The Train to Emmaus

While struggling to find a space on the train for my carry on bag, and aware that I am holding up the other passengers, I breathe in and lean in toward an empty seat to let them pass by.

As the train pulls out of Crewe station I hoist my bag onto the nearest empty seat and plop down next to it as I exhale. My eyes meet the sympathetic smiling gaze of an older lady sitting across the aisle. I smile back.

“You are very well put together”, she tells me, gesturing to my overall look.

I feel far from “put together” in that moment but I thank her, nevertheless, understanding that her remark is an invitation to connect.

And so begins our conversation that continues for the entire journey to London.

Suzy shares her story with me, of becoming a widow at the age of 44 and the shock of learning her husband had suffered an aneurism and dropped dead. She regrets not being able to tell him one last time how much she loved him. Now, married again, she is caring for her second husband who has some form of Parkinson’s and can no longer speak. She is grateful that she can show him and tell him each day, the love she has for him, “probably, a bit too often, sometimes” she adds with a chuckle.

“I don’t think it’s possible to love too much”, I tell her.

Two women, who only minutes before were strangers, are sharing their journey and their stories and lifting each other up.


Stuff the Stuff!

I visited Powys Castle a few days ago, and although impressed by its architectural features, captivating gardens and magnificent location, once inside I was overcome with a deep sadness as I followed the guiding red cord through halls adorned with tiger skin rugs, and rooms stuffed with the spoils of war and death: the glittering ornamental gold and silver objects, the weaponry glinting in the light, ivories, intricate tapestries, jewels, statues of Hindu gods, many acquired through violent oppression at the beginning of the British Empire in India when Robert Clive ( 1725-1774) was hired by the East India Company to forcibly invade and conquer the Indian subcontinent, making him an obscenely wealthy man, one of the richest in Britain.

I felt saddest when I entered the room containing 18 glass display cases housing an array of stuffed birds and animals staring blankly from their perches. Perhaps it is because I am still grieving the loss of my beloved Bill that life, in all its forms, has become more acutely precious to me and increased my sensitivity and awareness to the wondrous gift it is.

I now ponder the history of places like Powis Castle and the dehumanizing impact of Colonialism. How the seized treasures were flaunted and displayed to symbolize the dominance of one group over another. How we still have much to learn from history about how to treat one another. How our collective past is linked inextricably to our future and how critical it is for us to know the truth, no matter how horrific, so that we choose to be and do better.

Sadly, current signs reveal a reluctance to bravely confront the the systemic evils in society as an insidious, creeping contagion of revisionism and book banning seeps into our lives where too many of us are ignorant, unaware, or worse, indifferent.

When I began this post my intention was to explore the notion of living simply, without too much stuff to clutter up my life and distract from what is most important – loving my neighbor. Yet, my creative spirit took it it along a sequestered path. I see now that my neighbor can also be those from distant lands who came before.

Embracing Quirk

Over the past couple of days I have been delighted by quirky things which has me contemplating the concepts of conformity, compliance and “fitting in”. I have concluded that embracing the novel, the creative, the different, the quirky, enhances our lives in unexpected ways.

While traveling through the smallest town in Britain, Llanwrtyd Wells, I noticed a sign promoting an upcoming annual Bogsnorkelling competition. I later discovered that this town also hosts a marathon where man versus horse. A race that surprisingly a man sometimes wins. By celebrating its quirkiness this town attracts visitors from all over the world and so maintains its vibrancy.

Similarly, the town of Hay on Wye, close to the Welsh border with England, known in literary circles as the largest second hand bookstore in the world, credits its growth and reputation to a quirky man named Richard Booth (1938 – 2019). Mr Booth, an Oxford scholar and bibliophile had an idea to inject some life into an area he saw deteriorating by going to the United States in the 1970’s to buy up crates of books being sold off by libraries that were closing and shipping them back to Hay on Wye where he then opened seven second hand bookstores including converting an old fire station and cinema. A man of means he also bought Hay castle with the aim of drawing attention to the town which he accomplished through some very novel stunts.

Mr Booth proclaimed himself King Richard of Hay on Wye and made his horse his prime minister. Then, with the consent of the people of the town, and with tongue in cheek, on April 1st., 1977, he declared Hay on Wye an independent territory with its own flag and national anthem.

King Richard printed money on rice paper which was accepted in many shops as legal tender, he sold passports and baronies and earldoms for about 25.00 pounds and threw in a T shirt. His antics were successful in focusing attention on the town through his love of books, which has proven to be a boon for the town which boasts an average of one bookstore for every 55 residents.

An annual book festival now attracts Nobel prize winning authors, scientists and presidents including Salman Rushdie, Presidents Carter and Clinton, the latter calling it “The Woodstock for the mind.”

