Thursday, 14th of June
Hannah picked me up from home. We are heading to BySea cafe in Portswood. The next live storytelling event is about to start in a couple of hours and I’m a tiny bit nervous. But I can’t wait. Exhilarated.
I keep hearing this in my head. Somewhere in the desert there’s a forest…And an acre before us…
Today is going to be a special one, I can feel it. As soon as I’ve read about the speakers.
Hannah and I went early to set up. It was all done in less than half an hour, we even had time for a cup of tea and an enormous slice of cake. The portions at Bysea are huge.
I’m a little nervous because Debs asked me to host tonight’s event, talk at the start, introduce the speakers and bring it all to an end after the last speaker.
I love chatting but I never spoke in front of an audience before. I guess I did if you count the short speech at the last year of primary school, when I was 12 (which my cousin wrote for me, she was 18 at the time and was just about to study pedagogy to become a prime school teacher, she always wrote beautifully) and about 3 years ago the eulogy at my aunt’s funeral which again my cousin wrote, but this time it was for her mum and I was reading it on her behalf. Hardest thing I had to do in my life ever. To the day.
But I never ever spoke in English in front of an audience.
I don’t get too stressed nowadays, not any more but I was still a bit anxious. And also excited.
What’s the worst it could happen?
Just before 8pm.
The place is buzzing. Debs and Hannah were worried not many people will show up, there were a couple of other events on the same night, but the place is full.
Time to go up!
I don’t want to look at my notes much so I look around, at our guests, into their eyes.
God everyone is staring at me! Why?
You are talking to them you silly. You are the centre of the attention. They are supposed to look at and listen to you.
I panicked for a second and I forgot a couple of things I needed to say, it’s OK you can mention them late, so I went ahead and introduced our first speakers.
Jon and Chris.
(I struggled to find the right words that can capture the beauty of their story. I hope I did it justice).
A sweet couple, Jon and Chris came up on stage, and read out loud their story in turns. The story of their beloved daughter Katie. From the little I learned about her through her parents, she must have been an amazing human being. Despite all the tough ‘challenges’ (I hate this word, it cannot capture the pain, the torture, physical, emotional and mental that one can experience) life through at her, disability, cancer, she was determined to live life to the full.
She lived on her own, she drove, she studied at University and although when she was first diagnosed with cancer she was given a few years to live, she lived 17 more years. She proved them wrong!
She was incredibly strong, brave and considerate until the very end. The night before she died she listened to her friend talking about her everyday problems and worries, although she was in terrible pain herself. That’s the kind of person she was.
Jon and Chris went on to talk about how they are dealing with their grief, after Katie passed away 18 months ago and how their faith helped them. A friend once told Jon how grief is like a circle, the circle is all about the loved one you lost and at the start, you are in the centre of the circle, you cannot see past the sadness and the chaos. But as time goes by, you get out of the circle and it gets smaller, you can see beyond it, but it’s always there. You learn how to live with it. (I hope I remember it correctly, I got emotional at this point, it reminded me of my aunt, her death and how each of us are coping with it, in different ways, two and a half years later).
They took up new hobbies, e.g. Jon went on a cooking training class so she can teach others how to cook and they still do things Katie liked, not to reminisce and feel sad, but because they enjoy them too.
By the time they were done, I was already in tears. But it was time to get up and introduce the next speaker. I was so emotional I forgot to thank them publicly, on the mic, after I’ve given them their ‘I shared my story’ badges. What an idiot!
Next up it was Dominic. He started off with a poem (he had the smoothest, most beautiful voice, I hope he seriously considers my suggestion of him start doing podcasts)…
Breathing under water
I built my house by the sea.
Not on the sands, mind you;
not on the shifting sand.
And I built it of rock.
A strong house
by a strong sea.
And we got well acquainted, the sea and I.
Not that we spoke much.
We met in silences.
Respectful, keeping our distance,
but looking our thoughts across the fence of sand.
Always, the fence of sand our barrier,
always, the sand between.
