Friday, 19 February 2021

A close-up encounter with Wintering

I wrote a blog post a few weeks ago. It was raw. Too raw. An attempt to tell a story in public that I realised, very quickly but not quite quickly enough, I was not ready to share. A story of my daughter's sledging accident and its aftermath for us as a family, and for me in particular. A reflection on trauma, and an attempt to link it with the wider, collective trauma that we're all living through right now, the experience of the COVID19 pandemic, however different our experiences of it are, depending on who we are and where we live.

This is not quite a second attempt. I'm not going to share any details of the accident or its after effects. Not here. What I realised, very quickly, was that sharing trauma in public inevitably resonates with - and surfaces - the trauma of others, and that the responsible, caring human being in me then wants/needs to respond to that. And that I didn't - and still don't - have the capacity to do that carefully enough.

Instead, I'm going to share, in a very piecemeal way, what I've been learning through these last few weeks since 30th December. It is not likely to be articulate. It almost certainly won't be coherent. It may not even make sense. But that, in itself, is one of the things I'm learning to live with, and embrace.

I'm learning, then, that in the midst of desperate crisis, part of my brain goes into overdrive planning - down to small details - any number of possible futures, including the very worst case scenarios. And that even when, later on, some of the scenarios are decisively ruled out (by skilled, experienced medical professionals, in our case), they take much longer to ease their grip on my mind, heart, imagination, soul. That there is, strangely, a journey of grief to be gone through - even for a death that has not, thank God, happened, but has still, in some sense, been lived.

I'm learning, that when confronted with the real possibility of death and loss, there is a shift of perspective that means that some things - bodily damage, maybe even irreparable damage - feel much less tragic than they would have done 'before'. 'It could have been worse' has real, weighty meaning to it.

I'm learning that comparison is fruitless, futile and unhealthy. So often in the past, as the pastoral carer, I have gently sought to steer others away from phrases like 'but of course there are so many people worse off than me'. It's meant well, part of putting things in perspective (as I've just owned for myself), but it also seeks to minimise what is genuine pain, struggle and challenges. It's often accompanied by 'I shouldn't grumble'. And yes, grumbling is not necessarily helpful to anyone. But articulating pain, sadness, grief or anxiety - without minimising any of it - is profoundly necessary. What you're going through does matter. What I'm going through matters. I need not apologise for it. And I really don't need to try and fit it on a scale, comparing it against other people's experiences and struggles, to assess whether it is 'more serious' or 'less serious' than theirs. It is what it is, and what it is, is hard, if not impossible, to quantify. Even the attempt to quantify is to deny something of the complexity, and the elusive mystery, of the experience of trauma, pain, and grief.

I'm learning that it is exhausting. And that it lasts. That there are adrenaline-fuelled times of busyness where 'this thing' is front and centre of our attention, and in the attention and care of others. And that there is plenty of less-eventful time, ongoing, where it slips a little to my periphery, and lurks there. And that less-eventful time is no less demanding. And that the 'lurking' means that it can jump into centre-stage again in a moment - the unexpected 'triggers' that throw you back into the body-and-mind-churning intensity of the event itself.

I'm learning that there are times when I want to talk about it, need to talk about it, even if that, too, is exhausting. Often, in those first few weeks, in the middle of the night when no one was up or around. But also in the middle of a busy working day, when something quite different is the focus of attention or conversation. And that it is sometimes hard to know who I am or how I am without this thing as the central, shaping reality.

I'm learning that the question, 'how are you?' can often be too big to answer meaningfully, and that to answer it at all, it is often helpfully reduced to something like 'how are you doing today compared to yesterday, or right now compared to earlier today? are you on an up, a down, or a plateau with energy levels or emotional work?'

I'm learning that saying 'I love you' to my kids, to my wife, has taken on a whole new depth of significance when that 'I love you' also means 'I don't want you to die', 'I'm so glad you're still alive', 'I'm so thankful we've shared this together - and that we're continuing to share it together'.

I'm learning that love also comes in the form of boxes of chocolate, Christmas cake in the post, and meals - particularly meals - delivered to the doorstep. That these are not 'token gestures' but real, tangible acts of love that are received as love and as, quite literally, the things that keep us alive.

I'm learning that the prayers of others feels as tangible, and as life-sustaining, as chocolate, cake and meals. That for the pray-er it may feel like a barely-noticeable drop in the ocean, but that for the prayed-for it literally feels like what is holding us together, up-holding us, keeping us going. And that personal texts, WhatsApp messages, Facebook comments and Twitter responses, however brief, from both intimate friends and near-total strangers, genuinely do make that difference.

I'm learning that the community of faith, and the community of neighbourhood, come into their own at times like these in ways that I've known, in my head and my heart, for years and years, but have never quite felt with such intensity as in the last few weeks. That these communities are genuinely full to overflowing with love, and care, and gifts that are poised to be shared, and when shared bring life. It truly does 'take a village'.

I'm learning that collaborative ministry faces its acid test in times like these, and that when it's there it is priceless. Colleagues - ordained and lay, named roles and not - who can see what needs doing, and get on and work together to do it. Who can move the pieces of the jigsaw around, changing the picture a little, but making it no less beautiful while this particular piece of the jigsaw is absent for a while. Who can liberate me from the burden of worrying about stuff that doesn't need worrying about - because someone else is taking care of it. Liberating me from the illusion of being a necessity, when in fact I am but one contribution among many.

