4

Sharing my Spiritual Scrapbook

Today, at my Centering Prayer group, we tried out a different format. Instead of listening to some teaching on DVD we decided to bring a poem to share. We started with our usual 20 minute silent meditation then the four of us who were present read out poems or canticles that spoke to us in some way.

It was a moving time, and the most amazing range of poems and emotions were shared. Two that stood out for me were:

The Bright Field by R S Thomas
St Francis and the Sow by Galway Kinnell.

For myself, I shared a poem that my mother had once typed out and sent to me. It is called Under a Wilshire Apple Tree and is attributed to Anna Bunstone de Bary, date unknown. It begins with the following stanza:

Some folks as can afford,
So I’ve heard say,
Set up a sort of cross
Right in the garden way
To mind ‘em of the Lord.
But I, when I do see
Thik apple tree
An’ stoopin’ limb
All spread wi’ moss
I think of Him
And how He talks wi’ me.

Sharing this, I also shared with my friends the Spiritual Scrapbook that I have been keeping for 20 years. This is a very special hard-backed A5 book that my sister gave me when I had an adult baptism in 1997 (I had not discovered the Quakers then and was part of a vibrant Baptist church). My sister wrote an inscription at the front: ‘For your thoughts and special prayers’, and the book is very dear to me. I share some photographs of a few of the pages in this post.

annedegruchy.co.uk image: Spiritual Scrapbook Page

Over the years I have written or stuck into the book sayings, prayers, postcards and poems that have had special meaning to me. There are parts of Celtic liturgies that we used when I studied Contextual Theology, postcards of crosses at monasteries and in mud huts, spoken ministry from Quaker meetings, and many cards with prayers and poems sent to me by my mother when she was still alive.

My mother was such a special support to me, and her faith saw me through some very dark times in my life. I treasure every single thing she sent when I was down and she wanted to help me through. My biggest sadness is that in the last few years of her own life she experienced a crisis of faith. But my mother was a gardener, and God was very close to her, and I’m sure that God spoke to her through that apple tree with stooping limb even when the light of faith was dim.

    

MAD MOMENT

New man, new distance relationship! Watch this space!

MARVEL MOMENT

As above!!!

© Anne de Gruchy

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7

Twitter: Love or Hate?

Twitter and tweeting has been a lot on my mind lately.

To be honest, I feel a bit of antipathy towards Twitter, and also to the whole alter-universe that is social media. Perhaps I am a product of my generation – someone who grew up with a life that was not constantly interrupted by the internet. Someone for whom mobile phones and personal computers of any kind did not exist until I was a mature(?!) fully-formed adult who felt able to choose or reject their intervention into my life. Or perhaps simply someone, like most generations, who does not feel fully at home with the new technology that is outpacing them.

For many years I ranted against social media. I felt uncomfortable about lack of privacy and control over who saw the things that I shared, and, if I’m honest, I felt that relationships formed online surely could not match up to the integrity and depth of relationships made face-to-face. I did not like the idea of being forced to adopt technology by a market that was playing for profit rather than genuine social cohesion.

Eventually, to the amazement of my friends, I caved in. My progress onto Facebook was largely fuelled by the fact that my lodger always knew what was going on locally and I didn’t. He would be off to some intriguing music gig or discussion group and I would be saying ‘how did you find out about that?’ and he’d say ‘Facebook’. It happened too often to be ignored. Now, Facebook is one of the main ways I find out about events and share pictures with family and friends. It also forms a useful reminder system for someone with a rubbish memory. ‘You have eight events coming up this week’ dear old FB will flash at me. Of course that is the other problem – there is so much going on that if you tick an interest in everything you are swamped with choice. It is not an incentive to peace or personal space.

Twitter, on the other hand, I find harder. I properly embraced many forms of social media a few years ago when I stopped paid employment to focus on my writing and caring for my father. I knew that if I was serious about getting my writing ‘out there’ I needed to engage with others through social media. Websites and blogs and Twitter accounts are some of the first things an agent or publisher will look at when considering taking on a writer and their work. I was surprised at how much I took to some of these media, but Twitter is still a bit of a mystery.

