Big World Small Boat

Private Diary of A Priest. OK, so we're not all angels...Everyone needs a place to get things off their chest! And yes, I do talk to God about it all! Even He has a sense of humour! Want proof? Well, he made me, didn't He? Oh, one last thought-If you don't like what I've written, please keep in mind - it's MY diary. Go write your own!

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Location: England, United Kingdom

I've been serving children in crisis for over twenty five years. My goals are not to raise money, but to find organisations and individuals who can help change lives! What may be outdated equipment for you could change the life of a child in Eastern Europe! To learn more please visit our site at: www.ProjectNewLife.org

Friday

Dying Alone

Today I celebrated the passing of a life. Emily Hanwell, age 95, died alone in her home. She had lived through two world wars, the sinking of the Titanic, the advent of television, and four monarchs. She is survived by two sons - both no longer living in the area.

Emily died in her bed. The coroner listed her cause of death as ‘suspected natural causes.’ It was the best the coroner could offer. Emily had been dead for several weeks before her body was discovered. Nature had followed God’s mandate and there was little of her mortal remains left.

I spoke with one of her sons. He had already been made aware of her death. He told me that he was 'too busy' to attend her funeral, but he was sure that his brother would ‘try to do something.’ He said his mother had become difficult to deal with and it was a ‘blessing’ that it was all over. I asked him when it was that he had last spoken with her. He said he had spoken to her on Christmas Day ‘when she had called him.’

When I arrived at the funeral directors, I discovered there were no flowers. There had been no calls about Emily, or anyone asking about her funeral. Her coffin was of the ‘particulate variety,’ a polite euphemism for cheap board, with colourless plastic handles, which was all the government would pay for. I went next door to the local florist and purchased several bunches of daffodils to place atop her coffin.

And so we headed to the chapel at our local crematory. In Britain the pallbearers are the professional staff of the funeral director. There was no one there to receive Emily. And it was impossible not to have tears form in my own eyes to see this pitiful coffin lifted up and placed upon the catafalque, with no one there to mourn her loss or celebrate her passing. Often my children have attended funerals I’ve celebrated, when I know there would be no one to attend. But in my heart I was certain that at least one of her sons would find time to attend their mother’s funeral.

Just as with any funeral I celebrate, I prepare a Homily that is unique to the deceased. Sadly, there are times when I have nothing more to guide me than looking at the face and hands of the deceased. For me, there is often an endless story that is revealed in the lines on someone’s face. This was the case with Emily. But in my Homily, I did say to the pallbearers that I wondered what the last days of her life were like.

One of the greatest fears that a human being can experience is the fear of being abandoned by family and friends and being left to live one’s life all alone. Prison guards know this when they place recalcitrant inmates in solitary confinement and torturers know it too when they need their victims to confess to fictitious crimes.

To be cut off from human contact is immensely painful, but it pales when compared to being cut off from God. And yet that is the daily experience of too many of His children, wandering about this earth with no sense of any larger purpose or destiny and no vision beyond the blank wall of death. What a tragedy, and how unnecessary it is!

And as Emily’s soul was committed to God’s care, I was able to smile, knowing that she was not alone, nor ever would be.


Emily, I know that as God opened His arms to receive you, the angels danced.


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Tuesday

A Bedside Prayer for Death of a Child

I was honoured to have attended a child’s passing last night. Kayleigh was nine years old. She would have turned ten in November. Leukaemia had ravaged her body and she was extremely weak from both the illness and the aggressive treatments she had endured over the past few months.

Several hours earlier, the doctors had worked determinedly to resuscitate her when her heart failed. I didn’t need to ask in this case, I instinctively knew that Kayleigh’s mother still had not moved to acceptance that her daughter’s body was failing and thus had refused to sign the ‘DNR’ order, allowing Kayleigh’s spirit to pass on without further interference with her body. But you could see in the eyes of the kind doctor and nurses that they knew what the inevitable outcome would be.

In the early afternoon Kayleigh was talking with her seven-year-old sister Justine and mother. I sat in a chair far in the corner of the room. I could still just barely hear them speak, but couldn’t always clearly hear what was being said. Justine had been devotedly swabbing Kayleigh’s lips with a small sponge on a stick to provide moisture to her lips.

It was just before 5 when Kayleigh’s mother said she needed to take Justine home where her grandmother was preparing dinner. She would return within the half-hour. I promised I would remain with Kayleigh while she was gone.

As I walked with the mother and child to the doors of the ward, Justine looked up at me and said ‘ Kayleigh said she is going to send each of us a card.’ She said it with that beautiful conviction that only children can show, as if they were speaking of Father Christmas arriving the following morning. ‘That’s wonderful Justine,’ I said. ‘I’ll look forward to hearing from her.’


I said goodbye at the hallway and watched the pitiful figure of the mother move down the hallway, with Justine half-skipping, half-running beside her. I could hear Justine cheerfully chatting away about something as I turned back into the hospital ward.
When I returned to Kayleigh’s room, she was still. Her eyes were open and in any other setting, saving the pale grey appearance of her skin, you might have thought she was just gazing at the ceiling. It had only been a matter of minutes from when we had walked out the door to my return and Kayleigh's body had taken its last breath.

I felt the tears welling up in my eyes, but I also felt myself smiling. She was at peace. But there was something much more powerful in the moments that had passed. Kayleigh had fought hard to remain there for her mother and sister – to impart that powerful message to Justine – that she’s only going on a journey, not that she simply wouldn’t exist anymore.

And for both her mother and sister, Kayleigh’s passing occurred at a moment when little Justine would not have been subjected to a repeat of her mother’s frantic and poignant fight to try to protect her daughter from a disease that had ravaged the child’s body.

