In 2008 my friend Steve Lowton launched a website called Stories from the Street, an on-line space where ordinary people could tell their extra-ordinary stories, try their hand at writing, share the true stories of their lives. It was both a means of sharing hearts and journeys, giving dignity and honour to those who would otherwise not be heard and a subversive movement to undercut the celebrity culture of the media and release the sound of many voices. It proved to be a catalyst for me and for many others and started me on this journey of creative expression and blogging. Beyond that – who knows what has been sparked with the recent meltdown in NewsCorp and opening up of journalistic practises… Jesus Himself knew it to be true and it remains true today: “The strongest cultural force at work today is the power of story” Robert McKee
My first story, about my mother’s death and her legacy, was written one afternoon in June 2009. It had been inside me for a long time and I suddenly knew where to start and allowed it to flow from there. Because Steve’s website was there it seemed the next step to post it – albeit under a pseudonym in those early days. This was the first release, the first time I dipped my toe in the water… little did I know where it would lead! As I have said on the Diagnosis Diary page, when Sam was initially ill I poured out the journey on that site and found incredible therapeutic release as well as amazing support from friends and strangers: both aspects brought huge comfort. Redhead became a regular writer for SftS until the summer of 2010 when I took the plunge with my own blog and now all the pieces from that time are on my Diagnosis Diary page.
40 months on, Steve has completed his pioneering role (read ‘A good ending’ here) and the site has now been closed, awaiting others who will take up the mandate. All my links to posts there are sadly now inaccessible, so I am copying the few that are not elsewhere on the blog to this page, as an archive and reference point.
With thanks once again to Steve and his vision for the many stories waiting to be told.
The story goes that when he went he left part of himself behind – a connection between there and here, a communication line and a comfort for orphans.
There was not much comfort when my mother left. I was 12 years old and she just decided to go. Maybe she didn’t decide, maybe she was pushed by an unseen force: depression is after all a disease of the will, making clear choices impossible. Anyway, that didn’t mean much to me at the time – she just irreversibly left, and that was that: I was motherless.
Looking back now I can see that she did leave part of herself behind, but not by way of communication or comfort. At the time there was just numbness and a hole and getting used to being alone and independent. My dad wouldn’t let me keep anything of hers – I guess it was just too painful for him. Keeping us around was too hard for him too, so he sent me and my little brother off to boarding school. After I had grown up I think even looking at me reminded him of her too much, so we were never close. I was effectively an orphan.
My brother still thinks she is looking down on him, a guardian angel. How old would she be now? What would she look like? Angels don’t age! But if she is still 34 she’d be younger than I am now – hardly a mother-figure! No – what she would have become is something we will never know.
I have not allowed myself the fantasies: they are cold comfort. I have taken the path of hard choices of forgiveness and moments of intense heartache and loneliness – on my wedding day, at my children’s births and birthdays. She should have been here! She missed it all – and we missed her. There has never been mum to run home to or seek advice from, ‘how do I cook this?’ ‘what should I say?’ ‘What would you do?’ Oh, I’ve had many adopted mums and a sweet, fussy, little, Welsh mother-in-law, and a great husband who loves me to death and many dear friends, but there has always been a mummy-shaped hole.
I really don’t think about her much – except writing this now. I do forgive her for abandoning us, so there is peace for us both. But I do feel so sorry for her short, sad life: married at 22, two kids, travelling husband, loneliness and misery, mental illness in a society ill-equipped to deal with it. We found her sprawled on the kitchen floor one Saturday morning, after a morning out with dad. I couldn’t open the door because her head was in the way. She’d drunk mole poison… shocking, isn’t it? A final, desperate act of escape. The last time I ever saw her was as my father dragged her away into the bedroom. It was the 60’s – you didn’t talk to children about death or take them to funerals. In fact, he didn’t talk to me about her for 10 years… and then I made him, fearing for my own mental health. Poor mum.
