more broadly then usual. We’re getting to know each other better. Southampton has a number of help groups that have sprung up offering to collect groceries or prescriptions for the house bound. There is a sense of wider communities pulling together. Waltham Chase Methodist Church have set up a Prayers for our community page which they’ve advertised through other local groups. People like to believe there’s a greater power out there looking out for them in times like this, even if they’re not sure what it is and the opportunity to ask someone who appears to have the answer to offer up prayers for them is something many may appreciate. Hopefully other churches are or will do something similar.

So there’s lots to connect with to keep us sane, all I’ve got to do is not throttle the kids.

Until next time

Blessings

Pete

Pen pals?

When I was young the in thing was to have a pen pal. For those of you to young to remember the days before instant communication via text and email this may sound strange but pen pals were, usually, young people who wrote letters to each other and sent them through the Post Office. Depending how you came by your pen pal your letter could be winging it’s way to some far flung country like Belgium or Taiwan. The greatest excitement came when you received a letter back from your pen pal. It would have exotic stamps on it, probably a “Par Avion” sticker and inside would be a snippet of another world.

There is an intimacy to receiving a hand written letter that is usually lacking in an email or social media post. Generally far less thought goes into an email, it’s construction and the story shared in it because if you miss something you can just send another one so fast it won’t matter. with a letter, or even a postcard you have to think about what you write, the story you are telling, the information you are sharing because you can’t just send a quick amendment when you realise. I’m in the middle of a messaging conversation with family and someone’s auto-correct has changed last to lady. Once it was spotted we joked and moved on but that doesn’t happen in a letter. A good letter is like a good short story. it draws you in and engages you. It should be a snippet of a life that isn’t yours but should be a little interactive so the other person can write back.

Blessings

All this pre-amble is leading somewhere. Everyone reading this will know someone who isn’t tech savvy. Someone who can’t text or accidently deletes emails before sending or perhaps even doesn’t have or use the internet. Someone who is isolated and struggling with this long period of isolation we are all facing. I want to encourage you to take time to sit down and write that person a letter. Tell them about your day, about how you are coping at this time, perhaps ask some questions and encourage them to write back. Write to family or friends, here or abroad, write to your neighbour three doors down who has no family locally, write to someone you know from church or from work that you aren’t seeing face to face at the moment. If you can’t think of anyone to write to, write to me or pick someone at random from your Facebook friends. But write a letter and share a moment of closeness with another vulnerable human being.

ps. Talking about this on a phone call earlier it was pointed out to me that physical letters may offer the best insight into this time for future historians. At the rate of technological growth we are currently experiencing everything we put on the internet, blog posts, social media, emails, may no longer be possible to read or view in a hundred years time. So writing a letter could well be a great help to future historians.

A Strange Time

The streets are all but empty. In Bitterne Precinct near where I live there are four people waiting to be let in to Sainsbury’s and a security guard controlling the queue. I’ve seen three cars on the road and one hardened runner jogging red-faced along the path. It looks like a scene from one of those post apocalypse movies that turn up every now and then.

If you’re an extrovert this is probably going to be the toughest thing you’ve ever done. Self-isolating, even with family, has got to be a massive mental health issue for people who get their energy from social interaction. Introverts have a potential similar problem. If you are isolated in the house with your family you have very little personal quiet time. You could, literally, have people in your face 24/7. It’s tough all round as we wait to see what happens next.

So how are we keeping in touch with family and friends? Well phone calls are increasing as people check in with elderly friends and relatives. Social media is coming into it’s own too. The opportunity for Facebook parties and the like are filling a social need now. Web conferencing software like Zoom is also becoming a great way for people to keep in touch. My home church has been using it for prayer meetings and it’s fun seeing all those little faces on boxes on your screen, like a home version of Celebrity Squares, and guessing who isn’t used to being on line like this.

There are a lot of options for staying in touch but I’m thinking I might go old school. Once or twice a week I might get out a pen and handwrite a letter to someone I know somewhere. Just to mix things up a little.

