Another postcard from the land of grief

I used to think it was an affectation when people kept on using an aeroplane boarding pass stub as a bookmark long after their flight was over. It seemed to be a subtle reminder to everybody else that they were the kind of people who did this so often that they could be nonchalant about it. Maybe there was another, even more subtle message here too. Maybe it was a reminder that they could go just as easily as they had come. Another ticket, another plane, and maybe another book – and they could step right back onto the tarmac where they had begun.

I am holding rather stubbornly to my ‘ticket stub’ just now. Very soon it will be time to return to work. I shall swap the mental garb of mourning for the working clothes of normality and recover some of the rhythms of life I knew before. Patterns of getting up, getting out, working and returning to the house will settle around me. I can’t quite let go of my ticket stub though – not yet. I need some reminder that I am a visitor here. This is not my place. My place is that other one, where the rhythms of my life were syncopated with another’s.

I suspect that one day the ticket stub will just fall out whilst I move busily from one task to another. Either that, or I shall swap one book for another and simply forget to transfer it over. One day, that will happen. Not today, though.



The treachery of absorption

Another postcard from the land of grief

When living away from home, and once you realise that the stay may be long term – things begin to change. You learn the language. You grow to love the food. You stop scanning the supermarket shelves for those things which you know you can’t get here anyway. In short, you learn to fit in.  To do so can be quite gratifying – a successful experiment in cultural adaptation. This is not where you meant to be, and it may not have been your choice to come here – but you are making the best of it.

And then, the moment of treachery comes. You are walking through your new-found neighbourhood, or talking in your new language with your new friends – when you stumble because you cannot remember the old ones. Perhaps you struggle for a word which was once so familiar on your lips and it just won’t come. You’re glad the people in that other country can’t see you now, because you would feel ashamed.

There are days now, in this land of grief – where I feel like I am starting to fit in. I recognise that single man in the mirror and do not flinch. I look at on old picture in a new space or sit in a new chair in an old room and it feels…normal. Then there are other moments where that new normal feels like a treachery to the old. It feels like the person who has studied their new language so hard that when a newspaper comes in their mother tongue they can no longer read it.  Absorption, which was such a laudable aim, feels like treachery in that moment.

At least one of the many cards I received on entering this new country quoted the phrase below. I was certainly surprised to see it on the side of a burger van in a safari park in the desert! It is, of course, true. However, I am learning that in this place I have to know not only who holds the future, but who holds the past.






Another postcard from the land of grief

As I sit and write this now, I am in a busy international airport. It is a bit like Narnia’s ‘wood between the worlds’ – except much less peaceful. Everywhere there are people looking out of place. Some have too many clothes because of where they are going. Others have too few because of where they have been. Some have their precious luggage cling-film wrapped and they watch it like hawks. Others have little more than a collection of carrier bags – or alternatively they leave a laptop dangling like a bauble from an unattended trolley.

Some look excited, some look anxious, but everybody looks like they don’t belong here – which in truth they don’t. That expression – that out-of-sorts, not-quite-belonging, could-we-get-this-over-and-get-somewhere expression is one which I have come to recognise in the mirror these past few weeks. It is the face of a single man – which I have not been for well over 30 years. It is the face of a widower, which surely describes someone other than me? It is the face of a man whose life seems to be as much about what has changed as it is about what remains, at least for now.

In this particular wood-between-the-worlds, with its connections to the wide world – there is just one thing in common amongst all the passengers of different races and backgrounds. They all want to get somewhere. With that, at least, I am familiar. I’m just not quite sure where it is…F826EE31-802F-413E-84EA-C3C0DFDC24EE

Home from home

Another postcard from the land of grief

I am discovering that, no matter how far you travel here – the things you left in that old country are not far away. As I write this, I am more than 3000 miles from home, enjoying the company of loved ones. The language, and even the alphabet, are different. The skyline is different. Much of the food is different, and the climate is definitely different.

The climate of the heart, though, travels with you. The sun may beat down outside whilst it rains inside, or a wild wind may snatch at the heart and imagination whilst all around the air outside is as still as can be. Sometimes I think the frost of this inner Winter is thawing now. Then I catch a glimpse of an old photo or touch a familiar object again and the thermometer plummets.

One day, maybe soon or maybe not, these two climates may equalise, like warming the air up in an aircraft before the pressurised cabin is opened up on a blistering runway. Until then, I shall ‘always take the weather with me’, to coin a phrase.


Out by one second

Another postcard from the land of grief

There comes a point when living in a foreign country where your description of how long you have been there changes. There comes a point where you stop referring to weeks, or even months – and say instead the year in which you moved there.

In one sense, the passing of a calendar year is an artificial construct – when the clocks tick over from 23:59 to 00.01 in a few hours’ time the difference is no more than a matter of minutes. In another sense – it is all the difference in the world. We humans have a need to divide up time in order to make sense of it. Hours, moments, months and years are the cataloguing system in our mental library and we cannot do without them.

From 00:01 tomorrow, it will be last year that I moved to this foreign country. From 00:01 it will be last year that I last held her hand, heard her voice or saw her smile. From 00:01 it will be last year that she died.  In truth, those things will be no further from me than they are right now – but they may well feel it.

Right now, my faith in a God who was yesterday, is today, and will be tomorrow matters more than ever.

‘Not wanted on voyage’

365 Days

Another postcard from the land of grief

If I am going to be living in this foreign land for some time, then I shall need a calendar. In fact, I already have two – one fat and one thin. The days and dates here are the same as anywhere. There are 365 of them, and they will roll from Spring, to Summer, to Autumn, to Winter, with no respect nor pause for sorrow.