However did I end up so whole? It’s a bona-fide miracle! I really am alright. Of course it’s been a journey through the years, times when I’ve been low, when the long-buried pain found a way to the surface, times when her depression rose up in me. But I found a way through – and in the end I would have to give the credit to the one who said he wouldn’t leave us as orphans. He brought comfort and healing. He helped fill the hole and gave me the strength to grow through it.
And of course she did leave part of herself behind. My kids and I have her genes, her eyes, her temperament. And if you look carefully at me, or at my daughter, and at one of the few photos I treasure, you can see the likeness… We look like Byllie.
SHAKEN AND STIRRED 12.4.10
Well, maybe it wasn’t such a good idea after all. Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. I thought it would be fun to find out, but I guess I’m wise after the event now… or at least sobered. Yes, that’s it! Blame the wine! There’s certainly a taste left in my mouth that wasn’t there before…
It’s not as bad as you are probably thinking! Last night we were just watching TV, a relaxing Sunday night, a normal evening for an ageing married couple – eating some cheese with a nice bottle of Italian wine, when we came across a really good programme, like you do on BBC 4. It was about the woman who first discovered pulsars; she was one of the first women in astro-physics, a real pioneer. Missed out on the Nobel Prize despite doing the work – her male bosses got it! – but really gracious about it all, mad about science, obviously brilliant, and now a senior Professor in her subject. Well done Jocelyn Bell! The film was about the research she did in Cambridge…
And suddenly there I was, back in Cambridge at the astro-physics department, 30 years ago… some years after Jocelyn, but the atmosphere, the buildings, the memories opening up like a book. People and events, my brief flirtation with that world, all running through my mind. I wonder where he is now?
I was a newly qualified nurse and he was an easy-going, Californian cosmologist, over here doing his phD. A friend introduced us… and I was swept off my feet. It was complete romance: he grew his own cannabis plants in a bedsit opposite King’s Chapel, where he played the cello to me and read the Lord of the Rings aloud by the fire. There were punting trips and excursions to the beach, and eventually a cottage in Grantchester. I would travel up from London every weekend off: it was a crazy and passionate affair. I was utterly lost in first love for 6 months and started dreaming of a future in California. But it was all too much, too intense: commitment-phobia struck and at Christmas he left me for someone less ambitious. I was devastated, completely broken-hearted. Our epitaph was “All the best for the 80’s” in a goodbye card.
I wonder where he is now? It took me so long to recover, to get him out of my heart. I was saved by the gorgeous medic who became my husband 2 years later. But it’s all so long ago and I really do wonder what happened to him… seeing as Jocelyn Bell has awakened the ghost. So why don’t we google him, dear?
And he DID! He found him! What kind of wonderful, faithful, trusting husband goes looking for his wife’s old flame on the internet? They met once, very briefly, by accident, in a Cambridge backstreet. I was shocked and delighted and ran after the lost love, calling his name: the new love didn’t know if I was coming back! Of course I was…
So now I am looking into those same eyes and they are looking back at me. Just a photo, but so much emotion attached… A door opens and I fall down a wormhole in time. My heart turns over: 30 years on and still the pull is there! The same sex appeal, the same confidence – and with very good reason: he is now the Director of one of the top Astro-physics Institutes in the US, with plaudits and prizes to his name! The boy done good – he always was a bright spark. Steely grey hair instead of black curls, but, yep – he’s still got it. I would dearly love to email him (Subject: A blast from the past), but that’s not really very wise, is it? There is no mileage there, no future path, only a long look backwards to what could never be. I was not destined to live on the Chicago Gold Coast and ex-lovers can’t really be friends.
Tricks of the mind and heart, foolish choices and twists of fate. He is part of my story… I guess I had forgotten what an important chapter. But it is a miracle I ever recovered from that and there can be no going back, either to indulge in past fantasies or probe the old scars. No, I found my redemption and I’m sticking with it. No wonder they say, ‘let bygones be bygones’ and ‘forsaking all others I cleave only unto you, as long as we both shall live’.