In some ways I get it and I love it. I get that I can engage with the thoughts and ideas of people from all backgrounds from all over the world. I get that news comes instantly, and responses follow like my cat trailing me when I have a plate of hot toast with melted butter on top. (There wouldn’t be melted butter on top for long if my cat had his way). I also get that people are not always who they say they are, and that a certain amount of caution and intuitive cynicism needs to be exercised. I get that the whole Twittersphere is incestuous in the ‘scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’ culture – tweet me and I’ll tweet you, like my stuff and I’ll like back – which is what I find mind-numbingly difficult. It doesn’t feel ethical and it doesn’t encourage people to think independently and have confidence in their own views.

What has taken me longer to understand is that I need, as my son pointed out to me, to try to properly engage in conversations and interactions – just as if I was in a room with someone. This in itself sounds promising, because I am a confident person who loves chatting to people and learning from them. However the Twittersphere is a big place and interractions and Tweets come and go in a nanosecond. Some lead onwards and others crash and burn or fizzle out slowly while no one watches. To do it properly, you see, takes time. And regular contact. Daily contact, in fact, and many minutes or even hours.

This scares me! The bottom line is that what scares me more is that I sometimes get drawn into it. I wake up and switch on my phone and an hour later I am still pinging around the internet somewhere. I absolutely KNOW that I have better things to do with my time and I’m still out there, ineffectively ‘liking’ and ‘retweeting’ things.

Chat times I understand more. There are ones around mental health, caring and dementia that give me a chance to interact with the same people regularly and which genuinely provide a great network for support and advice. But the individual ‘pings’ – those little blasts that make up a huge great skyscape full of the litter-dust of people’s reactions – they sometimes cloud the original trigger so totally that it quickly spirals into an infinite round of navel-gazing.

And what of Love or Hate? In his prayer, St Francis of Assisi asked that ‘where there is hatred, let me sow love’. What is difficult about tweeting is that we don’t know where the seeds of our thinking will fall. Our intention may be good (or bad), but like the parable in the Bible we simply don’t know the kind of ground that will be receiving them.

I suppose that ultimately social media reflects the society we live in – and indeed forms part of that society. Good intentions can accidentally (or incidentally) lead to melt-down, but, on the other hand, hate-filled tirades can lead to an outpouring of public support and love. The bottom line, though, is that I would rather be walking by the river than checking my phone…

MAD MOMENT

Going for that high hill Peak District walk with my friend despite the weather forecast for rain all day.

MARVEL MOMENT

Despite the weather forecast for rain all day, driving to said walk in rain, putting our boots on in rain, driving home in rain, but for 5 hours of walking, not a drop!!!

© Anne de Gruchy

3

Depression, depression, depression

Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. I am struggling again. And also saying things in threes, which is never a good sign.

If I’m honest, I’ve been struggling for months, but I’m not sure how much people who’ve bumped into me would believe me. Somehow I am keeping the basics going – even the big basics like running a workshop on ‘Exploring Simplicity’ this weekend – and in the moment I can seem confident and happy, and perhaps I am.

This is the problem with persistent and low-level depression. While I need to, I find that I can somehow produce a smiley face and keep on going. But the moment I don’t need to do this anymore I feel absolutely rock bottom and sit there with tears running down my face. Like yesterday, when I coped OK with taking dad for his hospital treatment and the whole breadth of things that this entailed – finding he wasn’t fully dressed and hadn’t had breakfast when I arrived to pick him up; spending 25 minutes queuing for a blue badge parking space; seeing a team and consultant we hadn’t met before; having to arrange to pick up antibiotics via the GP because the hospital pharmacy was too far for dad to walk – and then, just because he wanted me to take him for lunch, it all suddenly felt too much and I burst into tears.

Worse, sometimes the stress and distress comes out in the form of me being cantankerous and incredibly irritable. Even perfectly reasonable requests feel like huge mountains and I immediately feel like my back is to the wall. The poor person at the other end – most recently one of my sisters – wonders why on earth a simple ask like putting something in the post appears to be beyond me. When I pause for a second, even I wonder why this seems to be too much for me – but it doesn’t stop it feeling like I’m being asked to climb the north face of Everest.

