Saturday, 16 November 2019

The tape measure

Growing old is measured in losses, some agonising, some simply remarked and some just casually passing.

This morning in my quiet time I thought back to 1994 — 25 years ago.

In 1979 when I came from York to live in Hastings, this town on the foot of England, I was married to Rog and carrying our first child. Straight away I sought out our local branch of the National Childbirth Trust — a radical organisation back then, that transformed the practice of childbirth. The Hastings branch was just beginning. I became its treasurer and made friends with Carole, who was expecting her second baby and training as a breastfeeding counsellor. Then, the years went on.

In 1994 —fifteen years later —I was still firm friends with Carole. We had passed the age of babies and the youngest of my five children was seven years old. I had made many friends in Hastings and was training for ministry. Some of my special Hastings friends were Kay, Freddie, Steve, Charles and Chris. I met up with these friends often; we ate together, shared our hearts together, went deep. I was also training for ordained ministry on the Southwark Ordination Course in London, an Anglican foundation that trained Methodists too. Formation for ministry is powerful and transformative; it digs down to the roots of your soul. I made some special friends on that course, whom I loved with all my heart — Giles and Paul and Michael. They and I spent weekends together in their home or in mine, they got to know my children and my husband Rog. They were so dear to me. I also loved dearly the principal of the course, Martin Baddeley, and he too came to visit this town by the sea, to offer training to our Local Preachers, whose tutor I was back then. And so my London friends and my Hastings friends and my family wove into one fabric of love. Meanwhile, up in Liverpool, Tom Cullinan was living a beautiful discipleship of faithfulness and loving care of the earth, which taught me so much at that time and meant so much to me. I loved him.

Perhaps my dearest and deepest friends were Giles and Kay. My thoughts about baptism had evolved over the years and, while my first four children were baptised in infancy, I left my youngest child to make that decision herself. In 1994 she decided to be baptised; Giles and Kay were her godparents. That's a special relationship, isn't it? One you imagine will last for ever. Giles's involvement with my life even extended to my family of origin — he bought my father's racy little MG car. My father loved his cars.

It was a time so vivid with life and hope and purpose. Relationships that went so deep. A sense of mission and dedication. I was working in hospice chaplaincy and prison ministry and preacher training. I spent a lot of time with people dying and in bereavement, and took many, many funerals — weddings too. I preached twice most Sundays. I was writing books and raising a family. So much going on.

Now here we are in 2019, twenty-five years later. My father died at the age of 82, a sudden and merciful death — a main blood vessel to his heart split. I gave the address at his funeral. My friend  Kay died of cancer a few years ago; I took her funeral, as was her wish. Tom is dead. Freddie is in his eighties now, and we keep tenuously in touch — a card at Christmas. It's the same with Chris. I saw Steve for the first time in years just recently — we bumped into each other at the opticians. He is still as kind and loveable as he ever was. We had lunch together and promised to keep in touch. But . . . maybe . . . 

My husband Rog left me for someone else. We are still friends and our paths cross occasionally. I don't know if Michael is alive or dead. He drank more alcohol than he ate food, and always did live close to the edge. Giles and Paul I never see, though I look them up on the internet sometimes, to see how their lives and ministry are evolving. My youngest child lives far away now. I don't have the money to visit her, nor she me. We keep in touch online, and we love one another. Martin Baddeley is dead, and I have no idea where Charles is. 

I married again, and my second husband Bernard died in 2004. I took his funeral.

I've written twenty or so books (lost count), ceased to be a Methodist minister, no longer take funerals, married Tony in 2006 — then my publisher of twenty years — and I'm writing what I think will be my last book.

But Carole, who was my friend before my children were born, before I trained for ministry or ever wrote a book, is still my friend. When we meet every now and then, it's as though time has stood still. We see each other's soul in the same way we always did, you know? We recognise one another.

So much changes. You lose what you thought you would keep forever. One of the things lost is the sense of self — few of us arrive at old age feeling proud of ourselves. Certainly not me. The sense of one's mediocrity settles in at some point in middle age, and takes root. The main thing I feel these days is gratitude. For every day my body doesn't hurt, I have a home that's safe and dry, I have food in the fridge and enough money to buy it, I can pay my bills and pick up clothes cheap on eBay — I am so grateful. I think of people who make shift in tents and hostels and refugee camps, people who are raped and starve, whose legs are blown off by land mines, people who are overtaken by diabetes and cancer, by Alzheimers and auto-immune conditions, the scourges of our time — and oh, my God, I am grateful. I live so quietly, I barely disturb the air; but here at the heart of my life the ember of gratitude burns and keeps me warm. I am blessed. I know I am blessed.