And I do: I have been saved by grace. 12.4.10
LOVE IS A MANY SPLENDOURED THING
‘Love is a many splendoured thing’
How can that be true, my dear,
Considering broken hearts and nail-pierced hands?
In agony of unrequited affection,
Hot fire of unacknowleged passion,
A fear of falling in the face of fallibility,
Accosted by illicit attraction?
Even the cry of parenthood is mixed – hope and wonder,
Expectations dashed, dis-ease endured,
The path to maturity littered with scars and pyrrhic victories.
But love covers many sins, forgiving all,
And lays down my life for your sake.
It costs me everything to make that choice.
So is there really splendour in the suffering endured,
A lasting treasure out of faithfulness and sacrifice?
Examples of great loves pull on our faith
That friendship through the furnace counts the most,
As soldiers offering themselves in comrades’ stead
Or washing of your feet instead of mine
Stir us to rise above the pain to glory
Through tears the heart is drawn toward the light
Where every fractured facet catches dawn’s new joy.
Surely the life of love, in all its brokeness
Reflecting heaven’s face, shines brighter than all.
Other poems by Redhead are in the various blog posts: Writer Unblocked, Mortality, Stock Still, Walking Wounded, Mouth to Mouth Resuscitation, The Mother’s Cry, Manoah’s wife, plus the story Looking after No 21 and reflections Man in Black and Lost at Sea
Finally here is a tribute to a pioneer:
TRIBUTE TO THE PLOUGHMAN
I see you in the distance walking your furrow. It’s uphill at the moment as you pace out your miry track. You head is bowed, the burden heavy on your back, but still the hardened forehead leads the way. Even when your eyes are full of tears and vision blurred, questions and misgivings torturing your mind, I know your heart is true. Though the mud clings to your boots and dogs your steps, the humiliation oh so hard to bear, with you there can be no turning back. Straight and true the line is drawn, a cut into the virgin soil, a field no-one has ever dug before. For this is the season for ploughing the land and it has to be done now: everything has its time.
No comfortable life for you, no easy options. Called to make a difference from a child, drawn by a pioneer spirit – gambler, gold digger, adventurer – always looking for life’s fullness, eyes on the horizon calling out for what has not yet come to be. What a cost to pay, misunderstood, out on the edge, out of sync … yet so on track in your lonely furrow, digging deep. And did you stop to count it? No – you fiddled the maths to make it work, you took a loan! Because you had no choice but to respond, your soul ever intoxicated by the strong upward call – and knowing that once this path is walked the future opens up for those who come behind. Your heart is set on pilgrimage, your feet walk by faith not sight; you’ll gamble everything because there is no other way to live, sowing into a future not yet seen.
So, there you go… shoulder to the plough again, dissecting deep into the earth, as you prepare a way. With guts and stubbornness, in weakness and in pain, you’re marking out the landscape in the sight of heaven, determined that there will be seeds sown in this land, with tears and prayers and hope of harvest. For surely in its time the reapers will rejoice! How long I cannot say… but all I know, without the ploughman’s labours the field would just lie fallow and barrenness would rule.
So here’s the tribute to the ploughman, to the one who had the courage to step out and live a life marked by something glimpsed only by visionaries in moments of clarity when heaven came close. And here is honour to the one who picked the lonely path, investing all into his dreams, to one who laid up treasure in heaven but didn’t turn his back on what can be accomplished on the earth. May he find even in his isolation that he is never quite alone, but overshadowed by the One who loves a man of faith. And may he hear the cheers of crowds of witnesses who recognize a life lived in integrity, humility and obedience when they see it.
Keep going, ploughman: it will all be worth it in the end. Your seed will grow – perhaps in ways you don’t expect, beyond all that you ask or think! And all this field will dance in golden glory in the sun, and we’ll come home carrying sheaves to lay before the Master of the Harvest. Let hope lead you on through weariness and doubt, strengthened by the encouragement, respect and love of a friend who sees.