Another funeral

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Today I was at yet another funeral. This one was in my church, and I was serving on the altar. The lady who has died was in her late nineties, the matriarch of a large family, and obviously much loved. Her family were there to say their farewells. There was solemn recorded music at the beginning and the end. It was a solemn and dignified service, simple, and formal. There were a number of symbols that I gather are traditional in the Catholic church, though I hadn’t come across them before. Covering the coffin with a pall, white with joyful, coloured embroidery, a symbol of resurrection. There was a book of the Gospels and a cross placed on the coffin too. And people wore black.

So this is how other people do it! After the extravaganzas that were Carol’s and Michelle’s funerals, I was fascinated to experience something else. There is, of course, no right or wrong, no better or worse. Just different.

I was surprised, though I shouldn’t have been, that being at another funeral made me feel sad about Carol and Michelle all over again. And next week yet another – this one a humanist celebration at the natural burial ground. We will be honouring an important member of the National Coastwatch Institution, standing guard in our uniforms as she arrives. It will be interesting, and I suspect rather moving and very lovely.

 

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Oh, I miss Michelle!

It’s now nearly seven weeks since Michelle died. She came into my mind yesterday, as she has most days, if not all. I was gardening. I saw a worm, as you do. Michelle was a gardener. She had a very memorable response to seeing a worm: ‘Don’t like it snake!’. No indeed. Neither do I. I’ve thought of this every time I’ve seen a worm for the past twenty five years – such was the strength of the impression Michelle made on me and so many others. As Vivienne said in her eulogy ‘Can it be that the force of nature that was Michelle has been stilled?’ Well, yes – but she lives on in our memories.

I think when someone dies you regain memories from throughout their life. For the past few years, I’ve spent quite a lot of time with Michelle, first supporting her at home, and going out with her in her wheelchair. Then visiting her in hospital, and in the nursing home she moved to. Time with a Michelle who was frailer, more contemplative, more obviously companionable. Since she died, I’ve been thinking more of her in her younger days. I didn’t know her when she was young. I wish I had! So I’m grateful to friends who’ve known her longer than I have for telling the stories. But I have known her for thirty years, and shared lots of wonderful times.

I was very blessed. I didn’t support Michelle in her daily life until the last few years, so I never had the difficult interactions that she had with some of her assistants. I did however get to support her on her very favourite things – holidays, and the pilgrimage to Canterbury. So she thought I was wonderful, and the feeling was completely mutual. We had such fun together! It seemed to involve lots of animals. Visiting the ‘doats’ at Minster Abbey, the horses (all called Black Beauty), and pigs. Singing ‘horsey, horsey’. Adopting a crocodile one memorable New Year at Othona. Goodness knows where she found it, but she would not be parted from it day or night. Talking of Othona, there was also the vivid pink sweatshirt that she wore with pride until it fell apart. It was only right that she made it onto the cover of the brochure one year.

After spending her childhood in an institution, it was – very reasonably – important to Michelle to know that she was in control of her life, and sometimes this could lead to conflict and upset. Sometimes a bit of creativity could help. On one holiday in France she wanted to shop every day, but she had very little money. She didn’t really understand the cost of things, so it fell to me as her assistant to try and help her live within her means. One of her passions in life was stationery, so she and I had a big excursion to the newsagents every day – one day to buy a pencil, the next a rubber, then a biro, then a notebook….. Her savings lasted, and she was ecstatic. And it was very important learning for me – to always ask the question ‘how can I say yes rather than no?’.

Another very favourite thing was to be the centre of attention, particularly with a microphone in her hand. I like to think of her now with a band of angels listening to her, to her delight.

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Accidental Community

Having spent most of my adult life in intentional community, in Taizé, Ameugny, and of course L’Arche, I now find myself in an accidental community, in Bridport in Dorset. I live in an old ropemakers’ cottage which sits in a square with six other cottages, down a narrow footpath. (So much of Bridport is down narrow footpaths! The heritage of the rope making cottage industry, with its long thin spinning ways). There is a river and a weir – a very little river and a very little weir – at the bottom of the garden, which is one of three separated only by very low fences, giving the impression of an open space.

