'What I do is me: for that I came.' G M Hopkins

Thursday, July 22, 2010

My Hero

We’ve been stuck in Fort Wayne airport without coffee for hours so what else is there to do but blog?

As the vuvuzela screech in B flat subsides and the adoration and adulation of the World Cup evaporates, I’ve been thinking about how we choose our heroes. We cheer and get excited about eleven men chasing a ball round a pitch but are less enthusiastic about welcoming disfigured and damaged soldiers home from the war in Afghanistan.

This week I’ve been staying with one of my personal heroes. Uncle Ray is my late mother’s younger brother. As a teenager he left the farm and decided to go off to study at London Bible College. Before graduating, he and his fellow students had to pull a cart round the roads of rural England, stopping in the evenings to hold meetings and sleeping on the floor in churches. They vied with each other to get the space in the pulpit which was carpeted. Like the first disciples, they weren’t allowed to carry any money and they lived off the goodwill of farmers and local people. Six young handsome men stare joyfully from old photographs. They were trained and ready to take on the world for God. My uncle admits he thought he knew it all then. His enthusiasm and confidence knew no bounds.

He went off to teach in Sierra Leone, West Africa, where he met and married an American missionary, Arlene. Together they taught at the Bible College in Freetown and in the years that followed they had four fine sons. For many years they lived in the bush, 120 miles up country in a town called Kabala, accessible only on dirt roads which were impassable when it rained. It was on one of these roads that Ray and his second son Tim, then 10, were travelling on a motorbike when they had a horrible accident which resulted in terrible injuries for both and a long and agonising eight hour journey to get to a hospital. Tim’s leg needed serious medical attention for years afterwards so finally the family returned to the US, where they continued to work in the Missionary Church.

Tim went on to graduate from college and was talking about getting married when at the age of twenty-three he was killed in a car accident. The family had to make the decision to turn off the machine and let their precious son go to God.

Last year, Ray suffered from multiple myeloma, spent many weeks in hospital and went through a stem cell transplant. Over the months, he has slowly regained strength and has returned to work part-time.

Now 73, Uncle Ray should be embittered and angry. Where was his God when he and Tim lay bleeding at the side of an African track; when they pleaded for Tim’s life after the car accident; when he faced cancer treatment? But he’s not bitter; he’s quietly, sorry make that noisily, full of good humour and bad jokes. Here’s his current favourite:

There were three devout men: a Catholic priest, a Baptist pastor and a Jewish rabbi. They were arguing about which of them had the greatest powers of religious persuasion. So they agreed that each of them would go into the woods in turn and attempt to convert a bear to faith.

When the Catholic priest returned he was delighted at his success. He told the others that he had anointed the bear with holy water and that the bear would soon be taking his first communion. It was the pastor’s turn next and he was equally pleased with his efforts. He said that he had preached the word to the bear and that the bear was going to be baptised the next Sunday.

When the rabbi returned from the woods he was badly injured and covered in blood. The others asked what had happened and he said woefully: ‘Perhaps it was a mistake to start with circumcision.’

To me a hero is someone who knows how to handle Plan B – someone who isn’t totally destroyed by life’s tragedies and disappointments but who still chooses to live, love and laugh. In the days following Tim's death, Ray would go into his study and decide whether he believed in God for that day. An act of the will. One day at a time.

Through the sadness and pain he exudes warmth, acceptance and compassion which touch the lives of everyone who knows him. He’s not pretending; he’s living life in its raw reality with a faith in God which is inspirational.

He often says that most of the things we moan and complain about can be fixed. One of Ray’s good friends, Donna Cleven, wrote a poem inspired by his example: (Remember we’re in the US)

(or not)

Here’s something I have learned,
Though at first I thought it funny,
It’s really not a problem at all
If it can be solved with money.

You can’t buy health or strength,
Or the love of a prodigal child.
You can’t buy peace of mind,
Or reason for a friend gone wild.

You lost your theatre tickets?
You burned the dinner rolls?
An ink pen in the load of wash?
Your favourite jeans have holes?

Your dishwasher sprung a leak?
A fender bender at the mall?
Remember: if it can be fixed with money
It’s really not a problem at all.

I feel as if I’ve been staying with a living saint this week. What a privilege! I will be happy to be half as faithful as he. I love and salute you, Uncle Ray. You’re my hero!

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Happy Holidays

What is it with the Americans? We’re in Florida – the sunshine state. The man and I are having a week to ourselves before we fly up to Indiana to see family and then return for the madness that is touring with Robin Mark. I often think I’m way too old to be a groupie but for as long as I’m married to an old rock ‘n’ roller, that’s the way it is.

You see – there it is already. An Americanism: ‘way too old’. They creep in, uninvited. When we touched down in Orlando, we were informed that we would, ‘Be deplaning momentarily’. Surely ‘momentarily’ means for a moment, not in a moment and ‘deplane’?! It’s happening all the time. It’s not just that they can’t spell: ‘center’ ‘theater’ ‘traveling’ and ‘color’ but we’re all starting to say, ‘I’m good’ when we clearly mean well and ‘Can I get?’ when we order in a restaurant.