Time passes. What abides? So little, but some things do.


Sandra Ann said...

Well you might in theory be writing your last book but you will always have a writer's heart and the ability to weave a story runs like blood coursing through your veins. Beautiful words Pen. Makes me think of the folk God placed in my life at a particular time and for a particular season. In the end Graitude for the simple things is the key I believe to a joyful and contented life. Hugs as always xx

Lucie said...

Dear Pen, what a lovely recollection. Autumn, for the earth and for our souls, is such a time for reflection. Every day seems to spark some memory: I pass a home which I used to know so well but no longer, a theatre where I met my husband for the first time but which now is completely changed, places all over which used to be part of my essence - and which now have moved on, I have a stack of diaries from my painful and wrenching first marriage. They sat in the garage for years, barely raising an emotion at all. Do you cling on because these places, moments used to be so important? When I can, I let go, and feel so much freer. My sister’s church has a new year ceremony where you can come and bring anything you want to be purged of for an enormous Bonfire. I gave her letters and some diaries to take. I can’t tell you how much freer I feel. I’ve let the lessons and the good from those past times remain and let the heavy weight of regret, guilt and shame go. Battle scarred as you said, but at peace. It’s what this time is for, I think. Thank you as always for sharing and illuminating. Xx Lucie

Buzzfloyd said...

Every time you write a book now you say it's your last! I think the achievements of other people are easier to see than our own.

Pen Wilcock said...

San — "A particular time and a particular season", yes. And we do not forget. x

Lucie — What a brilliant idea — your sister's church Bonfire of Things Past!! I might suggest the same for our chapel.

Buzzfloyd — I know! But these last two — the one I wrote in the summer hasn't found a publisher, I might have to publish it myself; and the one I'm writing now, getting a contract and some money out of the publisher has been like milking a dry cow (though it has finally come through). Plus the accountant at another organisation I write for isn't even bothering to reply to my emails! It's starting to create more frustration than fulfilment. Time to stop. And this is not about the money — as you know, I refuse to do anything just for the money; it has to be what I came here to do, first and foremost. But publishing is a numbers game, as my publisher frequently tells me, so the money and their readiness to come through with it is my helpful gauge of the usefulness of my contribution. Evidently that is waning. Better to quit while I'm ahead.

Rebecca said...

Your words wrap up many of my OWN experiences somehow; things I struggle to express. Thank you for your probably unintentional gift to me. I wear it like a favorite wool coat over my aging bones. 😌

Pen Wilcock said...



greta said...

such a lovely and loving way to look at our life - to see the losses, the changes, the regrets and to also recognise how truly blessed we are. therein is fullness.

Pen Wilcock said...



Anonymous said...

What abides? It seems to me that only the ability to love abides. However we are hurt, mystified, lost... we keep on loving and connecting in all its different guises and invariably, for me, in ways I hadn’t envisaged or, sometimes, would even wish for. It’s tough and exhausting.
And yet, the wagging finger of perspective soon puts sorrow and woes right and in gratitude we love yet again. More simply maybe and perhaps even deeper; more appreciative of the wider nature of love; that beyond human relationships and expectations. Gosh - where did that lot come from!
Thankyou Pen for another thought provoking post.
Deb x

Pen Wilcock said...


Hi Deb! x

Pen Wilcock said...

I want to respond to someone who's just sent me a long comment here. Part way through you say "This part is not for publication", and go on to tell me about some really sad and difficult changes in your life. Thank you so much for getting in touch and commenting.

On Google blogger, I cannot publish part of a comment — I have to either publish or delete the whole thing. And I cannot read more than the first few lines of any comment. To read all of a long comment, I have to publish it, and then of course what you have said would become public. Even if I deleted it after reading it, people who receive notifications might see it, or anyone who was here at the same time.

So I'm really sorry, I have only been able to read the first part of your comment, and as it was labelled "Anonymous", I don't know who I'm responding to. If you signed off with your name at the end, I couldn't see that bit.

If you want to get in touch to tell me about the changes you're going through just now, the best thing is to comment again, just giving me your email address, explaining it's you, and asking me to contact you. I won't make the comment public, but I'll send you an email so you can tell me all about it. Remember I can read only the first few lines of a comment before publishing it, so if you'd like me to email you, it's important to write your address near the beginning and keep the message short.

Thank you for getting in touch. I'm thinking of you and have you in my prayers.