The mysterious mower and human kindness.

It ended up being a fairly late night last night, and a fairly early morning this morning, and a fairly big day. I’m pretty tired, and I’m sitting here on my lounge listening to Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony and drinking beer and looking forward to the fact that tomorrow’s Friday, and sometimes four hundred-odd words seems a lot to write for this blog. According to the document on my computer entitled Blog topic plan, October, I should be writing something specific – but I’m tired, and drinking beer, and ready for an early night and a weekend.

So I’ll write about something else instead.

I got home just after six, tired and hungry and ready for my day to end and my evening to begin. When I pulled into my driveway, I discovered that there was a man in my backyard, mowing my lawn in the evening sunshine.

My first thought was to worry that I’d inadvertantly asked Andrew the Mowing Guy to come and attend to the admittedly rapidly growing lawn, in which case I’d very quickly have to find the money that such a job usually costs. My second thought was to worry that Andrew the Mowing Guy had simply taken it upon himself to cut my grass, in the knowledge that I’d very quickly produce the money that such a job costs. My third thought was that Andrew the Mowing Guy sounded younger than this man looked.

It turned out that the mysterious mower was my next-door neighbour, whom I’ve met only once, when his wife’s shirt blew off their clothesline and over the fence into my yard. He’d been about to mow his grass, he told me, when he noticed that mine needed cutting too. So he’d popped over to cut it.

There’s something quite stunning about human kindness. I actually found myself getting teary. For no reason other than to be nice (he wouldn’t even accept a cup of tea or coffee, let alone a beer, and he brushed off my overwhelmed thanks), my neighbour cut my grass, just because it needed doing. Just because that’s what neighbours do for each other. Just because he’s a gentleman, and a good guy. And when he’d finished, he just walked off, without even giving me a chance to stammer my thanks again. My hunch is that if I’d not caught him in the act, I would have got home to neat grass and not a trace of evidence as to who to thank.

Sometimes the darkness of human nature seems to defeat me: we live in a world where refugee camps are bombed, where torture and death are a searing reality in the lives of so many, where cruelty is such an everyday reality it often goes unnoticed. But we also live in a world where people still look out for each other, still extend a hand of friendship or assistance just because we happen to have humanity in common, where neighbours mow each other’s lawns just to be nice.

Not a bad world to live in, really.

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Emancipation Day’s surprise.

I’m not a big anniversary person. It’s not that I don’t see the value in commemorating an event, whether it be a wedding, a birth, a world happening, or something smaller, more mundane. It’s simply that I’m not the sort of person for whom anniversaries usually strike a chord. If it weren’t for other people, I’d barely remember my own birthday.

Which is why it was such a surprise today that the second anniversary of Emancipation Day – the day on which I seized my freedom and precipitously fled a dangerous and volatile marriage – knocked me for six.

Last year – the first anniversary, the big one – passed me by with barely a clearing of its throat. I used it as an excuse to eat shameful amounts of ice cream, but other than that, there wasn’t much of it that impacted on me. I had assumed that the second year would be similar: I’d break out a bottle of wine or some nice chocolate, raise a glass in the quiet privacy of my home, and then get on with my evening.

That’s pretty much how it did play out – other than the nightmares, the panic-streaked, sweat-stained, breathless waking from horror to lie in the darkness and convince myself that it was just a dream, nothing to worry about, not real, not a reflection of how things are now. Just my mind trying to work through yet more shit. It’s ok, it’s normal, it’s a hell of a lot better than it used to be, stop fretting and go back to sleep.

And then today, sitting in my meditation group, I couldn’t stop the tears that wandered (fortunately) quietly down my face – for the whole twenty-five-minute silent meditation. And all the way from the meditation group to work, where I sat in the car on the street outside the office, listening to the rest of the Vaughn Williams symphony which was playing on the radio, and trying desperately to reclaim my game face.

I did ok. I held it together, and today wasn’t a disaster. I told a couple of friends – briefly – what was going on, and each time I felt the load lighten a little. Each time I was grateful for the presence of a caring person who could tell just by looking that I wasn’t ok.

Tomorrow, I’m sure, will be better, because things are a hundredfold brighter than they were a year ago, and a thousandfold brighter than they were two years ago. I took a hit – a small one – today, and then tomorrow will be easier. And if it’s not, it’s ok, because the day after will be brighter instead.

The day after, of course, contains a choir rehearsal, as well as being the start of a weekend. Of course it will be brighter.

Emancipation Day.

Today is Emancipation Day – my own personal, quietly commemorated independence day. Today two years ago I left an increasingly violent, volatile and dangerous marriage, and I showed up at some ungodly hour at my friend’s front door, with a suitcase and a black eye and a pink plastic folder full of music. My friend – blessings on her name – took me in and with her usual no-nonsense compassion made me the strongest Milo I’ve ever been subjected to. Sometimes, I wonder if I’m still on a sugar high. Still, it was exactly what I needed, and even the scent of Milo now brings the ghost of that deep relief of that morning: I’d done what I had to do, and just for that moment, someone else was taking the reins. I could rest in the knowledge that my friend knew what to do, when I didn’t.