Recently a kind and supportive person expressed that support by sharing with me the text of Desiderata, written by Max Ehrmann in 1927 and beloved by many ever since. Now don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of things I love about Desiderata – I mean, who doesn’t like being called a ‘child of the universe’ and compared to the trees and the stars? However I also have a bone to pick with old Max because he also tells us to ‘Avoid loud and aggressive persons; they are vexations to the spirit.’ I can hear a chorus of voices here, telling me what good advice this is. But if you are one of the people who is, completely unintentionally, sometimes loud and aggressive, then it is the loneliest prose poem in the world.

Many of us who find it hard to control our emotions feel like, and often are, social pariahs. When I am depressed and become overwhelmed by what the world throws at me I can manage so much, but little things often tip the balance and suddenly I am defensive and tearful. I don’t want to be judged on these times alone, but often this is what other people – and my own self-critical inner voice – notice the most. Even when I apologise, or try to explain why I over-reacted to a situation, I am clear in my head that I have failed badly some invisible test of etiquette and what is considered tolerable. It is like those ‘zero tolerance’ campaigns – well-intentioned and aiming to protect others from abuse but ultimately creating a tier of second-class citizens, often with mental health difficulties, who are essentially told that we won’t help you with your problems unless you come to us symptom-free in the first place. I am not condoning aggression, but where, I ask Max, is the Quakerly approach of ‘that of God in everyone’? Of all people having worth and value? None of us are perfect and if we look at the imperfections alone we can lose sight of the essence of a person. This is something that I, too, need to take on board.

I try very hard to control the levels of distress I display to others. I do a form of prayer meditation every day and try to predict what I will be able to manage and to build in periods of space and quiet. I am getting better at listening to the intuitive inner-guide that tells me ‘you can’t deal with this now’. I spend more time outdoors and amongst nature.

Yesterday, after I had taken dad for lunch and picked up his antibiotics, I took myself off to Attenborough Nature Reserve and walked past the lakes, down to the river Trent and along to Beeston Marina. This is my go-to place when I’m down – the canal and the river; somewhere I can see fields and woods and water, and listen to bird-song rather than cars. I am proud that I managed to go there rather than addressing my ‘ought-to’ list and making my stress-levels worse. I sat and watched the world go by. A couple walked along the towpath, comfortable in each other’s company, and linked hands. For an instant I felt the sadness of being alone but then I let it go and moved my attention to a seagull up above. The seagull wheeled in the sky, set against a backdrop of winter sun and misted fields, and for a moment I experienced the freedom and lightness that helps me to go on.

2017-02-13-16-16-21

MAD MOMENT…

Replacing a dead shrub a month earlier than is sensible – I drove past a garden centre and, guess what, I just had to go in! Now I just have to hope the warmer weather holds.

MARVEL MOMENT…

Dad wanting to go out for lunch immediately after being prodded, poked, widened and lasered at his latest bladder cancer check. Of course this will be no surprise to anyone who knows him well.

© Anne de Gruchy

2

Juggling Jobs, Caring and Mental Health

The day before I sat down to write this I was offered a new job.

It is an interesting and worthwhile job working with lovely people, but it also heralds a return to my multiple juggling act – dad, and work, and managing my mental health.

It was a big decision to go back to paid employment, and motivated by several things. Firstly, there was the fact that so far I have had no success in publishing my writing (not for money, anyway) and I need to consider my finances and status as self-employed. Secondly, I have got to that stage where I was beginning to miss work – the stage where I am itching for routine, and doing things as part of a team, and contributing something that society sees as worthwhile. Thirdly, my year and a half out of formal employment was mainly to provide extra time and resilience to support my dad. Of course his needs have not gone away – in fact they have increased and only a few weeks ago I had to rush down to Dorset to troubleshoot a crisis – but I have discovered that not being in work has not decreased the stress of dealing with his needs.

Dad and work have always been a juggling act. It would not be such a problem if he lived close-by – then I would be able to get him to a hospital appointment and be back in work the next day instead of losing an extra two days in travel and needing to stay on in case he had an adverse reaction to his treatment. But dad is not close-by and the biggest dilemma comes when there is fire-fighting to do. Like a few weeks ago when I went down to support him after he was targeted by conmen – there was the phone call from his bank to alert me followed by a full seven hours of ringing round and organizing things: a friend to be with him and stop overnight until I could get there, the police to report the crime and check on the house, a locksmith to change the locks, the insurance company, the care agency who look after him, my sisters.