As a teacher of the mother tongue, I’m offended and I want to hate America. I’ve been watching and listening and I can’t escape the feeling that I’m on a film set. The people I observe appear to be pretending to be Americans – loud and in your face. They seem to be putting on an act which involves articulating absolutely everything they think and feel with the volume turned up. Surely this show can’t be just for me. Is it possible that they actually speak like this all of the time? Even when visitors are not here?

The house we’re renting contains a file with instructions which advised me to ‘Check which day the waste hauler will be servicing you.’ It sounds like more fun than it was. We had to put the ‘garbage’ out at 6am to outwit the racoons. We were promised they would make a mess of the lawn. I got up early to witness this and was disappointed not to catch them at it.

Here we have ‘eateries’ and ‘soft shoulders’ instead of hard. Menus offer ‘housemade’ sauces but nearby there is a ‘Home for sale.’ When something is ‘on sale’ it’s not simply available, it’s cheaper. At the end of this road there is a sign declaring ‘No outlet’ meaning a dead end and we wait in a ‘line’ not a queue.
However, America grows on you. They do service well if you can bear the constant injunction to ‘Have a nice one’. The streets are laid out in grids which make finding somewhere much easier ‘Corner of Cortez Boulevard and 46th’. That is unless the place you want to find is the town centre – there isn’t one. Shopping is done in the ubiquitous ‘malls’. Good word, although it should be spelled ‘maul’ because mauled is how I feel when I’ve spent more than ten minutes in one. I hate shopping at the best of times and all of my senses are assaulted by consumerism US style.

But they have sun here. The beaches of the Florida Keys are magnificent – long narrow stretches of glaring white sand. Too hot to walk on at times we tiptoe into the green tepid waters of the Mexican Gulf where we watch with delight as sandpipers and snowy egrets dance their way along the shoreline. And the sunsets are spectacular as the heat melts into the water and pink diffuses across the sky. The house overlooks a private lake. Herons spread their wings to dry and turtles bask on a nearby rock. There is also a pool ‘out back’. Where more perfect for two wrinklies who haven’t yet outgrown the joys of skinny dipping? Life is good.

My favourite cheesy American sign this week is: ‘A smile is a curve that makes everything straight.’ Happy Holidays!

Friday, July 2, 2010

Musings on Mortality

I went up to my mother’s grave this week expecting to see her name on the headstone, but it isn’t there yet.

Somehow it’s not real until it’s official, like a signature. The absence of her details allows me to believe, fleetingly, that she’s not really gone – not completely. I fancy that she’s here somewhere, waiting in the shadows with a shopping list and toenails that want cutting.

She died in January and I’ve been to four funerals since. All of them the parents of friends or relatives, as it should be – in the right order. Some of the funeral services were light and hopeful with intimations of eternity. One second cousin gave a long, moving and humorous tribute to his mother in which he recalled his father and his two brothers making music at home on the farm – the father on the fiddle or saxophone, his brother on the guitar, him on the piano while the youngest boy played on the linoleum! At least they’ll all be able to manage the harps and trumpets on the other side.

At that same funeral I stood by the graveside with my arm linked with my uncle Willie’s, who is 86 with a mop of pure white hair. As the family walked solemnly past us following the committal, the 90-year-old widower stopped to shake my uncle’s hand. ‘And is this your wife?’ he asked, looking at me. I quickly explained who I was, much to the delight and amusement of the bereaved sons and grandchildren behind him. Even in death, there is laughter. We can’t help it. Our survival instinct is so powerful that it overcomes our deepest grief and urges us to live on.

Other people prefer to leave it to the professionals to say something about the departed. One flew with the RAF in the war and might well have met my own father. Koch and Chestnutt are both unusual names, except we didn’t know each other then and it’s too late now to ask the old airmen.

It’s too late for a lot of things – we all could have been kinder, more patient and loving with our aging parents. We could have spent more lazy hours just listening rather than rushing to visit and then dashing off to do.

Do funerals age you? I think they can trigger an awareness of opportunities missed and a fear of too few days to fulfil our dreams. Several in a row can leave us in a stupor of fatalism and rob us of our own moment to live, laugh and love.

A cousin met a man recently who spoke well of my father and paid tribute to his memory. He said that he had been held in such high regard that people who had never met him felt as if they knew him. I still talk to people, twenty-five years later, who loved him and are grateful to him for being like Jesus to them. What a legacy!

During the vigil before my mother’s death, I hoped that she might have something of import to say. However, she was too tired to pass on anything deep and meaningful. I was reconciled to this with the thought that what my mother, and father, gave to me was me! All that I am and enjoy came through their genes, their influence and their example. She didn’t need to say anything more. All her wise words are already in my head and she lived a life of love and sacrifice which I can never hope to emulate. That’s enough to be going on with.