One of the nurses named Betty, came into the room and saw me standing at the end of the bed. It only took seconds for her to realise that Kayleigh had passed. I was deeply touched because without any words she put her arms around me and hugged me. Betty removed the IV line whilst I closed Kayleigh’s eyes and together we straightened the bed and turned down the lights. I didn’t really think about it, but I took a floppy eared sock rabbit that Justine had brought her sister from the nightstand and tucked it in beside Kayleigh.

I asked Betty if she would like to stay with me as I offered prayers for Kayleigh. She held up her finger to indicate ‘just a moment,’ and she left the room. Seconds later she returned with another nurse and one of the ward assistants. We gathered around Kayleigh’s bed and prayed:
Christ Jesus, most merciful Saviour,
Hear our prayers as we gather in Your name
We commend this child into Your arms of mercy.
Kayleigh has been a blessing to all who knew her.

She brought laughter, warmth, and comfort to many
And in the moments when her mother and others showed despair
Kayleigh provided a noble message of hope and promise,
in her unfailing conviction that her life here may be limited
but is by no means final.

Grant comfort and strength to those who gather here now,
dedicating their lives to the care of others,
who often must face life as it moves to shadows.
Embrace them with Your eternal love
through everything they do.

Thank you for the love we would never have known,
but for Kayleigh’s brief days with us.

May the angels surround Kayleigh
and the saints welcome her with joy.

Lord God, we commend this child to Your everlasting care.

In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen

One of the staff very sweetly offered to remain with Kayleigh as I walked to the entrance of the hospital to await the return of her mother.
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Now Lord, You let Your servant go in peace. Your word has been fulfilled. Support us O Lord all the day long of this troublous life. Until the shadows lengthen and the evening comes. The busy world is hushed, The fever of life is over and our work is done. Then Lord, in Your mercy, grant us a safe lodging, A Holy rest, and peace at last. Through Christ our Lord. Amen
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Saturday

Thank You Sarah

It was just past midnight as I sat in hospital with my friend Sarah. Her children and grandchildren had gone home for some much needed rest. It was obvious that Sarah was at the end of this life's journey and preparing for her next. The nursing staff had kindly moved her into a private room, affording more privacy and dignity.

I had brought with me a small radio and a book, which I read to Sarah during the night. And I was prepared to offer her Viaticum (a prayer of provision for her journey) as morning broke. It was our private time together.

It was close to 2AM when Sarah opened her eyes. I had stopped reading and was watching the shallow rise and fall of her frame as her body instinctively fought, clinging to the last vestige of life. The music that softly played from the small radio was Vaughan Williams' The Lark Ascending.

I asked Sarah if she would mind my saying prayers for her now. She had such a sweet and lovely radiance in her face. I found a tissue in my pocket and wiped a tear that ran from her eye. I stroked her hair and briefly thought of her sisters and children.

Almighty God, look upon Your servant Sarah, as she lies here in weakness. Comfort her with the promise of life everlasting, given in the resurrection of Your Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Sarah surrendered her mortal life a few hours later, with dignity and embraced in love.

Thank you Sarah. Thank you for the honour of being my friend.



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Monday

Finding The Right Words of Comfort

What does one say to distraught and grieving parents who have just buried their young child?


Truthfully there isn’t much we can say that will help. We can express our sorrow and sympathy. We can offer words of care and concern and of course love. We can tell the parents that we shall pray for them. But for most of us the truth is that we don’t know what to say.

I stood a short distance from the family as mourners came to offer their condolences after the burial. And I watched and listened as people so desperately tried to convey their compassion over the tragic loss this young couple have just experienced.

Some fumbled with words then simply broke into tears. Others offered sentiments that some might consider to be inane or even cruel. ‘You’re both young, you’ll have more children,’ one woman offered. The couple were too lost in their grief to even comprehend what the woman had said.

Perhaps it’s because we don’t know what to say that we sometimes say the wrong things. In our distress with another person’s suffering we often feel that we must offer words that will somehow help move the grieving individuals along.

Personally, I feel there is much more of a spiritual connection and sentiment in the power of a silent embrace. No words are necessary to convey sharing the human emotion of pain and sorrow and loss. Especially when we all accept that there are no answers. And so we weep at what has happened. And so too - God weeps with us.

One elderly gentleman suggested that the child’s death was God’s will. I disagree. The God we worship, our God who watches over us, doesn’t will the death of children, or the pain of their parents. Many, many things that happen in this world are not the will of God. That is part of the price of the freedom we have been given by God.

I watched the couple stand in numb silence as an aunt told them that God wanted their son in Heaven with Him. While I am confident God has welcomed him into His kingdom, I am certain God did not want this child to die right now so that He could have him there.

Others continued to offer the same thought; that they were young and they could have more children. This may be true, but other children will never replace this little life. He was his own person. The empty place his death has left in their hearts will never be filled simply because they have another child. Nor should it be. Every child is unique and precious. I realise that people say such things with a desire to comfort the bereaved. They desperately long to find some way to help. May God Bless them for it.

But know that we are faced with a mystery - the mystery of life, and of death, in which there are no easy answers.

And for the grieving parents who may feel that no one will ever understand their pain?...

God understands. He has a son who died also.
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Friday

Faith Is Not A Crutch For Living

Our national charity for the elderly, Help the Aged, recently published a report entitled Dying in Older Age. It aims to lift the profile on the spiritual beliefs and stories of older people and help all of us avoid the nervousness with which we so often approach the subject of death.

Old age is often a synonym for ‘problem people’ - a liability to the optimism of our Brave New World. People fear the mortality of old age. But that's nothing new. The Irish poet, W B Yeats, who felt old from the age of forty, went kicking and screaming into old age.

‘What shall I do with this absurdity,
O heart, O troubled heart - this caricature,
Decrepit age which has been tied to me as to a dog's tail?' - he asked.

Not a great advert for senior citizenship then, is it?

But whenever I spoke with my friend Sarah I quickly had a rather un-Yeats like version of old age. She kept control of all her faculties to the very end of her life. You needed to be very careful what you whispered to anyone if you were sitting close to her. And a matter of hours before she died, even though she could no longer talk, I vividly recall her bearing down with her jaw, determined not to let anyone remove her false teeth.

