The importance of rituals, candles and dogs

I was raised Catholic, as was my best friend Karan. I loved the rituals of a Catholic service, the ‘smells and bells’, and the sung Latin Mass. I knew the meaning of the words long before I learned Latin, translations from the English prayers that we chanted each Sunday and at primary school on a daily basis. The chanting meant that we didn’t appreciate the meaning of the prayers, and this was highlighted for me once, when I went to Mass in Ireland, and the service was garbled by the priest and congregation in double-quick time. It felt like everyone had done their duty, and could then get on with cooking the Sunday lunch or whatever.

In my teens, I started to skip church, choosing to spend an hour with my boyfriend instead. Until I was discovered passionately kissing my boyfriend goodbye at a bus stop. Caught by my father, he said nothing at the time, or at any other time. It was passed to my mother to deal with the embarrassing incident. ‘Snogging’ was the word she used, with a facial expression of disdain, so that I have associated the word with ‘a bad thing’ ever since. So back to church I went. When I reached 15 and had a different boyfriend, I was not allowed to see him on a Sunday unless I had gone to Mass and eaten a roast dinner at home first. Mass meant nothing to me by then, and hadn’t done for some years, and when I turned 16, I stopped going to church.

What I have held onto, though, is the ritual of lighting a candle, either in a church, a cathedral, or at home, and ‘praying’, in my own way, for friends and relatives who I feel need positive thoughts. I have other rituals, too, of my own making. Whether these help the person concerned or myself I don’t know. Perhaps they are something I perform for my own benefit. I do feel that rituals and ways of marking change are important.

My mother died two years ago. We had been estranged for many years, and I did not feel I wanted or needed to go to her funeral. To put it plainly, the thought of doing so filled me with great anxiety. I knew that I would only be going to put on a show, to please those who thought I should be there. Grief is hard for everyone, but it is a strange thing when you have been estranged. I discovered that there has been some research on ‘disenfranchised grief’, where it feels, or other people feel, that you have no right to be bereaved. This can happen when an ex-spouse dies, for example. I did feel  alone in my grief, and different from my siblings who had remained in touch with our very difficult mother, and indeed cared for her in her later years. I decided to hold my own wake for Mum. A few friends attended, I read something I had written about my mum, others read poems and sang songs. There was food and drink. Although none of these people knew my mum (except my husband, who had met her briefly), it was tremendously supportive, and I did feel that I had made my own ritual to mark Mum’s death. I also lit a candle while her funeral service was happening, when I was at home.

Karan, my best friend from my childhood years, died this week. It had been expected for the past 10 months, but is nevertheless a huge blow. During her treatment for a brain tumour, I sent her a Dog of the Week every Saturday. Karan loved dogs, and it was a way of keeping things light, but letting her know that I was thinking of her. The rules I made were that each dog must be able to fit in an envelope and must be posted on a Saturday morning. Each week I searched for dogs in card and gift shops, or made my own – I made an origami dog, found a wooden key ring at a craft fair, and a small felt dog in a gift shop on Brownsea Island. In the cards I sent each week, I would make up a name for the dog and a little story about them, and repeat the same text every week at the bottom of the card: ‘Dog of the Week is brought to you, dear Karan, to cheer you on and cheer you up during treatment, by your old mate, Cookie.’ Cookie was a childhood nickname, which only Karan and my two brothers still used. Now there are only two people in this world that call me Cookie.

I sent the last Dog of the Week on a Friday rather than Saturday. Karan died 6 days before her 61st birthday, and I had already made a card with a patchwork dog on the cover. I decided to send it to her family, with a note. I shall miss the ritual of finding, making and naming dogs, of going to the postbox each Saturday to send them. I have been lighting candles at home for Karan all week. Soon, that ritual will end, too.

Talking to strangers and travelling fearlessly

We are standing on the railway station in Sighișoara on a cold morning in April. It was 19 degrees the day before, as we wandered round the citadel, and now the temperature has dipped to 2 degrees. There is no indication of why the train is late, no announcement, nothing on the board. The train is coming from Vienna, so plenty of opportunities for delay, and our journey back to Bucharest will take five hours.

Bran Castle

Bran Castle

A small crowd of people cross the track to the warmth of the waiting room, either knowing something that we had been unable to discover about the delay, or being used to this sort of thing with Romanian trains. The six of us left on the platform decide to follow them. We are a party of three, and then there is an older couple from Belgium, plus a young man with a rucksack, travelling alone. ‘Shall we dance?’ I say, in an effort to keep warm. The Belgian woman laughs, and joins me in a few steps. Her husband has hair the colour of the glacial water in the mountain streams that we have seen from train windows on our journeys through Transylvania. The couple intended to go to the Black Sea, but with the turn in the weather, they are heading for Brașov. The young man is touring fortified churches, and hiking when the weather allows. He tells us of a place in Moldavia he has visited. ‘It’s like a living museum,’ he says. ‘The people live in wooden huts built in the 18th and 19th centuries. It’s really hard to get there by public transport.’ It transpires that the young man is also Belgian. He and the couple are from the same village, but have never met before.