‘What would have happened if I had been at work?’ I asked myself.

In a previous job I had to make choices about whether to take phone calls from dad or the care agency – if they rang I tried to pick up or I returned the call in my lunch break. I ended up with no lunch breaks as well as very little annual leave. I also ended up with high stress levels. Since then I have really examined how I choose to respond to dad’s needs. I have also had lots of extra support from my lovely sisters who both live abroad. Now, one of them is the main point of contact for the care agency and the other is taking over dad’s finances in addition to the other tasks she does. This is no mean feat, especially when you live in Australia – companies are not always keen to send correspondence thousands of miles even if you are named on a Power of Attorney.

So our family muddles on and dad continues to want to live at home. I have talked with my sisters and know that I will simply need to turn my phone off when I am at work if I am to have a chance to succeed in my new job and give it the full attention it deserves. If dad or the care agency cannot get hold of me they will have to find someone else. As someone recently pointed out to me, my father is an adult too – albeit one with a misbehaving brain – and his choice to remain at home has consequences he will need to live with. Maybe at some point the balance will tip and his health or safety will demand that he has residential or live-in care, both options which we have explored on his behalf.

In the end I feel that the decision about returning to work was taken from my hands. I was so intent on worrying about when and whether dad would have the next crisis and if I should just continue trying to manage without a job that I forgot that serendipity – or perhaps God – has a hand in things. It went like this: I got despondent following a book-rejection; I looked in the job listings with no real intent to apply at this stage; the job I have been offered just stuck in my brain and I woke one morning just knowing I needed to apply; the application went in at 2.30am and the rest is history.

Did I do the right thing? This was a question I kept asking myself. But when I was waiting to hear whether I had got an interview I was on tenterhooks and I knew then that I really wanted the post. It just seemed to fit. God, or at least the NHS, obviously thought so too!

MAD MOMENT…

My cat being determined to sit on ME while I conducted an interview and tried to take notes as part of my Simplicity research. My interviewee had lap and attention ready, but cats just know whose is the most inconvenient lap to choose!

MARVEL MOMENT…

I was early for my job interview so I did a twenty-minute meditation sitting in my car in the car park. The car park was surprisingly peaceful and surrounded by greenery. I felt deeply relaxed as I went in for the interview. Will definitely be trying that again if I ever need another job!

© Anne de Gruchy

2

Home Truths

Or: A Tale of Two Care Scenarios

    Scenario A

Dutiful daughter embraces caring for her elderly father and overcomes the problems of distance and her own fragile mental health. Problems are faced, but there are also fun times involving trips to the seaside and a fascination with ducks and furry toys. The family, scattered across the globe, pull together – but the weather is still better in Australia than the UK!

    Scenario B

Dysfunctional daughter jeopardizes the care available to her father with her erratic mental health and tendency to confront the system when there is no chance of changing it. The under-staffed and somewhat disorganized care agency struggles to provide the care paid for and to cope with distressed daughterly demands. Family relationships disintegrate as dysfunctional sibling goes into meltdown.

***********************************************************************************

Life is never straightforward. My life is probably less straightforward than most and I’m the first to hold my hand up to it. It’s harder to hear it from others.

Recently, a family member let rip and told it like it was. This involved them losing it during a phone call when we were discussing the care package for my dad. The family member shouted that it was all my fault, and that my father’s care agency came closer to sacking us than we did to sacking them. This is true. And, in as much as our fragilities affect our reactions and also other people, it is my fault. It was hard to hear it but it was fair, even though the method of delivery probably wasn’t.

The difficulty is in finding a balance in the way we view the truth. Looking at my life and the way I’ve tried to care for dad you could say that both Scenario A and Scenario B are accurate, but of course neither gives the full picture of the actual situation. It’s that age-old political trick of what we leave out rather than what we put in.

Writing out these scenarios was intriguing. It was like writing out the summary of a plotline for a book. And, unlike when I try to summarize my novels for a query letter, it was easy. Perhaps this is because I was deliberately descending into clichéd pictures taken from one particular angle. It’s simple to present just the rose-tinted view of caring, or the doom-and-gloom version, but much harder to get the subtle balance of reality.