And she's not alone. Britain has a veritable 'Methuselan' roll call of people who have accomplished great things in their advancing years. Like Elizabeth Scofield: At 84, and with an 80% mark, she became 'top girl' in her Reading and Writing Course. Or take Percy and Florence Arrow-Smith, married for 80 years. They hold the world record for the longest marriage. Sadly, Percy died a few weeks after their anniversary. But he was the quintessential model of dignity and marital endurance.

Old age still has a lot to say to us in life, as much as in death. It was only a little more than a few years ago that Pope John Paul brought the world to a standstill, pulling princes, politicians, and the public into his vulnerability and death.

We need models of how to live. But we also need to know how to finish well. Each of us has a responsibility to help our elderly finish with dignity and reverence. So beyond pension schemes and Meals on Wheels, respect and honour will go a long way in helping to achieve it.

Finishing well must be numbered amongst the great virtues of faith.
Faith is not a crutch for living. It's a springboard, which takes us beyond death. For Christians, it is faith in the living Christ, which best prepares us to finish well.If you're a young person reading this blog, please don't discount the infinite rewards of investing a few hours a week simply sharing thoughts with a senior person. You'll be amazed by how much they actually understand you! And if you're a person who already has a bit of snow on your roof, but still lots of fire in your furnace, there's plenty to be learned about a life to come.
Granted, you may not always like what you see, but you'll still have the energy to help change it!
And by sharing time with a senior, you may gain valuable insight as to how you'll cope in the years to come!
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Wednesday

Wanted: Part-Time Wife

"Wanted: Part-Time Wife…(only in a metaphorical sense!) Do you like sorting out hopeless men? Are you tidy almost to the point of being compulsive? Are you capable of putting a feminine touch in a home and organising a Father’s life? If so we need you! A Father who constantly travels needs a part-timer to first ‘fix it’ by doing a little decorating, organising things, do some shopping and possibly occasionally cook a meal when I’m away. Then discuss long-term plans to help keep us organised and feeling that we live in a home instead of a suitcase!" saveourmess@yahoo.com

Okay, perhaps it wasn’t the best composition I’ve ever created, but I was trying to sincerely yet accurately express what we needed. There have been times when I’ve either endured an extended hospital stay, or arrived home from a long journey and had so much to do the moment I landed, that a week could pass before I even remembered that my suitcase hadn’t been unpacked!

My son, being a typical teenage male, tends to take a rather ‘relaxed’ approach when it comes to doing much of anything around our home. And I would never have placed an expectation upon my daughter to have to help with the minutiae of household chores; decorating, laundry, opening the post, etc. I simply felt a bit of assistance, slightly beyond that of our conventional housekeeper might be helpful. And I certainly had no intention of enduring her wrath by suggesting that her culinary skills could be classified as biological warfare! Hell hath no fury as a cranky Mrs Higgins if I suggest that the cake she so kindly baked is lovely, but we already have several door-stops around the house!

Embraced with a fusion of trepidation and hope I submitted the ad on our local paper’s website. When I returned home that afternoon, I was surprised to see I had an email from the paper.



Unadulterated in any manner, here is the email I received:

Ad placement number: YI6O1FB1G
Unfortunately we were unable to process your advert. The reason for rejection is as follows: Sorry we are unable to accept your advert due to sexual discrimination. We apologise for any inconvenience caused and please be assured your credit card has not been charged for this advert. Kind Regards, The Friday-Ad Team
support@friday-ad.co.uk

‘How absurd,’ I muttered. I certainly hadn’t thought my ad to be sexist or discriminating against anyone. Considering the context of what I had written, I felt the public would have understood what I was trying to convey. Frankly my feathers were ruffled by the pedantic nature of the newspaper. And now with a twinge of irritation, I re-wrote the ad, believing the paper would see how absurd their response was. Here is the revised ad:

Wanted: Part-Time non-gender-specific individual. Do you like sorting out hopeless non-gender specific individuals? Are you tidy almost to the point of being compulsive? Capable of putting a non-gender specific touch in a home and organising someone’s life? We need you! A non-gender specific parent who constantly travels needs a part-timer to first ‘fix it!’ Then discuss long-term plans to help keep us organised and feeling that we live in a home instead of a suitcase. (please note: The Friday Ad says it’s discriminatory for me to use the words ‘Wife, Feminine, or Father’ in the context of this advert)
SaveOurMess@yahoo.com

The following morning I received an email from the newspaper:
Ad placement number: YI6O1FB1G
Unfortunately we were unable to process your advert. The reason for rejection is as follows: Sorry we are unable to accept your advert due to sexual discrimination and I cannot put this in about Friday-Ad. We apologise for any inconvenience caused and please be assured your credit card has not been charged for this advert. Kind Regards, The Friday-Ad Team
support@friday-ad.co.uk

Now I was becoming cranky. The paper has one of those ‘Live Contact’ buttons (an oxymoron if ever there was one!) on their web page, which allows you to ‘chat’ online with them about whatever problems you may be having with placing your ad. So online I went.

Thanks to the miracles of modern technology, I have been able to save the entire thread of our communication. Such has been my exasperation with the individual who was rejecting my ad, I thought it might be interesting to share our ‘chat’, warts and all: (not one single word has been modified, deleted, or enhanced!)
Friday Ad: Live Help Please wait for a site operator to respond.
Martin: You are now chatting with Martin. How may I help you?

Father Bill Haymaker: Good morning Martin, may I ask please, are you in the UK?
(I was giving them the benefit of doubt in case I was ‘chatting’ with one of those support centres in Bangladesh and this was what had caused the misunderstandings).

