Thursday, 21 March 2013

Moving On

It has been a very emotional couple of weeks. After a lot of soul-searching, prayer, thought and conversation, we made the difficult decision to leave Corrymeela, 5 months earlier than originally planned. I will miss many things and people which we have left behind, but in spite of the many tears I have shed, I feel it is the right decision and a sense of peace pervades my sadness.

We made the decision and announced it to our fellow volunteers almost a fortnight ago, and on Tuesday we left Corrymeela, not knowing if or when we will go back. It was with sadness that we turned to wave our final goodbyes. 

As well as being sad to say goodbye to many special people who I have been used to seeing everyday and now don’t know when I will see again; my great sadness is the disappointment of discovering that something I thought I would be able to deeply believe in, something I felt fitted so closely with my vision of the world; turned out to be a very different place to the one I had imagined. When I look back to the excitement and hope with which I approached this year, full of expectancy that here was place to whose vision I could really sign up; I am deeply sad that it has ended in this way. But reflecting on what Corrymeela is, in my own real experience of it, I also know that, while there have been many great experiences and special moments, it is indeed time to “brush the sand from my sandals” and move on.

And while I am sad because of what I am leaving behind, there is also excitement: the months ahead are filled with possibilities and potential. The search for what I am looking for, whatever that may be, goes on. Maybe I will never find perfection, if I am honest, I doubt I will; but I am not going to give up seeking it, at least not yet.

So I will miss you Coventry and everyone in it: I will miss cups of tea and long conversations; I will miss mad themed parties and walks by the beach with spectacular views; I will miss film nights and art nights and too much to eat; I will miss thoughtful reflection and the cheesiest of jokes; I will Fred the moose and other silly songs; I will miss Thursday night football and Sunday night dancing; I will miss community dinners and breakfast club; I will miss chatting in the kitchen and worship in the Croi; I will miss sharing sadness and joy, excitement and frustration. I will miss you.

On the other hand, while I will miss the everyday encounters, I will not miss your friendship, because I am sure that, even if we don’t see each other for some time, the friendships will last long beyond this departure.

Monday, 11 March 2013

This is the Sea

One of the joys of being here is being surrounded by the spectacular beauty of the coastline and the ever-changing sea. The poem below is inspired by those surroundings, as well as by other aspects of life here, but hopefully it speaks for itself. Meanwhile, although no photo (at least not any taken by me) can do justice to the views here, I thought I'd share some seascapes taken on recent walks around the area.

The whisper of babbling cliff-side streams
Drowned out
By a wall of waves
A voice that roars
With heart-felt fears
And aching agony

As unyielding cliffs
Say no
To changing and moving
And yet
They do

Rocks hard as
Yet cracked and worn
By mere droplets

While the moon pulls
As heart-strings wrench
With memories and pain
And thus
The ebb and flow
Of half-told stories
Through reflected prisms of light
And dark

And the backwash draws
With subtle sighs
Its debris
Into the deep
Each stone
And tossed or torn
And drowning

Yet in this monotony
Or multitude
Of grey
A colour also speaks

And from the depths
The restless roll and swell
Of legacies
And unsolved histories
Never still
Or stopped by will
By time and tide
To different meanings
And a hundred half-truths
Which are a whole truth
To him or her
Or you
Or me

In the crashes of confusion
To be singled out
And heard
Amidst unceasing energy
Of darkening waves
Or on the bright white froth
That flies on wistful gusts

This is the sea

But up above
The trickle of a tiny stream
Still sings

And the heart soars

Saturday, 9 March 2013

Shared stories, personal histories

Last Monday most of the volunteers headed off for a trip to Derry / Londonderry. It was my third visit to the city in three weeks, which I also visited with two groups I had recently worked with. The format of each of the three visits was relatively similar, with local people taking us to tour their city and sharing some of their stories of the history of this troubled place.

I do not regret repeating the trip three times. It was probably that repetition which reminded me of Derry's most important lesson: that in Northern Ireland, and maybe everywhere, history is a very personal reality and objective truth doesn't really exist.

Each week our tour guides told the history of a city which still lives in the shadow of key events from its distant and more recent past; most notably the siege of Derry in 1689 and Bloody Sunday in 1972. I appreciated their candour and honesty as each told the history of their home through the prism of their own experience. "The same story" was different each week.

In a city statistically dominated by the Nationalist / Republican / Catholic community it is perhaps unsurprising that all our guides came from that background. Conflict has long emphasised not only the differences between the two communities here, but also the similarities within them in an attempt to simplify the complexities into two seemingly homogeneous groups. The people we met in Derry were a reminder that identity is rarely so simple

Perhaps Northern Ireland's history is less the story of two communities, and more the story of 1.5 million individuals.

Saturday, 2 March 2013

What does it mean to welcome?

As someone who likes to travel, who enjoys visiting friends (and sometimes strangers) who relishes new experiences, I have experienced many welcomes. I have been made welcome close to home and far away, I have been made welcome for brief interludes and lengthy stays. I hope I have done my share of making others feel welcome too.

From the personalised welcome sign for each group who walks through the door and the first proffered cup of tea, welcome is something the Corrymeela community holds to be of central importance. It is the justification for much of what we do: words, actions, and ways of being which create a place of welcome.

The gift and decision of welcome is something we talk about freely and easily, but I have been thinking for some time it is also a subject worthy of further reflection because views of what it means to make others welcome definitely vary.

There is an understanding of welcome that resides in invisible service, in the desire for everything to be done before it is asked for and to be so perfect it passes almost unnoticed. The "other" is welcomed as a guest, a recipient of all we have to give, as someone from whom no contribution is required. The welcome is from us to them and all they have to do is receive it and enjoy it, and feel special. The five star hotel thrives on making guests feel like they are more important than, well, almost anyone else, but certainly than those who are "making them welcome."

But there is an alternative model of welcome, that of inviting the other, for however long or short a time they are with you, to be part of your community. Welcome does not have to be a one way process but is the act of creating a shared space, in which the guest is served, certainly, but also invited to share in service; where everyone is considered to have something to give as well as something to receive. Apparently the first guests at Corrymeela were greeted with the news that they would need to make their beds, and when they looked around for sheets and blankets were pointed in the direction of wood and nails. While acknowledging the possibility that time and nostalgia may have somewhat exaggerated the facts, I like the sentiment. A welcome that creates a sense of equality can inspire taking ownership and create a real sense of belonging. If we want people to "feel at home", perhaps this is only possible if we ask something of them.

I know where I feel most welcome, so next time I see you, do not hesitate to proffer a tea towel. And I will take it.

Come well 
Into this space
And be at home
A shared space
Because you are welcome here

Walk through 
An open door
Into open hearts
With outstretched open hands
Be here
Be at peace
Be at home
Because you are welcome here

Come well 
And come willingly
To receive
Still more, to give
Let us sit together
To share tea and stories
And serve together
Because you are welcome here

This welcome
An invitation
To come and give
A little of yourself
Whoever you may be
Givers and receivers 
This is love
And you are welcome here