So what is the reality? For me it is a very strange mix of love and duty. Of facing the unfaceable and yet finding joy and ease in dirty and difficult tasks. Of course what I find ‘unfaceable’ is very different than what most people do. A simple phone call floors me, and dealing with the system and bureaucracy causes my stress levels to soar. I don’t handle things well – as my family member pointed out so forcefully.

But there are things that I handle better. Understanding dad’s headspace and need for routine is a doddle, and we settle into a very comfortable companionship when I don’t have a long ‘to do’ list of tasks sitting on my shoulders. I’m good at day-to-day caring tasks – cleaning dad’s shoes and glasses, ensuring a good supply and change of continence pants, clean clothes, cooking nice meals, maintaining a stock of hearing aid batteries. I’m good at connecting with people, at building links with dad’s neighbours and friends. I just wish I lived close by so that the balance of tasks fell towards the ones I’m comfortable with rather than the ones that I’m not.

Writing the above list has been good for me. It’s reminded me that I am not only about dysfunctionality. Like the characters in my novels (hopefully) I am more rounded – contradictory for sure, but with positive traits as well as negative. Yin and Yang. Grunge rock and classical side-by-side. It’s why I struggle to get plotlines that I can write out simply – life is complex, and people are, too. But that is what is fascinating, and what, ultimately, makes us human.

MAD MOMENT…

My cat having a daft week! Big emergency vet bill because he was bitten by some unknown assailant, then the presents of a headless mouse and a live goldfinch in the space of two days. He never was a hunter, but it looks like he’s getting into his stride…

MARVEL MOMENT…

Psychadelic blues at my local pub. Proper throw-back music and brilliant, too.

© Anne de Gruchy

3

Weird Headspace

My head’s in a funny place at the moment.

Yesterday, yet again, I woke up feeling low. This, in itself, is not a bad thing as I have recently been through a period of severe depression and mood swings. ‘Low’ is a lot better than things have been! But low is also disappointing because I have recently also had a few ‘normal’ days where my mood felt basically OK. I had hoped that everything was leveling out and I would benefit from a period of stability again.

It feels like a long time since I had a period of stability. In the bad old days, in my late teens and early twenties, I was all over the place for most of the time. But with effort and support things gradually improved and I learnt to ride the periods of depression without making life-changing decisions like quitting a job or a relationship. Then came periods where for many years my mood was pretty level, and things improved further as my mood began to shift in response to events rather than erratically and for no apparent reason.

Lately, though, things have been getting weird again. I find it quite frightening to be in a place where I don’t know what I am going to wake up to. And the low bits are almost worse than the depressed bits. When I am depressed there is simply nothing I can do except cry in corners – I can’t work, or contact people, or motivate myself to do something. I just have to hope that I don’t do anything stupid.

It’s hard to explain what ‘low’ is for me. I was trying to unpick this with the friend I was on a day out with yesterday, and failed miserably. I just wake up feeling flat and sad, and am prone to bursting into tears when faced with the smallest thing. But also, as I said to my friend, ‘low’ is not an insurmountable thing – if I go somewhere or meet someone I can feel quite happy and well for the period when I am busy. The trouble is that as soon as I get home or am alone again, I feel that deep sinking inside and everything is an uphill struggle.

Our day out, by the way, was wonderful. We went to a Heritage Open Day at North Lees Hall in the Peak District – a very quirky place with ornate plasterwork featuring arms holding onto branches of oak and, even more strange, legs above light fittings in bas-relief. (Apparently a previous owner lost a leg and decided to represent this for evermore in the plasterwork of the living room!) The house also has the most beautiful and ancient spiral staircase made of elm, and has literary connections with Charlotte Bronte who visited and used the building as the basis for Thornfield Hall in her novel, Jane Eyre.

But, true to form for my low days, the moment I got back home from the lovely day out I felt completely flat again. I was weepy and uptight about little things and could not settle. The joy of standing at the top of Stanage Edge with those stunning views and the company of a good friend seemed like a lifetime ago. I went to bed early with a cup of tea and tried to read myself to sleep.

If anyone has advice for me about how to approach low days, it would be entirely welcome. Learning about other people’s stories has really helped me, and the mutual support I’ve received has kept me going through some tough times. But perseverance is hard work and sometimes the daily grind of simply keeping going feels just too much to bear.