Today I met another quirky person, Tom Goddard, who has preserved the Victorian practice of decorating envelopes and turned it into an art form and social commentary solely for his own and our enjoyment . We chatted for about half an hour as he described his art which he displays but does not sell.

Thanks to people like Tom, the residents of Llanwrtyd Wells, and King Richard Booth, whose passion for books combined with his quirky personality helped a town flourish, people from all over the world enjoy the fruits of their efforts.

Perhaps we all could more readily embrace our own quirkiness and be less concerned about fitting in. Who knows, if we can do this, how much we might improve the lives of others.

What I Learned from Rhubarb, Yarn and Guitars

Two weeks ago, while browsing the weekly open air market stalls for my fruit and veg for the next seven days, I spotted some home grown rhubarb. It is one of my favorites, probably because I can recall a childhood watching Grandad yank the stalks out of his vegetable patch and then hand them to Granny to make a delicious pie. I would hover by the table as she cut up the rhubarb hoping she would dip a piece in some sugar for me. When she did I eagerly bit into the one inch wedge of tartness, my face puckering as I waited for the sweetness of the sugar to increase my pleasure.

No surprise then, that once I had returned from the market and was back in the kitchen, my first thought was to prepare my own rhubarb dessert while reminiscing on those cherished childhood memories. As I unpacked the groceries I discovered, to my dismay, that I had left the rhubarb at the stall. It took a few minutes before I stopped scolding myself for being so careless and tried instead to console myself by remembering the saying that the anticipation is often more enjoyable than the event. I’m not so sure when it comes to rhubarb.

Well today, I revisited that stall and picked out some carrots, an onion and some plums. There was no rhubarb. I recognized the young man serving me, whose name I later found out is Bryn, and mentioned to him of my carelessness the last time I was there. He remembered and told me that he had kept the rhubarb for me (which I had paid for) in case I returned. Then he told me to take the produce I was planning on buying today, free of charge, to make up for my disappointment. The lesson I learned from this encounter is that people are good. So, thanks to Bryn and Tommy, stallholders.

Other good people who have helped me out this week are people I have never met and yet they responded to my requests. I posted in a local Facebook page that I like to crochet, and as there is no TV where I’m staying, it is one way to pass the evening. I asked for any unwanted surplus yarn and within a few minutes Nancy and Menna, strangers to me, were offering to drop off what they had. When I returned from my walk, there, hanging on the door handle, was a bag full of wool. Lesson learned from that exchange is that people are good. Thanks to Menna and Nancy.

I also asked if anyone could lend me a classical guitar for a week, as we have a writer coming from Italy who enjoys playing. Yet again, a person I have never met, offered his to me. When I returned from the market, it was propped up outside the front door waiting for me. Lesson learned from that interaction, people are good. Thanks to Godfrey for trusting me with his guitar.

There are so many helpful and kind folk about who are ready to step up and make life just a little easier for others. Veronica, for generously sharing her space, the pub landlord and landlady, who showed up with a memory foam mattress topper, for my added comfort, and Mike and Andy who have offered to help remove a heavy oil container from the back yard as well as provide a guitar.

Lesson learned every day is o be grateful that there are more and more good people.

Bryn.

Kindness Matters

As I adjust to life on my own I find myself paying more attention to the interactions between people. I am becoming more observant and maybe even ( I know it’s hard to imagine) more introverted. I’m certainly more reflective.

At a family wedding on Monday I felt particularly alone even in the midst of lovely people happy to chat. I noticed all the couples enjoying the occasion and each other. The loving glances, the gentle reach of a hand to another, the affectionate shoulder squeeze and comforting back rub and the warmth in the embraces as friends greeted friends. I noted the subtle, seemingly insignificant gestures of kindness offered by many to people they had just me and felt simultaneously both happy and sad, acutely aware of the absence of Bill’s physical presence and his tender touch.

Returning to Corris the next day, one of the hottest days in Wales ever recorded, I anticipated train delays and decided to make the most of the journey whatever happened.

While enquiring about alternative trains due to missed connections, I met a lady who was traveling the same route. with a two hour wait til our next train I was resigned to sitting still in the sweltering heat and daydreaming of cool breezes. She, decided to walk into Shrewsbury and explore the town. I offered to watch her luggage, a carry on bag and an artist’s portfolio. She hesitated at first and said she would manage, but I explained that I had no plans to do anything but sit and wait. She was persuaded and entrusted me, a stranger, with her belongings.

Ten minutes before the train was due to depart she returned, excited to show me the summer dress she had bought for her daughter while explaining what a rare treat it was for her to shop alone. Helping her out had been no sacrifice at all to me, but to her was a significant kindness.