It was a Sunday, and I didn’t sing for Mass at the Cathedral – how could I have turned up calmly for rehearsal, and then sung the Kyrie and the Sanctus and Benedictus, and the beautiful, peaceful, hopeful words of the Agnus Dei, when I’d just stepped into terrifyingly uncharted waters, and the frightening potential for homelessness? To say nothing of the very real fear of a jilted husband carrying out his threat to find me and kill me…I spent the day with my friend instead, allowing her to do my thinking for me, resting in her practical kindness, eating and drinking what was put in front of me, and ignoring the constant ringing of my phone with the increasingly desperate messages from the man who wanted me to come home, he was sorry, please forgive him, he’d learned his lesson…

I don’t remember much of that day, but I do remember deciding to sing Evensong, and I remember sitting in my friend’s kitchen, taking my music out of its pink plastic folder to sing through it in my head. And in that first moment of silent practise – the instant that the first notes formed in the maelstrom of my mind – I felt a sense of calm. The constant, low-level scream of anxiety that had ridden that space behind my sternum, which had distanced me from everything but the reality of oh my God, what had I done?, abated. Silence, when in those few hours I had become so used to quietly raging fear that I only noticed it in the light of its absence. I wish I could remember what piece of music that was. I feel like I owe it a favour, or a beer, or my thanks at least.

That was the start of a new life, the seizing of freedom, and a plunge into the darkness of fear, and flashbacks, and the very beginnings of the long, long process of making space in my soul for all that happened to me, all that was done to me, all I was forced to do. It’s been a long way out of that darkness, step by painful step, and I know that I’m a long way from that first fraught Milo-scented, music soothed day of freedom.

My friend will never know the depth of gratitude I have for her kindness, and I will never know the piece of music to which I owe those few moments of peace. I don’t even really know how to end this blog post, other than with a thankfulness I can never put words to, and the knowledge – hard and proud and unbreakable – that I survived.

The difficult beauty of an acknowledgements page

So I wrote a book, and part of writing it was to draw up an acknowledgements page. It turns out that writing acknowledgements is harder than writing the book itself.

It’s not that it’s hard to come up with people to thank – I’m overwhelmed by the people in my life who have contributed to who I am, to my wellbeing, to my sanctity, to the fact that I can put one foot in front of another each day. People who have contributed to my writing, my knowledge, my skills; to my very existence on this planet: to the fact that I didn’t step off the edge of the world when life was too dark to see any hope, to the fact that I’ve come through the darkest times in living with post-traumatic stress disorder without unravelling completely.

No – coming up with people to whom I am deeply grateful was easy. What was hard was getting my acknowledgements page down from four-odd-thousand words to a document small enough to be slotted into a book.

That was bloody near impossible.

But I did it, and I’m sitting uneasily with the knowledge that in acknowledging some people, I’m missing out on acknowledging others, even as I’m rejoicing in the opportunity to say the public thanks that I otherwise wouldn’t necessarily have the chance to say.

And I feel like I should write more acknowledgements pages. Not for publication, but because the very act of listing names reminded me of how utterly blessed I am. How profoundly life-giving it is to be surrounded, and to have been surrounded my whole life, by people who nurture me, who love me, and who show me the love of God, who are God and love and light and life itself to me. People who probably have no idea of what an impact they have had upon me, but to whom I owe everything.

If I write a thousand books, I can never write an acknowledgement page which expresses the depth of gratitude I feel.

But it’s almost worth writing a thousand books, to have the opportunity for it.

~

Also, last night’s post was my three-hundredth. Yay.

Hearts, footprints, friends and a bad metaphor.

I can’t remember where I was recently, but I was passing one of those over-priced homeware stores selling those shabby-chic country-style furnishings and decor. One of the signs in the window (I think you’re supposed to hang them on your wall) made some psuedo-profound comment about the people who move through your life, and how friends are the only ones who leave footprints on your heart.

I’m in a pretty crappy mood at the moment so my default is to be cynical, and I have to admit that the cutesey little sign annoyed me, even without the poor metaphor and slightly disturbing imagery. We all, I reflected, have the capacity to leave footprints on the hearts of those whose lives we touch, even if that touch is only fleeting. We all have the capacity to do damage, to tread on the hopes and joys and reactivities and nobilities of the people we come into contact with, and usually it’s not deliberate: it’s insensitivity, or absent-mindedness, or grumpy-mood snappiness, or simply not noticing the shared humanity of the person selling us coffee, or passing us in the street.