Living in a foreign land, though, I am likely to find that the calendar  ‘milestones’ are different – a bit like those foreign bank holidays which commemorate some political figure of whom you have never heard.

Unmarked on any calendar which I can buy here are the anniversaries marked in the heart. They are the anniversaries of engagement, of holidays, of moving here or starting there …and even of diagnoses. I could mark these on any calendar in any colour – red, black or blue, but in truth they are marked indelibly on the heart.

More important, then, to mark some new things on the new calendars. I need to write there the things that are done in this foreign land. Where will I go? What dates will I circle with new memories for the calendars of 2019 and beyond? Right now, that particular pen is too heavy to pick up. The time will come, though, I am sure.  Back where I used to live, I learnt a song when I first embarked on the journey of faith ‘I know who holds the future, and he’ll guide me with his hand’. 

I might just hum it to myself as I fix the calendars up…


Silent night

Another postcard from the land of grief

They celebrate Christmas here too, it would seem – just as they did in the place where I used to live. To find old traditions here is reassuring. The sound of familiar carols is good –  like a snatch of your mother tongue heard on a foreign street. Old tastes and smells are here too – as if imported effortlessly across the border. When savoured, though – they turn out to be not quite as you thought. Sweet tastes turn bitter on the tongue here, and warming scents can chill the heart.  In the midst of celebrating the presence, an absence stands out all the more. Chirpy melodies sound shrill, as if played on a strange instrument for which they were not written.

And yet, here too I find the fragile baby – all but alone in a place where he scarcely belongs. He is loved, of course – even adored. He is cared for and nurtured – but he does not belong. This is a foreign place, to which he was propelled by love.

On this silent night, where no greeting can be exchanged, I am grateful for the presence of one who did not belong.


Single ticket

Another postcard from the land of grief

As I continue to live in this new land of grief, I am struck by the parallels with other times when I have stayed away from home. At first, you can be so taken with the novelty of what you see around you, that the country you have left behind seems shabby, or dull, or uninteresting by comparison. Stay a little longer, and some of the quirks of what you have left behind assume a kind of rosy glow, making you curious to sample them once again. Stay longer still, and the limitations of the new place may become rather more annoying than the ones you have left behind. In short, it is time to go back.

The comparison is not altogether fair, since the travels I describe above have always been ones I have chosen to undertake. Not so on this occasion. Furthermore, going back is not an option. I cannot go back to where I used to live – my ticket was one way. That is not to say that I am stuck here though. There is a path – but it lies ahead, rather than behind. I have not been here long enough to discern it yet- but I know that it is ‘over there’ in Another Place.

Yesterday I paid a visit to Anthony Gormley’s artwork of the same name – a place I had last visited with Fiona. The statues still stand there – stock still and staring out to sea. Sometimes they are hidden, sometimes they stand tall – but always they turn their steely gaze to another place.

I was especially struck by the figure below. The waves were lapping at his chest, and all but engulfing him. He is unmoved though – and he continues to look to Another Place. I am hoping that I can do the same…


CLICK for full size

Home comforts

Another postcard from the land of grief

I am finding in this foreign land of grief that occasionally I turn a corner and find a familiar thing, as if transplanted here.  It is somehow out of place, like a bright red postbox on a Latin American street, but an equally welcome sight. I stumbled across just such a thing yesterday.

I spent some hours in tearful prayer in the peaceful oasis of Douai Abbey in Woolhampton. With me I took a Bible and a brand new bound notebook.  However, when I opened the notebook, I found a familiar  verse printed at the bottom of the first  page.  It stood there, like a bright red pillar box on a foreign street – a reminder of a more familiar home. This verse had been there when I set out years ago to work with the Belgian Evangelical Mission. When I arrived in the Ardennes to lead a team for the mission, the team accommodation had been stripped bare of every item of furnishing except for ….this verse framed above the fireplace. When Fiona and I got married, the minister handed us a Bible at the altar as a gift. On the flyleaf he had written…this verse. On the morning I moved to my new church here in Newbury, the last thing I read before my Bible was packed was …this verse:

Be strong and courageous! For the Lord your God is with you wherever you go” Joshua 1 v.9

To read this was to remember that this foreign land is foreign only to me. I am no further out of reach here than I was in that other country.

Years ago, some friends of mine were stranded in the far North of Sweden and needing some help. I spoke to a friend in a global mission agency, who spoke to a friend in the Evangelical Alliance who spoke to a friend in the Swedish Evangelical Alliance, who spoke  to the pastor of the local church, who was dispatched to visit. Far away was near at hand, it seemed.

This land of grief is disorientating and unfamiliar in so many ways – but it is not out of reach. It has post-boxes too, which means that I can always send a card.



Border controls

Another postcard rom the land of grief

The further I go into this land of grief, the more I become aware of those things which were removed from me at the border without my knowledge or consent. Somehow at the border parts of my memories were confiscated. Never the whole of them – but there are patches missing, as if an over-zealous border guard has combed through them and left gaps. The patting down of my sense of perspective was a little ‘vigorous’ too – leaving it mis-shapen and needing to find its level again – which I have no doubt it will.

Every once in a while, though, I find some little gem here. I turn it over with glee, like finding contraband chocolate smuggled through under the very noses of the border guards. One such is a music box, which I found yesterday. It was presented to us on arrival in our first church, newly married. It depicts the two of us, with an unrecognisable amount of hair. With a little persuasion, the figure of me still rotates, slightly wonky, to the tune of ‘happy wanderer’.  What really made me smile, though, was that in order to take the photo, I had to prop the two of us up against one another.

Got that one past customs at the border, didn’t I?