Today, I’ve seen and spoken to ten of my immediate neighbours, and that’s not unusual, especially on a Saturday, for Saturdays are market day in Bridport, and folk tend to be out and about. I realise this would be some people’s idea of hell! But I love it, and find it a complete delight.

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There is Henry*, the patriarch of the square. He is keen on gathering us together for sundowners in the summer, and whisky in the winter. Next door to him, Rachel is the political one amongst us. She stood as a local councillor at the last elections, and encourages us to join in the Bridport Extinction Rebellion, which held a big event in town today. She and I feed each other’s cats as needed. Helen, who lives with her young daughter and a number of animals, including degus, which I’d never heard of, is also on Oscar’s team of respite carers. Helen and Rachel have been the driving force behind our latest project – communally owning three chickens. Meet Mars, Quark and Bunsen.

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There are ‘new people’ next door to me, a lovely family with two young children. This afternoon James the dad knocked on my door to see if I wanted to join in a group to make a wholesale order from a wholefoods company. I do indeed. Jenny and Harry, next door on the other side, were just off to the recycling centre with the results of a huge amount of gardening. And then while I was in town I popped into the supermarket and met Mary from church. She is a real elder, just two months off being a hundred and one, and she comes into town on the bus to do her shopping! Apparently she used to run a bar in Benidorm when she was younger. It obviously did her good. I feel very blessed to have this new community around me.

And I ended the afternoon with a bit of solitude, on a lovely walk by the river.

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*all names of my neighbours have been changed

 

Repent and believe in the Gospel

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Today I had the privilege of imposing the ashes during the school Mass in my parish church (the picture is from America, for privacy purposes). Small child after small child, coming forward mostly with wonder in their eyes. I remember my first Ash Wednesday as a church goer, at the age of ten ‘Remember, man, that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return’. I think it was the first I knew of it! Rather startling, yet rather wonderful.

A couple of children stood out in particular. One little boy with complete terror in his eyes. I would guess he is on the autistic spectrum, though of course I don’t know. His feet came forward but he bent further and further backwards so his head didn’t follow. ‘May I touch your head?’, I asked. His voice said yes, but his eyes said no. What to do? ‘Would you like the ashes on your hand?’. Oh dear! More terror. Not only strange unknown ashes, but a change of plan as well. In the end I touched his forehead lightly, very briefly, and said the words. He scuttled away. How difficult his life must be. His terrified eyes have stayed with me all day. The other little boy was wearing a cap. He took it off for the ashes, and he was bald. Alopecia? Cancer treatment? Who knows, but he looked so vulnerable when he raised his cap. He too has stayed with me. I pray for them both, and for the wonder-eyed.

The hairstyles made me smile. It was the boys wearing hair gel, and many of them looked most put out as I tried to find a bit of forehead without upsetting the hair do. It didn’t seem to happen with the girls.

Alongside all this was the sheer fact of being there, of being asked to minister in this way. It is such a privilege to serve on the altar. This was a good way to begin Lent. As a Lenten observance I am trying to give up plastic. I have failed already but will keep going. I wish you a happy and a holy season, however you choose to mark it.

Looking for beauty

As I said, one way to honour Michelle’s and Carol’s lives and deaths is to live my own life as well as I can. So, given the unseasonal weather – worrying, but glorious nonetheless – I decided to spend some time exploring Dorset, where I now live.

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I started with a trip to Weymouth. Real English seaside in the summer, in the winter the beach is there for dogs and ravens (crows?).

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I enjoyed the human element, too! Though quite why the shelter faces away from the sea beats me. Prevailing wind, I suppose. Maybe the Victorians weren’t keen on views.

IMG_8046I love the Weymouth clock, too. Fabulously garish.

IMG_4114IMG_8052IMG_8057On the way there, the wonders of Chesil Beach, and St Catherine’s chapel at Abbotsbury, with a view right across to Portland.

IMG_8062The next day was Charmouth, complete with its fossil hunters.