I'm learning that the ministry of presence, of simply hanging around, being there, 'being with', for hours on end, is just incredible. The ministry of the chaplain, who also happens to be a friend. Who was there when what one or more of us needed most, alongside the immense medical expertise of the Children's Hospital, was someone to be with us. Most sharply, during COVID, when as family we were not able to be with each other. But even COVID aside. Someone who has seen it before, who understands something of what is going on, but isn't there to 'do' anything, to 'fix' anything, but just to share generously in the currency of time, smiles, laughter, games, listening, encouragement, affirmation, tears, and silence. In the times when we were feared the worst. In the times when we were bored, or hungry. In the times when we had to let go and wait. In the times when the news was good and hopeful. In the times in between where we're just getting on with life.

I'm learning that my ability to write any new theological words has been profoundly restricted, slowed down, put on hold, while 'this thing' slowly works its way into everything I thought, and wrote, and believed, and practised before now. And that I need to be patient with that, to let it take as long as it takes and not to rush it. That it stubbornly refuses to be rushed.

And I'm learning that what we've been going through, what we're continuing to go through, is, in author Katherine May's words, an experience of 'wintering' - unchosen, and yet needing to be embraced.

So I'm going to finish, for now, with some fragments of Katherine May's stunning book ('Wintering'), and a poem or two which resonate deeply both with her words and with our ongoing experience...

'Life is, by nature, uncontrollable. …we should stop trying to finalise our comfort and security somehow and instead find a radical acceptance of the endless, unpredictable change that is the very essence of this life.' (p.263)

'Sometimes, the best response to our howls of anguish is the honest one: we need friends who wince along with our pain, who tolerate our gloom, and who allow us to be weak for a while when we’re finding our feet again. We need people who acknowledge that we can’t always hang on in there; that sometimes everything breaks.' (pp.267-8)

'I recognised winter. I saw it coming (a mile off, since you ask), and I looked it in the eye. I greeted it, and let it in. I had some tricks up my sleeve, you see. I’ve learned them the hard way. When I started feeling the drag of winter, I began to treat myself like a favoured child: with kindness and love. I assumed my needs were reasonable, and that my feelings were signals of something important. I kept myself well fed, and made sure I was getting enough sleep. I took myself for walks in the fresh air, and spent time doing things that soothed me. I asked myself: what is this winter all about? I asked myself: what change is coming?' (p.269)

'At its base, this is not a book about beauty, but about reality. It is about noticing what is going on, and living it. That’s what the natural world does; it carries on surviving. Sometimes it flourishes – lays on fat, garlands itself in leaves, makes abundant honey – and sometimes it pares back to the very basics of existence in order to keep living. It doesn’t do this once, resentfully, assuming that one day it will get things right and everything will smooth out. It winters in cycles, again and again, forever and ever. For plants and animals winter is part of the job. The same is true for humans. To get better at wintering, we need to address our very notion of time. We tend to imagine that our lives are linear, but they are in fact cyclical. … we pass through phases of good health and ill, of optimism and deep doubt, of freedom and constraint. There are times when everything seems easy, and times when it all seems impossibly hard. … Each time we endure the cycle, we ratchet up a notch. We learn from the last time around, and we do a few things better this time… But one thing is certain; we will simply have different things to worry about.' (p.269-70)

'we must emerge slowly from our wintering. We must test the air and be ready to shrink back into safety when blasted by unseasonal winds; we must gradually unfurl our new leaves. There will still often be the debris to shift of a long, disordered / season. These are the moments when we have to find the most grace: when we come to atone for the worst ravages of our conduct in darker times; when we have to tell truths that we’d rather ignore. Sometimes, we will have to name our personal winters, and the words will feel barbed in our throats: grief, rejection, depression, illness. Shame, failure, despair. ... And besides, we have a kind of gospel to tell now, and a duty to share it. We who have wintered have learned some things. We sing it out like birds. We let our voices fill the air.' (pp.272-3)

Lines for Winter, by Mark Strand (in Neil Astley (ed.), Staying Human, p.68)

Tell yourself
as it gets cold and gray falls from the air
that you will go on
walking, hearing
the same tune no matter where
you find yourself -
inside the dome of dark
or under the cracking white
of the moon’s gaze in a valley of snow.
Tonight as it gets cold
tell yourself
what you know which is nothing
but the tune your bones play
as you keep going. And you will be able
for once to lie down under the small fire
of winter stars.
And if it happens that you cannot
go on or turn back
and you find yourself
where you will be at the end,
tell yourself
in that final flowing of cold through your limbs
that you love what you are.

‘Winter’, by Nicola Slee (in Nicola Slee, Praying Like a Woman)

Where the wood is dry
Where no green things lie
Where the wild things fly
There am I

Where the stream is still
Where the wind is shrill
Where the ice forms chill
There am I

Where the ground is hard
Where the earth is scarred
Where the path is barred
There am I

Where no leaf is seen
Where the year is lean
Where the grief is keen
There am I

Where the blood runs slow
Where no waters flow
Where the hope is low
There am I

Where the dark is strong
Where the night is long
Through the winter’s song
There am I


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