The train conductor approached us on the platform and suggested we would be more comfortable in the front carriage which had air conditioning and once we were on board he provided us with bottled water. When we sympathized with him about working in such intolerable heat, he plopped down in the seat opposite us and chatted for a few minutes reminding us cheerfully that once Autumn arrives it will be leaves on the tracks that will cause the delays.

The inconvenience of delayed transportation allowed for pleasant exchanges between strangers and the 90 minute train ride passed swiftly as Sian Bennett, children’s book illustrator, and I, chatted about our lives and discussed the nature of kindness.

The final leg of my journey was by bus. The Polish bus driver waived my fare when I mentioned I have applied for, but not yet received, my bus pass. “Sit down, relax and enjoy the ride” was his comment to me.

So, I am learning to “relax and enjoy the ride” while trusting in the kindness of strangers.

Reflection on life

For one year I have been learning to live my life without Bill. The lessons have been difficult to accept at times because I have wanted to determine my own path and have been resistant to the reality that I am alone.

What I know now, that I hadn’t fully understood before, is that I can waste precious time wishing things were different, wishing time would stand still as I relish a tender moment, or wishing time would pass more quickly as I anticipate a happy event.

All the mysterious gifts of Life are presented to me in each moment if I can learn to pay attention and be in the now. I am so grateful to be in a place where Nature reminds me daily in the blossoms, in the leaves on the trees, in the rippling brook, in the meow of a cat, and in the warmth in the greeting of a passer by, that life is continually renewing us. I am filled with gratitude for the gift of memory and choose to be happy while carrying the Love that continues to sustain me in my heart. I will honor that love and honor Bill while cherishing each moment by choosing a healthy and joyful life.

My memoir is published!

I had little inkling, when I entered this marathon writing phase, that it really would call on all my reserves of patience, discipline, and courage to follow through with sharing my story in this way. I have risked much by telling of my journey of faith and love in my yearning for a life of authenticity. I hope that it will inspire others to keep focused on the light and choose Life.

https://www.amazon.com/gp/aw/d/1645312615/ref=cm_cr_arp_mb_bdcrb_top?ie=UTF8

What’s so Funny?

Back at work after my stress free Summer adventures, I noticed the need for stress management in my students, many of whom take learning so seriously.  I have attempted to tackle the issue with humor.

Humor is a serious business. It’s no joke! Those of us responsible for providing the most effective educational experience to our young people understand its power. Laughter is known to have many health benefits including relieving stress, raising endorphins and increasing oxygen levels.  All things that assist learning and more importantly  extend life.   So it makes sense to chuckle, chortle, giggle, smile, and snort our way to academic success.

I hear from my students more and more how overwhelmed and stressed they feel with all they are expected to accomplish in any given day.  It is not only the pressure of doing well in school, but also the expectations that they manage all their extracurricular activities, part time jobs, club responsibilities and volunteer commitments. Oh, and let’s not neglect the need (if there is time), for a restorative night’s sleep! 

It is with this in mind that I choose to ease their stress by employing laughter in the classroom.  It is critical that one not confuse sarcasm, or being entertained by someone’s embarrassment with real honest to goodness humor; one that unites us, rather than separates us.  It must come from a sincere desire to include all while teaching important lessons.   

In the English classroom, we tackle the stuff of life through our close reading of some very serious literature.  Universal themes of loss, regret, corruption, cruelty, forgiveness, jealousy, love, sacrifice and others are delved into, drawing on personal connections to the stories we read, to gain a better understanding of our place in the world. Texts, with a few exceptions, that lack a comedic thread.   But laughter, too, is the stuff of life, and has a significant role to play in our well being, which is why it is so needed to redress the balance.

In the past, I have employed the help of disco music to energize my sleepy students who asked for something to wake them up before the first class of the day.  We all learned the steps and wiggled, jiggled and giggled for two minutes to remove the cranial cobwebs.  Yes, we looked silly, but two minutes of activity that starts the day smiling is worth the investment. Another lesson was in writing clearly. So, I followed the student written directions for making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, faithfully.  Well, she didn’t say I was to use a knife to remove the peanut butter from the jar. Nor did she mention that the slice of bread should be removed from the wrapped loaf!  They chuckled their way through that messy lesson.

Students are drawn to people who make them laugh, who are genuinely concerned for them; people who show them respect and pay them attention.  They respond to enthusiasm and kindness and to the setting of clear boundaries.   I want the young people with whom I come in regular contact to see a role model of strength and kindness.  To be inspired by someone who values hard work and determination, goal setting and achieving.  I want them to know that there is real satisfaction in reaching our full potential and that the quest for excellence can be enhanced by peppering our path with laughter.  