And finally, on the third day of sunshine, a trip to the interior of Dorset. The first delight, a herd of deer.

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Once in Shaftesbury I had to see Gold Hill, of course, of Hovis fame.

IMG_8079Then a pub lunch with a view, at The Mitre.

IMG_2392And finally, when nearly home, the joy of seeing thatchers at work on the roof of the Three Horseshoes pub in Burton Bradstock. Such an old trade, pretty much the same as it’s always been.

IMG_2398What an amazing county!

And now what?

IMG_2126David leads Michelle’s coffin to her final committal. 

It’s over a week since Michelle’s funeral. And a Michelle-shaped gap is beginning to make itself felt, beyond the shock and the acute grieving. So now what? The past few weeks seemed full of meaning, just waiting to be expressed and shared. This time, now, seems empty. And yet it isn’t. If Michelle’s and Carol’s lives and deaths meant anything, now is the time to try and understand what that was.

One thing that is already clear is the need to keep in touch with the friends I still have. This morning I skyped with Martin for the first time. It’s been a project since I moved to Dorset nearly three years ago now. Somehow it didn’t happen. But this morning we had a long distance coffee together, and it was lovely. We will do it again next week. He reminded me that some of our friends are ‘in the winter of our life’. ‘You must visit “Janet”‘, he told me firmly. Yes, I must. I must go with Janet for Diet Coke and cake, and we will both feel better for it. And I must keep in touch with Irene and Keith and Nicki and Chris and Lucy too, even if it’s only the occasional text or email. These people, and the many and varied experiences we’ve shared, have formed who I am.

I shall go to Gothic Lodge soon too. Sit with the Carol-shaped space, but enjoy the people who are still there, and the people yet to come. Eventually someone will come and live in Carol’s room. That seems unthinkable now, but it will happen in due course, and the new person will be a gift to the house, the L’Arche community, and the neighbourhood, in whatever unique way that will be theirs. I’m so glad that L’Arche honours each person who has died by not moving someone into their old room within days, as would happen in many care homes. I’m aware that that is not only a moral but also a financial commitment – and I’m personally very grateful for it.

And as for me, on my journey into Next, I think the invitation is to grasp life with both hands, as both Carol and Michelle did. Engage in friendships, learn new things (last night I went on a VHF radio course for the National Coastwatch Institute volunteering that I’m doing – ‘I’m learning!’, I thought, just like Michelle). Look forward to things like Carol looked forward to her birthday and her holidays. And honour them both by continuing to tell their stories, and live my own life well.

 

Telling the stories

IMG_2091One of the many important times in the last few weeks, as we have remembered and celebrated the lives of Carol and Michelle,  was the supper we shared at Carol’s house the evening after her funeral. I was so very tired. I wasn’t sure I wanted to go – much less cook it, which I had offered to do. I’m so glad I did. We were eighteen or so in the end, a number which went up and down as various friends decided they were indeed too tired to come, or that they really did need to be there after all.

Friends who had travelled to be back in L’Arche London to share their grieving with others who understood, friends from Scotland, Poland, Cambridge, Dorset, and friends from just across the road. So important to gather with the other members of Carol’s household, and to tell our stories. ‘Do you remember….?’ We’ve always said in L’Arche that telling stories is important, for all of us but especially for the community members with learning disabilities who may not be able to tell their own stories. A way of making sure that their stories are known to the young assistants who now support them in their daily lives – because some of these stories took place before the assistants were even born, but they have formed who we are today. Who we are as individuals, who and what we are as a community. I’ve rarely experienced this as strongly as in these days.

There have been many such gatherings in the past few weeks, in homes, pubs and cafes. Gatherings of eighteen friends, or just two or three. The stories have been told, with tears and laughter.  Meals have been designed in memory of Carol and Michelle – fish and chips, sausage and mash. The table has been laid with ketchup and wine, for different people celebrate in different ways.  And I’ve realised how privileged I am to have such a truly diverse group of friends.

Michelle and Carol, your lives were important. We will remember, and we will tell your stories. Thank you for bringing us together.

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