A sudden chime from the speakers, like an Alpine tune played on handbells. Our train is arriving in three minutes. The locals have already gathered this, ahead of the announcement, and have crossed to Linia 2. This is a theme throughout the trip: foreigners are just supposed to know, in the way Romanians know – where to find a kiosk to buy bus tickets, when trains are late. There is little information for tourists.

This is me, travelling fearlessly, with my husband and my friend. A pledge I took in my sixtieth year, to do sixty things for the first time, with a running theme of going to places I hadn’t been to before. All my life I have been fearful of travelling. My parents had migrated from Ireland to England, and the only trips I knew, growing up, were the long journey by rail, sea, bus and taxi to County Clare each summer, and the occasional journey to the Sussex coast. I had my children young, then had little money, and it seemed the opportunity to travel had passed me by.

Romania was quite a challenge, but I was attracted by a non-touristy destination, and by the fact that my brother’s boyfriend is Romanian, the two of them having made a similar trip through Transylvania. I was able to get advice from them – on how to buy bus tickets and train tickets (no point getting an Interrail card, as trains are dirt cheap in Romania), on bringing food for long train journeys, as there is no buffet. I learned some Romanian through an app, Duolingo, which taught me many useful phrases, such as ‘You are men. You have children,’ and ‘The owl eats insects.’ My friend, armed with a Berlitz phrasebook, and I, armed with six weeks on Duolingo, managed to negotiate buying train tickets and ordering food in Romanian, and even my reluctant husband ordered a taxi and learned how to say ‘Multumesc’ (‘Thank you’).

The memories I hold of that trip are not only of visits to castles, the beautiful scenery, of storks in flight and nesting alongside railway lines, but of the conversations with strangers. On a train journey, Teodora, a medical student on her way to university in Cluj Napoca, told us of her parents’ experiences, living in the time of communism, when they had to get up at 4.00 a.m. to queue for one loaf of bread for the week for the family. She explains why the younger people speak good English, but the older ones were only taught Romanian and Russian in the time of Ceaușescu, which explains why we have trouble conversing with older taxi drivers and people on buses. Nonetheless, the older Romanians we encounter are willing to show us how to stamp our bus tickets, and to reassure us that we are travelling in the right direction. There is friendliness and good-naturedness all round.

The Belgian couple we meet on the train platform think we are Romanians, at first. Coming towards the end of our stay, we no longer look like bewildered tourists, and I am no longer a fearful traveller.

Small steps to a bigger world

Twenty years ago I walked out of the charity where I worked, never to return. Someone had given me permission to do so. A stranger, a counsellor with Victim Support, whom I not only told about the shock of my car being set on fire, but spilled all the awful things that had happened in the previous year. Not least of these was my deteriorating health, and an intolerable work situation. I had gone off sick the previous year, for 3 months, and returned sooner than I should have done, under pressure from the board of trustees, and because of my own wish to ‘get back to normal’. I returned with promises of more support and a reduced workload. This did not happen. The stress piled up, and my underlying health problems became more prominent. But I felt responsible, knowing how the charity had struggled with my earlier sickness absence, so I struggled on, until I came to a halt.

I do not remember the name of that Victim Support counsellor, nor what she looked like; just her words. ‘You don’t have to go back in that place,’ she said. ‘You never have to go back.’

My world became small. I had hoped, after a few weeks recovery, that I could apply for another job, resume my life, but weeks became months became years. My functioning was severely reduced, physically and mentally, and although I have improved since those early years, my life remains restricted by low energy, mental tiredness and physical pain.

I am telling this story, as I am approaching a milestone – my 60th birthday. That day I walked out of the office for the last time, twenty years ago, I was a couple of months short of my 40th. A third of life has been restricted by illness. My small world has only become a little larger in those twenty years, and this has only happened because of small steps.

There is a lot of emphasis on big achievements in the media – I remember a TV programme where people with mental health problems were supported and encouraged to run a marathon. Some of them achieved it, but I recall a man whose anxiety was so great that even leaving the house was too much for him. He tried in the early stages of the programme, but dropped out of the big run. He had achieved something big, just giving it a go, just leaving the house. Of course, showing him leaving the house and walking to the shops and back would not have made great television. The runners receiving medals and being hugged by Nick Knowles were what the viewers wanted to see.

I don’t want to totally put down what that programme achieved. My daughter was inspired by it, and took up running as a result. I am very proud of her for doing so, and for completing the Great North Run. But what about those of us that can’t run? Can’t run at all, let alone attempt a marathon?

My small steps over the past twenty years have led me to do bigger things. Taking up part-time study, leading to an MA in Creative Writing, started with little bits of writing, small sessions of researching funding for my fees, short sessions of filling out application forms over several days. It took a year for me to recover enough energy to attend a two-hour class once a week: my first writing course. And there were backward steps, during my MA course, when I had to get extensions for assignments due to my health.