Martin: Yes
Father Bill Haymaker: Thank you, the reason I asked is that I thought perhaps I might be having a cultural challenge with someone misunderstanding the context of an ad I was trying to place. May I gave you an advert number to retrieve? It is YI601FB1G
Martin: I can see the email in our support inbox with the advert text

Father Bill Haymaker: I have been reading the mail I've received from your company regarding my advert. Personally I think it's quite daft. Do you REALLY believe that it is sexually discriminating?Martin: no but due to the Trading Standards law all job adverts are supposed to be equal for both males and females.
Father Bill Haymaker: I corrected the ad as you can see. But now you’ve rejected it because I’ve stated only what you quoted to me. Why is this then?Martin: I cannot put this in about Friday-Ad I'm afraid

Father Bill Haymaker: why not, it is your own statement to me.

Martin: its not our rule it comes from Trading Standards.

Father Bill Haymaker: Okay, then we can correct it! “Friday Ad says that trading standards prevents me from using the words 'Wife, feminine, or Father in the context of this advert." How’s that?

Martin: its not our rule it comes from Trading Standards
Father Bill Haymaker: You already said that and I’ve corrected the ad now, so you’re in the clear.
Martin: its also in the Advertising Procedures
Father Bill Haymaker: well then we can add that as well.

Martin: and we have to obey these rules
Father Bill Haymaker: Okay Martin, then we can add that we must obey these rules.


Father Bill Haymaker: anything else we need to add Martin? Wait a moment and I’ll re-write it.

Father Bill Haymaker: how’s this:

Wanted: Part-Time non-gender-specific individual.
Do you like sorting out hopeless non-gender specific individuals? Are you tidy almost to the point of being compulsive? Capable of putting a non-gender specific touch in a home and organising our non-gender specific lives? We need you! A non-gender specific parent who constantly travels needs a part-timer to first ‘fix it!’ Then discuss long-term plans to help keep us organised and feeling that we live in a home instead of a suitcase. (nb. Friday Ad says it’s discriminatory to use the words ‘wife, feminine, or father’ in the context of this advert AND it’s also in the Advertising Procedures AND we must obey these rules.’ SaveOurMess@yahoo.com

After a very long period I ‘nudged’ Martin, who I was beginning to imagine had gone out for a stiff drink.

Father Bill Haymaker: Martin?
Father Bill Haymaker: Martin? Are You There?
Father Bill Haymaker: Martin, if that isn't acceptable, here's an alternative:
Father Bill Haymaker: Sort our house, home, hovel...whatever you want to call it. …only non gender specific people may apply. email: SaveOurMess@yahoo.com

Martin: under the sex discrimination act here in the uk, it is illegal to discriminate on the grounds of sex, against either men or woman when advertising a position under situations vacant. Therefore i am not happy to print your advert containing the statement above!

Father Bill Haymaker: What?!! Does suggesting that we live in a home somehow offend a homeless female? I'm very confused now Martin! And thank you for reminding me that we're in the UK. In the midst of this thread I did feel compelled to look out my window just to make sure.
Martin: This is the wording that would be acceptable if you wish to continue in placing your advert! Cleaner re-queered, in Bexhill area. Please call .........

Father Bill Haymaker: Unfortunately, I’m afraid the term ‘re-queered’ might have a negative impact on people who are only just newly queered…whether they are originally queered or recently re-queered may be considered an act of discrimination against those just considering becoming queered for the first time.
Again, after a considerable period of time, I gave Martin a 'nudge.'
Father Bill Haymaker: Martin, are you there?
After a few minutes have passed...
Father Bill Haymaker: Martin, are you still in the UK?
After even a few more minutes passed...
Father Bill Haymaker: Sadly, this has really become an exercise in futility. Under the circumstances, you’ve left me with no alternative but to cancel the advert altogether. I certainly wouldn’t wish to offend anyone regardless of their gender, predilections, or ability to decipher an advert in the Friday Ad! Thank you for all your help today Martin.
Martin: Perfectly fine thank you using live chat!

Well, I thought it was all over. That is until a few days later when I received a call from a friend. Earlier in the week I had shared the story with her. She thought it was hilarious and typical of the messes I sometimes get myself into. ‘I think you’d better go out a grab a copy of the Friday Ad,’ she said.

In the Opportunities section of the paper was the following ad:

Part-Time non-gender-specific individual. Do you like sorting out hopeless non-gender specific individuals? Are you tidy almost to the point of being compulsive? Capable of putting a non-gender specific touch in a home and organising our non-gender specific lives? We need you! A non-gender specific parent who constantly travels needs a part-timer to first ‘fix it!’ Then discuss long-term plans to help keep us organised and feeling that we live in a home instead of a suitcase.
SaveOurMess@yahoo.com

By the end of the week we had received 18 responses. None of which really floated in my ‘comfort zone!’ There wasn't a single response relating to what the ad was intended to attract...although a few of the respondents suggested that all we needed was some discipline and they had the 'tool's for the job...yikes!

But the most confusing response was this:
"Would you be interested in a 23 year-old TV? If so give me a call. I think I have just what you’re looking for!"

Love Felicity XXOO

Crikey! We didn't even advertise for a television. Besides, we have enough trouble picking up the BBC on our two-year-old TV. I can’t imagine what we’d do with a 23 year old one!




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Sunday

When We Need a Little Help

If you’re a parent who works you most likely rely upon someone to help you with your children. It could be a relative, or it could be a paid carer. If you travel for a living you may leave your complete trust with your partner to compensate for your absence. And there can be times such as flight delays, illness, or even death, when you must have faith in people outside your typical circle to help you.

I too am grateful to so many who help me. This past year I’ve had some frustrating challenges with my health and it's that circle of friends who tirelessly do so much to help who often keep me energised. I even receive help in my email communications at times. And to those who work so hard to decipher my scribbled thoughts for my diary from time-to-time, I’m not only eternally grateful, but in awe over how they’re able to make any sense of my chicken-scratchings.