Stay safe

The Black Dog. (Not the pub)

So, I’m just coming back after losing 3 months of my life to a black cloud of depression. It’s an illness but unlike having a broken leg or something similar it’s invisible. No one can see your depression and it doesn’t always have an obvious cause. It’s a chemical imbalance in the brain I think, which means your behaviour and responses are somewhat outside  your control by the time you realise you are in a depression.

It’s important to talk about mental health because only by hearing about it, hearing the stories of people with mental health problems, can we hope to understand it. 

So this is my story.. I fell off the planet into a ragged, black cloud at the end of November and I’m still looking to find my way out now. My brain shut down and fear and anxiety ruled all my decisions, even the most basic like brushing my teeth, so I did nothing except take that slow slide into stygian depths. I could see no way out. At this point things have improved to the point where I can see a pin prick of light in the far distance and I’m wading through molasses to get there. Much of the time I wear my fake happy face when I have no choice but to be face to face with any representative of humanity. One small problem though and I go crashing back. I can cope when everything is going as I think it should but when it isn’t, my thoughts are a pack of black hounds chasing me down and I cannot run fast enough to avoid or escape them. Forgive me if I get a bit wordy but it’s hard to describe depression and how it feels unless you’ve been there. 

Anyway, a major bout of depression and anxiety hit me. I’d say it came from nowhere but in hindsight all the warning signs were there. If you’ve ever done those tests they give you at the doctors for depression and anxiety, my scores fell the tiniest bit short of being defined as a nervous breakdown. I was shaking and sweating and unable to form a coherent sentence. Getting out of bed was a major achievement and answering the phone or the door, walking to the moon would have been easier. Karen, my wife, made a doctor’s appointment  for me as I lay hiding under the duvet.

I saw and spoke to the doctor and that was a major trauma. The shaking was chronic, in my left hand particularly, to the point where I had to ask the doctor to fold the prescription she gave me so I could put it in my pocket. When I got home my chest was pounding, I couldn’t speak and my shaking was so bad it was like I was having a fit. I sat in the dark in the living room and got lost in my head. I sat  there revisiting recent conversations and arguments and occurrences and rewrote them in my head over and over again. That night I barely slept, maybe three hours of broken dozing until my alarm went off for the school run and I couldn’t move. I couldn’t face leaving the house or talking to people so I managed to tell Karen and then lay and stared at the ceiling, my brain still running at 90mph. Every conversation I’d  had was rerun in a hundred different ways.

I managed to get out of bed the next day but again Karen had to do the school runs. I was useless and spaced out. I couldn’t stop shaking enough to draw, one of the things that usually makes me feel better. I couldn’t concentrate to read, another favourite pastime. I ended up sat in front of Netflix with some series rolling by episode after episode. I couldn’t tell you what it was or what happened, nothing stayed with me or went in. It was just lights dancing before my eyes. That was most of December and January. Just a blur. I know I was present for Christmas but there is little I could tell you about it.

The medication the doctor prescribed was increased in that time until I reached a dose that made a difference. One of the tablets had a side effect of helping me sleep so by the end of January I was managing up to 6 hours of solid sleep a night. Function slowly returned. I did school runs, usually sliding in at the last minute to avoid having to talk to anyone at the school gate. I started making family  meals and forced myself out to go shopping. It’s very easy to become a shut in and build up the depression and anxiety even more if you continually avoid basic functions. I used the self service in the supermarket to avoid conversations as much as possible. I ate too much, comfort eating I guess, and put on weight I really didn’t need. My sleep was still poor but I was constantly drowsy during the day and would often fall asleep if I sat down.Having to deal with people would still leave me shaky and sweating with butterflies in my stomach but I was at least able to do it. Through the doctor I signed up to a CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) group course. Being in a group is hard and uncomfortable, I don’t do well in that environment when I’m at my best, but it means I’m getting some useful help. 

By the end of February I was in a position to start thinking about a gradual return to work and that’s where I am now.

If you see me and ask how I am I’ll tell you “I’m good” and I’ll probably be lying because most people don’t want to hear the truth. Maybe it reminds them of their own frailties.

Well that’s my story. Depression and anxiety aren’t a cause for shame or embarrassment, although that is often how we react. It’s an illness that can be managed. Most of the time. It really is okay not to feel okay.