I was inspired in recent days by a friend who is fundraising, asking for sponsorship as she loses weight and gains fitness. Her goal is to achieve this in small steps – walking to the shops instead of driving, taking her dog for longer walks. How fabulous, I thought. No marathon to run, no mountain to climb; just everyday things.

I thought, then, of friends whose lives are limited by illness, and others who find achieving big goals too daunting to embark upon. Of how to celebrate their small steps, their achievements. I think this could become bigger – a book, a blog, an inspiration for others. Watch this space as ideas come together.

Meanwhile, I am working towards doing 60 things for the first time. These range from visiting all of Kent Country Parks to travelling through Transylvania by train, which I did in April of this year: ‘Travelling Fearlessly’. For someone who barely left the house twenty years ago, it’s some achievement.

The shed is dead

I used to be a sheddie. I had my very own writing shed that overlooked an orchard. I lost that shed at the end of January 2017 when we sold the house we had lived in for eight years. And yet the shed continued to feature as the header photo for this website … until today. And this blog page, which was called ‘The Word from the Shed’, has now been renamed ‘Written by the river’.

I miss my shed. Facebook often reminds me with Memories featuring the shed and the orchard; my latest book is about orchards, and features the shed. But the shed is dead, or now under the ownership of a lovely young couple and their baby. The shed is in good hands, and I must let it go.

Thames barges on the Medway

Thames barges on the Medway near to my home

Now my vista as I open the bedroom curtains in the morning is the River Medway. It lies just beyond the Jubilee Clip factory, with a view of Hoo Marshes in the middle of the river and Hoo St Werburgh on the other bank. I spend a good half hour after I wake staring at the river and the sky, watching the birds, the sky, and various shipping pass by.

My desk is now tucked downstairs at the back of the house. I write facing a wall, but if I turn, I can just see a sliver of river in the gap between the houses and the factory. I write in my house, down by the river.

The river and I have history. I used to live a short walk away from the Medway, when I first moved to the area nearly thirty years ago. I crossed it, via Rochester Bridge, to walk to work for a couple of years, then drove across twice a day when a new job took me further afield. When the Medway Tunnel opened, that served for more journeys than the bridge. When we drive beneath the river, the sat nav picture shows blue, as though we were swimming. And I was a kind of swimmer once, with Medway Mermaids women’s writing group. I still am. Mermaids only lapse; it’s like being Catholic.

I am written by the river. I write by the river.

Not building a wall, but making a brick

P1000418 smallI have a mini-noticeboard above my desk with interchangeable cards for how I am feeling today. I have attached to the bulldog clip that holds the cards to the wooden frame some homemade oblique strategies cards. The card that comes to the fore when I shuffle them states: Not building a wall but making a brick.

All I have done this week, towards a story I am working on, is to think about replacing ‘rectangle’ with ‘parallelogram’ in the phrase ‘a rectangle of light’. I think this, but don’t write it down. I have been working on this story, on and off, for over two years, adding small bricks, knocking down little walls that don’t belong.

Meanwhile, as I don’t write, I travel around my area, and watch new houses shoot up fast in empty spaces along the side of the road. Elsewhere, an old terrace of flats and houses is flattened. I used to look down on the communal gardens of these dwellings from the train. The plastic toddler cars and sandpits that were scattered about are gone. A giant crane towers over the ground, which is encased by hoardings proclaiming affordable housing to come. Not building a wall, but knocking them down.

Three new houses were topped off not long after we moved into our house in March of this year. I watched from my bedroom window as skips were filled and removed. Carpets were cut on the ground outside, offcuts and cardboard rolls dropped in the skips. It is November now. A billboard still promises three houses to come on the market, but there is no For Sale sign yet. The corrugated fence surrounding the parking spaces at the back and the tree at the front is covered in graffiti, bearing the tag ORES or DRES, and a cartoon of a man’s head. A light burns in one of the windows. No-one has returned to switch it off since the workmen moved out in the summer. I see it when I open my curtains before the winter dawn. Perhaps there are bricks to be made, walls to be built before the people move in. Perhaps, next summer, new owners will be breakfasting on the terraces placed on stilts above the parking spaces.

I watch a documentary on Bobby Sands and the IRA hunger strikers. There are images of people throwing stones and half-bricks at tanks. I have memories of that time, in 1981. Of the hunger strike being debated at the Student Union in the year when I took my finals. I remember standing in the doorway at the back of a crowded hall, listening to the debate. I remember a man I knew when I was growing up. He wore a black beret like the IRA marchers they show in the film. I store these bricks, these connections. They do not fit with the story I am writing. They might fit somewhere else.

I play with my granddaughter, with wooden bricks. She wants to build with only blue ones today. There aren’t enough blue blocks. We add some green ones.

I have not written for a week. I do not sleep well. I worry. My head is full of different bricks: images, memories and connections. Still I do not write. I shuffle the cards and find the one that says: Not building a wall, but making a brick. Then I write.