But there are times when you have to leave your trust in God and God alone to help.

Several years ago I boarded a night flight to Johannesburg. I was dreading the trip. I was facing a seven hour journey to Dubai, plus another eight hours on the next sector to Johannesburg. I was tired and really wasn’t looking forward to the flight. Although I had a book with me, I knew my eyes would be staring at the back of my eyelids long before the aircraft pushed back from the gate at Heathrow.

Dreading the journey so, I held back until everyone else had boarded. I was the only one remaining in the boarding lounge and the gate agent was piercing holes in my head with her eyes, as if she were frustrated that she couldn't close out the flight because of me, so I grudgingly presented my boarding pass, apologised, and sauntered down the jetway to the aircraft.

I worked my way through the cabin to my seat row and was delighted to discover the seat next to mine was unoccupied. The rest of the cabin was full. I immediately decided to nick the spare pillow and blanket, once the doors were shut, so I could prop them under my arms as I nestled in for my sleep.

But as I was doing my typical reconnaissance of my surroundings-how many rows to the nearest emergency exit, a quick glance at who was seated in my vicinity and digging out the eye mask from the amenity kit, I noticed a police officer come on board, followed by a girl, who I would guess was in her early twenties. Behind her was another officer.

I watched with curiosity as one of the officers briefly spoke with the senior flight attendant. She pointed to the girl to head down the aisle to find her seat; the officers left and the door was shut. Before the girl had moved past me my attention had already turned to making myself comfortable. But just as I picked up the pillow and blanket, she was standing beside me. She didn’t say anything. Her body language said she was to be seated beside me. I have no idea why I just assumed she’d be going into the cabins behind me. I later learned from the crew that an airline employee had been given the last seat in economy.

I apologised and mumbled that I didn’t think there would be anyone sitting beside me. As I stood up to let her move into the window seat she briefly said ‘ The hostess told me to sit here.’ I again apologised. I allowed her to get her seatbelt on and then handed her the pillow and blanket, again apologising. And at that my mind went back to my planned activity of going to sleep.

‘Are you going to Sydney?’ she asked. I replied that I wasn’t. I don’t recall saying where I was headed. I had answered her question, politely, but I didn’t wish to engage in any conversation. In fact, I closed my eyes at that, hoping to make the polite point that I was going to sleep.

‘Did you see the police come on with me?’ she asked. I had, but I thought it was more polite to say I hadn’t. ‘I was told I had to leave. I exceeded my visa. And if I stayed any longer I was going to get in a lot of trouble.’ I told her that must have been a frightening experience. And I added that I had hoped Her Majesty's Government had been, at the very least, polite about the whole experience.

The girl began talking. And to be honest, I don’t recall her stopping from that point. She had met a boy from England when he came to the Northern Territory in Australia two years earlier. When he returned home she had flown to England to be with him. But apparently the relationship didn’t last a month, especially when she discovered that he already had a girlfriend-something he had accidentally forgotten to share with her.

The girl, like so many who come to Britain and become part of the patina of London’s multiculturalism, didn’t want to return. The outback town she came from offered nothing but an endless open cattle range of dust and loneliness. She had found herself a job as a waitress in one of London’s many anonymous café’s.

She told me that her father was ‘mean’ and that her mother had wanted them to leave him for ‘a long time.’ She was ‘caught’ in London when two Home Office Immigration Officers came to the café to check the paperwork of all the staff. She was very emotional about what might await her once she arrived in Australia. She had the (wrong) impression that she would be arrested for having overstayed her visa in the UK.

I asked her how she was going to get back to her town, which was about 200km north of Alice Springs. She said she didn’t know, especially as the least expensive ticket she could find only took her to Sydney. She didn’t know anyone in Sydney, but was more concerned over what might await her because she had stayed beyond the date HM Customs had stamped in her passport.

During the meal (yes, I ended up eating) and throughout the flight I reinforced the fact that nothing would happen to her for overstaying her visa. She seemed to physically calm over this and then her concerns turned to what she was going to do in Sydney. She told me that she really didn’t want to go back to where her dad was and she wistfully mentioned that perhaps her mum could come to her.

I remembered how many youth hostels there were in the areas of Kings Cross and Wooloomooloo and told her how easy it would be to get there and suggested that she stay in one for a few nights and she could check the boards for part-time jobs. This seemed to have sparked a more positive attitude from her. Her demeanour slowly changed from the frightened and nervous passenger, to one who was now clinging to a mustard seed of ideas.

As the morning sun was cresting over the Arabian Sea we prepared for landing in Dubai. Seven hours had passed and I don’t think the girl had once stopped talking. I looked at the headset, with its wires still wrapped into a neat little bow, poking out of my seatback pocket and imagined how nice it would be to get on the next flight and go to sleep!

As the plane taxied to the gate, the girl, (I never knew her name, nor she mine), said something to me that I shall never forget. ‘Thank you for talking to me all this time. I had actually said a prayer to God that it would have been nice to have a priest, or someone like that, sit next to me to talk to, but I’m glad it was you instead.’

'Perhaps I was meant to be here too,' I replied.
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I rise before dawn and cry for help; I have put my hope in Your word. Psalm 119:147
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Tuesday

Falling In Love At Clapham Junction

Yesterday I celebrated the passing of a life. Of course, I do this often. But there are some funerals that remain with you; they capture part of your heart and refuse to let you go.

Funerals are a constant in my village. We have an enormous senior community. According to those people who stay locked away in windowless rooms, fiddling with numbers and such throughout the day and night, the average age mean where I live is … well … more or less … deceased! So to say I celebrated a funeral today is a bit like saying I brushed my teeth this morning.
Last November I celebrated the life of his wife. Sixty-seven years they had been married! Look at the divorce rate today. It’s an actuarial fact that the average marriage will not survive more than 7.5 years now.