In the meantime I will share a few photos from our lovely day out. Maybe it will redress the balance a little towards the positive side!

01 North Lees Hall - Plaster Leg! 03 North Lees Hall - Frieze - hand oak leaves 05 North Lees Hall - Elm Spiral Staircase 1 08 North Lees Hall - Window detail 15 North Lees Hall 1 25 View back to North Lees Hall 27 Beginning Stanage Edge

MAD MOMENT…

Swapping pine beds with my son when he moved house. Lots of things to unscrew and large pieces of bedframe to fit into his capacious car! It took ages, but was a lovely excuse to spend time with my only offspring.

MARVEL MOMENT…

My lovely day out with my friend and the beauty of Stanage Edge.

© Anne de Gruchy

2

The New Functional

Over the past few weeks my mood has been very erratic, and several times I have been overheard describing myself as ‘dysfunctional’ to sundry friends and acquaintances.

Not only that, I have been like a magnet – drawing all my other ‘dysfunctional’ friends to me. In fact, I have had conversations with several friends along the following lines:

Me: I’m in a very weird place at the moment – I’m not functioning at all well.
Friend: Join the club – there seems to be something in the air at the moment.
Me: At least we understand each other.
Friend (or me): Yes, you’re the only one who doesn’t put the phone down/freak out/
run down the road laughing when I scream/cry hysterically/
spout strange gibberish.
Us: We must stick together and be there for each other.

So here we have it – I appear to be part of a community of dysfunctional people who are very good at supporting each other. This has been one of the blessings of my mental health problems over the years – all those wonderful and interesting people I meet along the way. And what people they are! People with amazing intelligence and quirky, questioning minds. People who are funny, who you can hold a proper conversation with. People who are there for you even when their own world is caving in.

I was talking to another friend about this recently and I began to question my language and the use of the word ‘dysfunctional’. I started adding qualifiers – that I only meant dysfunctional in relation to how this rather narrow-minded world sees normality and ‘normal’ ways of being in the first place. What is ‘normal’ anyway, and who’s to say that this is a healthy place to be? My friend immediately responded: ‘You are the New Functional.’

Brilliant! I love it. I had to reach for a pen and paper to write it down because my memory is as dysfunctional as my mental health. This was no easy thing, given that I was driving at the time. ‘Remember that phrase,’ I told my friend as I sent telepathic thoughts to the next set of traffic lights willing them to turn red so that I could safely record this moment of wisdom and insight. I have it beside me now – a scruffy piece of paper with my shopping list on it, and at the bottom the words: ‘The New Functional – communities of dysfunctional people supporting each other’.

The more I think about this the more I like it. It seems to me that it’s not about whether I, personally, am a ‘functional’ person or not. It’s more about how we deal with what we are given. The way my lovely friends have supported and helped me has been far more effective and fruitful (in terms of me feeling a bit better) than anything the mental health services have been able to offer me. The mental health services are overstretched and underfunded, and my hope that they may be able to give me someone to talk to regularly about how I handle things is probably misplaced. However an expectation that my friends will be there for me has always proved to be built on solid foundations.

Beyond this is the massive well of kindness and support available from complete strangers – something that has been facilitated by social media and people’s willingness to share their innermost feelings via blogs. The community of people who share experiences around their mental health is very varied – both in personality types and the kinds of problems we encounter – but when it comes to supporting each other we always come up trumps.

So I’m sending a toast to ‘The New Functional’ community. We’re doing good – and a big ‘thank you’ to you all.

MAD MOMENT…

Trying to be ‘crew’ on my Quaker friend’s narrowboat. The River Trent and Erewash Canal had never seen anything like it! If you want to talk dysfunctional, think me, rope throwing (in the water), lock keys (how do they work?), crossing narrow lock gates (balance? what’s that?), etc.

MARVEL MOMENT…

FREE intellectual stimulation! The excellent Firth Lectures at the University of Nottingham’s Theology Department on the topic of ‘Imagining Faith: perceptions of religious belief in modern writing’ – delivered by the ever erudite and wonderfully nuanced Rowan Williams.

© Anne de Gruchy