What struck me, though, is that friends are the ones who don’t leave their muddy footprints all over your heart (does anyone else find this image disturbing, or is it just me?). Friends are the ones who treat lightly, who leave things better than they found them. Friends are the ones who are careful, and patient, and who are mindful of their touch and the impact that it has. Friends are the ones who know, without asking, those bruised points of tenderness, and who handle them gently. Friends know what pains they can ask about and what pains it’s best to leave alone.

I’m lucky to have friends – utterly blessed, I know that. I have far too much evidence of friendship in my life to doubt it, but I cannot take for granted the fact that my friends are there: a text message away, or in a shared glance across the choir, or at the end of an email. A Sunday afternoon spent in peace over coffee or ice cream. A stupid joke which makes me laugh aloud, adolescent giggles when we should be serious. A greater blessing than I deserve, or that I can comprehend.

My heart is marked not so much with footprints as with kick-marks, scuffs and scars. My friends don’t add to those with footprints – its my friends who are teaching me to heal, and who are patient and loving and hopeful and fun while I do it.

My heart is safe in the hands of my friends. But I really, really need a new metaphor.

Blessings are for keeps.

I’ve had a week away from choir, and after time away I always come back feeling just a little apprehensive. As though I’ll get back to find that the chair usually set out for me is no longer there. As though in my absence the choir will have closed ranks, worked out that I’m superfluous to requirements, no longer necessary. As though there’ll be no place for me in that family anymore.

I get where this fear comes from: I still struggle to trust the blessings in life, that they really are for me, that they won’t be suddenly snatched away from me, whipped out from under me, as so many other blessings have been over so many years. It’s not as pronounced as it was, but a part of me is still waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Only, I’m starting to suspect that it’s not going to. Because the blessings in this new life haven’t been seized and I’m learning to settle into them. Because the friends whose love I so deeply value – and whom I love with all my heart – haven’t decided that I’m not worth having around. Because when I get back to choir after a weekend away, the group opens to include me as naturally as the river accepts another droplet of water, and I slip back in as though I’ve never been away.

Because blessings have been given, and I’m learning that the Source of compassion, the Creator of abundance, doesn’t give blessings and then hold them hostage. The Ground of love is simply that: love. And there’s no love in begrudged blessings, and so they won’t be taken from me.

It doesn’t stop that fear though, and the incredulous sense of joyful relief every time I return to the choir vestry to re-discover a sense of home. And it doesn’t stop me being fervently grateful each time I realise that these blessings are for keeps.

In my own defence, I do know that I’m an idiot.

An old journal and a new hope.

I’ve spent the evening reading through an old journal. It’s from two journals ago, actually – the current one’s orange, started this morning. The previous one is red. The one before that is yellow, and it’s the yellow one that I’m reading. It dates from just before Christmas, and goes through until the beginning of February. Not actually all that long ago, really – but it feels like an age.

The thing that strikes me most was just how difficult everything was. Just how much I was carrying, how heavy and painful it was. How despairing I was, how hopeless – how I worried that I was falling apart, spinning out of control. Losing my capacity to keep myself together. The water wasn’t over my head – it was perhaps just below my eyebrows. Christmas was horrible – coping with rehearsals and fatigue and the Christmas Eve singing marathon while also buffeted by symptoms of PTSD – and throughout the beginning of January I wrestled with the question of whether I simply give up the choir altogether. I despaired of ever being able to sing again, of being anything other than a burden on my friends and fellow choristers, of ever finding that peace and healing I so desperately sought. At least part of my fragility was simply the raw-edged fatigue of constant, debilitating insomnia.

I’m grateful, this evening, for the chance to read through that bleak bright yellow journal – at least the half of it I’ve read so far – because I’m suddenly profoundly aware of how far I’ve come, of the fact that things have changed, just a little bit, since the beginning of January. I’m sleeping through the night now about as many nights as I’m not; and if the water was at my eyebrows – well, now it’s probably about chin level.

And I’m struck anew with the realisation that, despite the fact that I wrestled – painfully, and hard – with the question of whether to cut my losses and simply leave the choir, I am a chorister. There was never really any option other than to persevere, and to trust that things might get easier. And they have, just a little. I’m learning to live with the symptoms which present themselves when I open myself to the searing beauty of the music which is my weekly fare. I’m learning to make space for the memories which dig their claws into my mind when I allow my thoughts to still when I sing. I remember and sometimes relive each beating, each argument, each verbal and emotional flaying I took over the choir – and there were a lot – but some things are worth taking a beating over and the choir, and the music, around which my weeks revolve are one of those things. And that knowledge helps when things all get a bit difficult.

It’s not easy yet, and it probably won’t be for some time. The path set before me is not smooth. It’s thorny and rocky and there’s still a part of me which is surprised at my friends’ love for me, and at the fact that I’m still able to show up every single week to sing despite how painful it might be. But maybe it’s not quite as thorny and rocky as it once was, and that gives me hope that, by the end of this new orange journal, the way might be just a little smoother than it is now.

And I’m profoundly grateful for that.