But this couple were in it for the long run. Till death do us part. Back then, people took their words before God seriously. But just as with so many other things today, solemn words are little more than just words. And when I hear people proudly tell me of all those years they lived together, I feel a burst of wholehearted admiration for them.

The day I went to their home to discuss his wife’s funeral, I couldn’t wrestle away the thought of how lonely he was going to be. Elderly British men have it particularly rough when their wives die. Not only are there all the understandable emotional sorrows, but most of them have never once set foot in a kitchen.
He was severely deaf and his hearing aid seemed to be more of a nuisance than helpful. And sadly, he was at that awful beginning of ageing dementia, where everyone but you is becoming concerned about your welfare.

I was so grateful that his daughter was there. She was making all the arrangements for her mother. She kindly shared with me many personal private thoughts about her parents. I wanted to speak with her father as well, but without exaggerating, I literally had to forcefully yell in order for him to hear me. And even then I wasn’t assured that he had fully comprehended what I said.

But he did say something that stuck with me for all this time. He told me of when he and his wife first met and where they would rendezvous-beneath the large clock at Clapham Junction Railway Station. He really wasn’t able to share much more with me. But it was this thought that remained at the forefront of his mind.

There’s an old British maxim that says when you die and go to Heaven, you will have to change at Clapham Junction. And as I left them that day, I couldn’t escape the image of this young couple; she was 17, he was 18, meeting time after time at Clapham Junction, Europe's busiest railway station.

If you’re in your late seventy’s and reading this, you will easily be able to recreate the image. If you’re fifty and below, it would be difficult. You have to remember that during that time, the station would have been shrouded in a miasma of smog and smoke. The endless arrival and departure of trains, not the ‘quiet’ ones we enjoy today, but the powerful steel horses, snorting like an enraged team of black stallions, and belching bellowing black plumes of soot and ash into the air, amid the ever-oppressive drone of the tannoy, calling out such exotic destinations as Crossbush, Liphook and Brighton ("well, Hove actually.")
It all creates such a powerful juxtaposition-young lovers, oblivious to the raging world around them. And raging it indeed was. The great depression would have been in full swing when they first met. And Europe was in turmoil. Our government was grasping at any able-bodied young male, preparing to drag them into the caldron of war.

Each passing of a life leaves a passport to the future in its children and grandchildren. And it is those sweet memories that reside within us and embrace us years later when we begin to prepare for our own next journey. But it’s a powerful force when someone’s passing gently touches another.

Yesterday, when we committed your soul to God’s care, you gave me something that I will draw upon from time to time, whenever I need to momentarily escape from the belching, snorting, steel horses around me.

I’ll think of those two young lovers, back together again, meeting beneath the clock at Clapham Junction.
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Thursday

The Best Waitress In The World

A Friend and I had tea at one of Eastbourne’s seaside hotels this weekend. We hadn’t seen one another in many months and I had missed seeing her. We had lots to catch up on. Unfortunately, many of the local seafront hostelries are of the ‘Fawlty Towers’ variety. But the one we chose was actually quite nice.

The sea-front room we sat in wasn’t busy. I wouldn’t expect it to be during off-season. There were no more than 14 guests in the entire dining room. In one corner stood what appeared to be the matriarch of service staff. She looked to be in her sixties and the lines on her face certainly had stories to tell – the most revealing one was that she did not want to be there!

I watched her amble up to her customers, shoulders slumped forward, as if in submission to whatever demon it was that haunted her. And with no movement of her elbows, she’d shove a menu card onto the table and walk away. It was an amazing sight.

To our fortune we had the other waitress. She couldn’t have been any older than 17. There was a sparkle of youth in her eyes and she was actually a bit ‘over-chatty.' As she moved back and forth from the diners to her prep table, she’d glance back several times, as if she were repeatedly taking a mental inventory of the number of people at the table.

There they were, the yin and yang of wait staff. And the scene was not unlike many we witness in Britain’s service industry. Bearing in mind that in Britain salaries for wait staff are deplorable; customers don’t generally tip, and we don’t tend to rate very high on motivating staff. This symbol of age diversity appeared to have just been left to it - to get on with what they were hired to do: distribute teas and cakes and collect the money.

Our waitress’ name was Fiona. I only know this because I asked. She had no nametag. But I always prefer to address staff by a name rather than the anonymous ‘Oh miss!’ You would have thought Fiona was from America. It was less than five minutes before we had a complete dossier on her life, right down to the number of days she had been ‘going with’ her new boyfriend, Bryon. (14 days).

What I found unique was in how Fiona would methodically work through her tasks. When we ordered, she’d repeat it, not write it down. And you could see her point her eyes upwardly, as if she were gazing into her forehead, to ensure that her brain was connected and paying attention. And after she brought our simple order of tea and scones, she quietly but audibly called out the items that were on the table. ‘Spoons, cups, tea, clotted cream, jam, extra hot water.’ ‘No, there wasn’t any extra hot water.’ Fiona said this, not me. And off she went to fetch more water for the teapot.

When Fiona returned with the water I asked her if I could ask her a question. ‘Sure,’ she replied. I told her that I didn’t recall seeing anyone go through such strides before to make sure everything was in place.

Fiona half sighed and half smiled. ‘That’s my Nan over there,’ she said, as she pointed her thumb backwards over her shoulder towards the other waitress, whom I had now bestowed with the name ‘Gloom monster.’ ‘She raised me up on account of my mum couldn’t cope with me. My Nan says I’ll grow up to be nothing, just like me mum. She’s in Brockhill (a women’s prison in the Midlands). But I never see her.'

Fiona went on: ‘I don’t want to be a failure; I want to make something of myself. I like this job and I want to work in one of the fancy hotels in London, but they say you got to have good training.’

I told her I was impressed. I asked if she had received training that taught her to name out the items on the table. ‘No,’ said Fiona, ‘I just hear people complain all the time about my Nan because she never brings them things, so I decided that I would make a list for myself to go through.’ And at that point she pulled out of her apron a crinkled folded sheet of paper and put it in front of me. ‘See,’ she said proudly, ‘this is my list of things I make for myself and I put it on my work station when I start work so I can go over it. Do you think this is the right thing to do?’