And then one day,
-and I still don’t know how it happened –
the sea came.
Without welcome, even
Not sudden and swift, but a shifting across the sand like wine,
less like the flow of water than the flow of blood.
Slow, but coming.
Slow, but flowing like an open wound.
And I thought of flight and I thought of drowning and I thought of death.
And while I thought the sea crept higher, till it reached my door.
And I knew, then, there was neither flight, nor death, nor drowning.
That when the sea comes calling, you stop being neighbors,
Well acquainted, friendly-at-a-distance neighbors,
And you give your house for a coral castle,
And you learn to breathe underwater.
Sr. Carol Bieleck, RSCJ
from an unpublished work
Dominic’s life was full of ups and downs, a friend used to call him Forrest Gump. And by the end of his talk I understood why.
The strict, often cruel teachers at the boarding school he went to, put him down, repeatedly told him he ‘won’t amount to much’.
Later in life he discovered he’d like to become a priest. It wasn’t an easy ride, he couldn’t even afford to buy the essentials on the list he was given, and he’d often borrow from the church in Portswood.
Five years after he became a priest, he suddenly, fell in love. He gave up priesthood to marry the love of his life.
After that he dealt with redundancy ‘One day I was a chief operative for a charity, the next day I was down at the job centre’ and other hurdles that came his way over the years.
His message: Life is unpredictable, you never know what the next day will bring you, but life is also beautiful, and when you learn to breath underwater, to face everything without drowning or giving up, you build a deepest, most meaningful appreciation for life.
The third speaker, Sam lost his dad to cancer about two years ago.
He found it hard to process his grief, until he discovered open water swimming. ‘Those fifteen minutes when swimming becomes automatic and you don’t have to think about moving your arms or your legs, those fifteen minutes of clarity of mind’.
When I heard this my mind went straight to meditation and how I feel when I do my yoga.
And just after I thought of that, surprisingly, Sam said ‘my friends told me when I described it to them, that’s similar to meditation’.
I kept thinking what was the one thing that helped me the most to overcome my grief three years ago. Writing. That’s what helped me. This blog.
Sam started a website since, Sporting Heads, where he shares stories, similar to his of mental health benefits of sports and exercise.
Jenny (ft Annie)
The last speaker Jenny (with the help of her dear friend Annie who interviewed her) is a foster carer. She fostered 52 children in 13 years!!
Jen shared incredible anecdotes of her life as a foster carer. What came across strongly was Jen’s unconditional love and care for the children, despite everything that comes with fostering a child.
A little girl she fostered used to defecate every time someone compliment her. Every time someone said ‘Isn’t she lovely?’. She is now doing much better, thanks to Jen.
This is just one of the many stories she shared with us.
Jen wouldn’t be able to do what she does without her support network, her friends, her family, her husband and ten children, and the community.
It’s not always easy, actually it’s not easy full stop. Most children come from troubled families, some they’ve been neglected others have been abused, they often struggle emotionally and physically, but with Jen’s love, care and patience, they grow stronger.
Annie read as a letter from one of Jenny’s foster children. It was impossible not to tear up.
I could sit and listen to these two ladies all night.
What a great way to end this wonderful evening.
At the end I got the chance to chat to some of these wonderful humans.
I asked Dominic about the poem he recited and told me how he came across it. He read it in a friend’s book, an American priest and was actually written by a nun. He gave me a copy to take home. What a sweet man.
I had a great chat with Annie, who I found out earlier amongst a million other things she does, she runs Communicare, a Southampton mental health charity tackling loneliness and isolation, which I recently signed up as a volunteer. Superwoman!
I went home feeling inspired, touched, blessed, happy, honoured I got to introduce and hear the stories of these amazing people.
If you have a story to share, get in touch. Everyone has a story. We all have a story. And that’s what Touch is all about, share our stories, learn from each other, touch each other’s lives.
And if you get the chance, come along to one of the events. Intimate, inspirational, so beautifully simple, humanity at it’s best.