The extraordinary is to be discovered in the ordinary.

Reflecting on my time away from my “ordinary” routine, I realize that I have encountered extraordinary grace in the random interactions with folk in Corris. These people are no different than most good people anywhere, in so far as they have cultivated a habit of genuine community, where each member helps the others in whatever little way is presented, creating an atmosphere of service that becomes a natural part of village life.

When I dropped my phone in the river, I was immediately given a plastic container full of rice to absorb excess moisture ( it worked!). When the torch on my hubby’s walking stick died someone provided the batteries, without expecting payment.

In another instance, a head popped around the door of the small grocery/coffee shop announcing a trip into town and “Does anyone need me to pick anything up?”

The neighbor, knowing we were using public transport to get about, took us to the seaside, away from the bus route, where we dipped our toes in the ocean.

The invitation to share a traditional Indian meal and the aromatic rice offered over the garden fence.

The pub landlord who passed on mail that had been sent care of the pub for me – always a safe bet! Who also later gave me a garden umbrella to replace the one damaged by high winds at our cottage .

The lady who offered her empty home if we had overflow guests, and her neighbors who took care of her plants and her cat in her absence.

The local man, who on receiving a call that a stranded villager would have to wait 4 hours for roadside assistance for a flat tire, dropped what he was doing and showed up to fix it in 15 minutes.

It was not long before I, too, got into the habit of seeing a need and stepping in, such as when a sudden rush of customers descended on the coffee shop where my impromptu and brief stint as a waitress was welcomed.

Or, when the turnover of guests at the art studio required a team effort to get the rooms ready quickly, so I grabbed the bucket and rags and scrubbed the kitchen floor.

Or, when I greeted the stranger dragging luggage up the hill knowing she was headed to the now spick and span studio.

Nothing spectacular, just ordinary folk doing ordinary little kindnesses for each other, expecting nothing in return, but in so doing creating something exquisitely extraordinary.

It began with a smile.

I met a lady the other day outside her home as I wandered up the hill. We smiled at one another and said, “Hello”. The conversation had begun.

“I’m just closing the door – angry teenage boy inside.” She explained, as she pulled gently on the door handle.

“Oh, I know what that’s like.” I added in solidarity, “I had three boys under the age of four.”

“Oh, I have just one of each, a boy and a girl”. She sounded relieved and then asked, “Do you live in Corris?”

“No, I’m renting a cottage a few doors down. I was here last summer at Stiwdio Maelor and fell in love with the place, so have brought my husband with me to share it with him.”

“Oh, I have an artist from Stiwdio Maelor house sitting for me next month as I’m off to hike in Switzerland on Sunday for a few weeks. She was going to come earlier but can’t.”

“I’m here for a couple more weeks – I can water your plants for you.”

“Thanks, but the girl two doors down is taking care of that and the lady at number 9 is feeding the cat”.

“I love that about this place- everyone helps one another out.”

“Yes. It happens in a small community like this, where everybody knows everybody.” She added matter-of-factly.

Two women, who only two minutes earlier were strangers, were enjoying chatting comfortably together in the middle of the road. Any invisible or imagined barriers did not exist.

She shared that her children, now teenagers, both needed their own room so she had built a shed in her garden across the road for her own bedroom.

“Come and have a look! It’s really cozy”. She was right. It was compact with a bed and a wood burning furnace. A cheery red door with a hinged window half way up, a corrugated roof, a porch with pots of purple and white cosmos to welcome her. “It’s all I need”.

There was something appealing about saying goodnight to teenagers in one building and then scooting across the road in jammies and slippers to a private cocoon. But wait – what about the Winters? Brrr.

I explained to her that we usually zip around Britain in the summer visiting family and friends but this year we’re inviting them to join us in Corris.

“If you have any overflow of guests, feel free to use my house while I’m away.” She guided me toward the front door. “Let me show you around.” She added, without any hesitation.

And so I was ushered through the door, introduced to the two teenagers and the cat, shown how to ensure we had hot water, where the towels are kept and what outdoor chair not to sit on when listening to the rush of the stream at the back of the house.

“Gosh! Thank you!” I was delighted to encounter such a kindly, open and generous spirit. Yet, this lady is not so different from most of the folk I met in Corris, where they have figured out what really matters – caring for and being cared for one another.

“I won’t bother giving you the key. I haven’t locked my doors in eight years.”

“Really?”

” No need” she added. “Hardly anyone does round here.”

“Well, thank you, again. I may well take you up on it — “. I wanted to add her name, but realized we hadn’t formally introduced ourselves.

“I’m Julie, by the way”.

“Hello. Nice to meet you, Julie. I’m Meg.”

“Nice to meet you, too, Meg”.