The list consisted of roughly written, and badly misspelled words; but the point was clear: Smile, say Hi, ask if they like it, get the order right, ask if you can bring more things. There were other words on the list, but I couldn’t quite make them out.

Her eyes were wide as if she desperately needed someone to validate her creativity. ‘Well done!’ I told her. ‘Who taught you to do this?’ I asked. ‘Nobody, I just want to make sure I do things right,’ she said confidently.

I told her I thought she was doing a lovely job and she should be proud of how hard she was working. Fiona left the table smiling.

She came around twice and asked if there were anything else we would like. Rather than focusing on our originally intended chit-chat, my friend and I continued to watch her. She had regimented herself in the way she served her guests. And my friend noted that it was almost as if Fiona intentionally distanced herself, as far as possible, away from her grandmother.

We didn’t need to ask for the bill. Fiona watched to see when we had finished. She came up and asked if there were anything else she could bring us. And when I said ‘no, thank you,’ Fiona asked if she could leave the bill on our table and she would come collect it whenever it was convenient for us.

I smiled at her. Her demeanour was lovely and I have no doubt, with the determination she showed us, she will rise above the obviously difficult life she has already endured.

But I had a surprise to come. Fiona looked at us and asked, ‘do you mind if I ask you two something?’ I said ‘sure,’ not knowing exactly what was coming. ‘ It’s kind of personal,’ she added.

In that instant I had a sudden surge of adrenaline, as I was preparing myself to be asked if we could either adopt her, or fund some home-study course on hotel management. Shame on me.

‘How long do you think it will take me?’ My friend and I looked at each other. My friend asked, ‘how long will what take?’ Fiona looked at us both. I’m sure she was looking at my friend a bit longer than she looked at me; perhaps she was sizing her up as potential mother, or older sister material. ‘How long will it take me to learn to be the best waitress ever?’

We all encounter moments in our lives that we instinctively know we will never forget for as long as we live. I had to stand up. I smiled at Fiona as I rose from my chair and I placed my hand on her arm and looked intently into her eyes.

‘Fiona,’ I said, ‘You already are the best waitress in the world. Your commitment starts now, this very second. It doesn’t mean you won’t make mistakes. Mistakes are opportunities for learning and doing better. But as long as you are determined to be the best, you will remain the best, forever.’

I think she wanted to hug me. It was quite cute watching her body language as she smiled at me, then looked at my friend, then back at me. She didn’t, but I know she clearly understood what I had shared with her.

There are lots of Fiona’s in this world. And there’s an equal number of Gloom Monsters about as well. But it’s the Fiona’s who will prevail.

So, whatever it is you are striving for; be it a medical degree, a relationship, or the field of hospitality, it is today that you are the best.
Now, leave everyone behind in a trail of smoke!
May God bless you Fiona, wherever life takes you.
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Sunday

Meet Me At The Plaza!

'Nothing Unimportant Ever Happens At The Plaza.'

What brilliant use of a double negative! It’s a marketing tag line used by The Plaza Hotel in New York City thirty years ago.
Recently, Christie’s held the closing auction for the remnants of the world’s most famous hotel, in anticipation of her glorious rebirth as a half-hotel/half-condominium for the nouveau riche. (The noveau pauvre moved across the street to the Sherry Netherland)! Sold in lots were The Plaza’s ornate chandeliers, the heavy polished brass door knobs, embossed with the unique double P logo, mirrors, fixtures, ash trays, and what remaining silver plate that hadn’t been carted off in the open house sale that was held at the hotel last year.

The Plaza, one of the only hotels in the world where you could either hail a taxi or a horse drawn carriage, catered to the most diverse clientèle in the world, ranging from the wealthiest of society, such as the Vanderbilt’s, all the way down to …well…me I suppose.

I could wax lyrical for weeks about my own memoirs of The Plaza and how she's weaved in and out of my life, but anyone who has stayed there will have their own profound memories. The Plaza became an indelible fibre of my memories during my childhood and she has remained there for me throughout my life. It was the first telephone number I memorised as a child (PLaza 9-3000).
She was the perfect rendezvous point for any occasion, whether it was a simple breakfast in the Edwardian Room overlooking Central Park and Fifth Avenue, to an enjoyable chat with friends in the Oak Bar, followed by a fun dinner downstairs in Trader Vics. And if you wanted a place to enjoy after theatre, there was nothing like heading to New York’s only remaining Palm Court for hot chocolate and canapés.
I can't begin to count all the experiences I had and friendships that developed with people whom I certainly never 'deserved' to know, but to this day remain 'discreet' friends with. Black and White Balls, a sheik who had a live sheep delivered to his suite, (which fascinated me to no end), incredible rows I overheard and sometimes witnessed, as their battles moved out into the hallways, and a plethora of people who live in the balance between fame and infamy-they all formed the life and blood of this incredible grande dame.
The flickering fairy lights of their lanterns, as children ice-skated in Central Park at night, were among my first young memories, when my father held me out of the window from our suite overlooking the corner of Central Park and Fifth Avenue. And as my life progressed, just as with anyone else's life, my experiences ran the width and breadth of the hotel's room inventory.
From the 'Inside' Rooms, (which was an euphemism for facing the air-shaft), to the Park 'Views,' where you would have to stand on top of the radiator in order to have a glimpse of the park, my father's & my 'Résidence de choix, Suite 714, which comprised a large sitting room on the corner of 5th Avenue and Central Park South, a large bedroom on the CPS side, and a small 'servant's' room leading to the sitting room, but although facing 5th Avenue, there was no window at all! And so my life travelled, all the way to Julius Monk's suite on the 18th floor. I've been fortunate to breathe part of The Plaza's breath. And whether it was a Swordfish steak in the Oyster Bar, or my 'signature' Coca Cola's with two cherrys, downstairs in the Plaza 9 nightclub with my father, every corner of the hotel embraced me like an autumn jumper, all the while whispering to me that I was at home.

It was The Plaza that stood as the setting when I fell in love…several times, as I recall. (a couple of times may only have been prickly heat). But there’s nothing to compare with the experience many years later, of feeling your eyes moisten with adoration and love, as you watch your daughter sip her hot chocolate amidst the splendour of the Palm Court.
Just as with so many life stories, The Plaza had many highs and lows. Even through my childish eyes and perceptions of good taste, I cringed to watch the Edwardian Room be destroyed by the Sonesta Group, when they painted the walls gleaming white and hauled in wrought iron heart-shaped chairs, turning the most famous corner in the world into an ice cream boutique. And I rejoiced when Westin took over the property, vowing to restore the hotel to her original ‘tasteful’ state. (and they did!) But only to watch her again fall prey to the Real Estate pimps and end up being managed by a woman who was a cross between Zsa Zsa Gabor and Leona Helmsley!

The Plaza was always a vanguard in my life; my youth, my celebrations of living: love, birth, and even deaths. She will always remain among the fibres of my heart.


And with my children sitting beside me as I write this, I can indeed confirm:
Nothing Unimportant Ever Happened At The Plaza!

Plaza Hotel Big World Small Boat..

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Friday

Angels Among Us

A few months ago, when Sarah Gorrell, from BBC Southern Counties Radio, put out an appeal for a knitting instructor to come out to Moldova with me, not in my wildest dreams did I imagine how we were about to hit the Angel jackpot!

The knitting machine I carried to Moldova last Winter was as long as I am tall. To me, it looked to be such a mechanical monstrosity, I simply couldn’t imagine anyone ever grasping its technical aspects. So I was surprised when one of our sewing teachers asked me to find someone to teach her and the children how to use it. And I was shocked to discover several weeks later that a villager brought in another machine, as she too wanted to learn.

Enters Alison Casserly. Actually, it was her mum who phoned the BBC to volunteer Alison. (Aren’t mums great that way!) Alison lives way up north – so far away that she is not able to hear the radio show. We chatted on the phone a couple of times and Alison was ready to come.

I felt badly as my limited knowledge of anything relating to knitting and sewing left me simply acknowledging that we had a machine and that was all I could tell her about it. So on blind faith, Alison prepared to leave her husband and children and travel thousands of miles to a heretofore-unknown smattering of ink on a world map.

As we chatted on the phone, Alison rattled off names of ‘thingys’ and ‘widgetygrubs’ and ‘whatnots’ that she thought she’d bring. All I could do was say that this sounded great. I hadn’t a clue what she was talking about! Alison was much too polite to point out that even a slug knows more about knitting than I did, but I’m sure she was thinking it!

Our first rendezvous was quite out of the norm. Alison and I had never met before the morning we boarded the flight. Whatever age you might be, there has to be a degree of discomfort with the idea of a stranger picking you up at 3:30 in the morning, taking you to an international airport and carting you off to a country that few have even heard of!


Nevertheless, blind faith was the catalyst for Alison. The night before, Alison drove down south to where her mum and dad live. I was warmly greeted at the door by her father. I can't imagine many people being so hospitable at 3:30 in the morning. As I sipped a desperately needed cup of tea, surrounded by people in their jimjams and slippers, their small dog sniffed me with suspicion, no doubt trying to determine whether the scent of my Jack Russell, Mr. Piddles, branded me as friend or foe.

I sincerely felt nervous for Alison and as we headed up the M25, I found myself talking even more than usual about anything and everything. There were points when I felt I should just shut up, but in some ways, I was afraid she’d back out at the last minute and go back home.

During the flights, there were times when she was very quiet and I chose to let her reflect, uninterrupted, on the adventure that lay before her. As the tiny aircraft pulled up to the Chisinau airport building, I tried to read Alison’s face. What I felt I saw was a healthy balance of excitement and apprehension. Certainly an appropriate reaction to the experience, especially in light of some of the things she had heard.

I don’t think I’ll ever forget Alison’s words a full week later, when I asked her for her thoughts about what she had experienced. She was full of emotion about her profoundly powerful journey of self-awareness, and discovery.

I had to hold back my own tears as I listened to her. Alison had experienced what I find myself longing for each time I leave Moldova. She not only could see, hear, and feel the powerful sense of pride that exists in the hearts of Moldova’s children, but she was able to see hope in their eyes.


The children were perplexed that a perfect stranger would travel thousands of miles to come help them and ask for nothing in return.

Alison demonstrated a gentle admiration for them; for the fact that each and every child considered the education they are receiving as a gift; the fact they take pride in what they have, which by material standards is little or nothing. Instead, their measurements are in friends, the power of families, and community pride. And as Alison so poignantly pointed out to me, despite the fact the homes many of them live in would have been condemned in Britain, those homes are immaculate, the streets are clean, not a scintilla of trash, not a marking of graffiti, and not a single disrespectful young person.

We live in an addictive society where those who live their lives as sponges have the audacity to complain that the level of handouts they receive, their free homes, their free medical services and medicine, are simply not enough. When we offer money to Moldovan children, it’s like the Parable of the Talents. They’re humbled by the responsibility for which they’ve been entrusted. They want to find ways repay the trust you’ve invested in them.

I received an email from Alison this week. She was almost stumbling over herself with excitement, telling me about all the people she has shared her experience with, the plans she has for returning to Moldova and the creative ideas she’s developing to help the children achieve their goals.

Sarah Gorrell and the BBC helped me plant that small mustard seed of hope. Alison is becoming the Vine and Branch of hope for so many of our youth.

What a wonderful gift. Thank you Sarah. Thank you Alison. And thank you God for hearing my prayers.


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