Category Archives: UK

My heart is not here


Jet lag is a funny thing. I got back to Tokyo last night after an almost 24-hour journey back from the UK. After a pot of tea and some toast I thought I’d be ready for bed, but nope, at 4am I was still wide awake. I finally managed a couple of hours sleep and then my eyes popped open again and by  7:30 I was out in the windy sunshine, off for a walk round the lake at my local park.

This year I have been walking every day, and as well as making me fitter it has also opened my eyes to the beauty and wonders around me. Tokyo is a great city to walk in, but in the summer, walking around the village I grew up in I realised what a country girl I am. I recognised the crops, I was thankful for the good harvest, I fretted whether the harvest would be in before the rain came. Walking in my own childhood footsteps I had a new appreciation for the village and the surrounding countryside.

Just as I did in the summer I spent the last fortnight taking the same walks. My favourite takes me all the way up the village, past the primary school I attended, along the top road and then a long walk down a farm track, through a hamlet and back out onto the main (actually only) road. I walked through the wood where bluebells bloom in the spring, past the field of Jacob sheep (and the alpaca that lives with them), past the church where I was confirmed. On Sunday I walked 4 miles to the parish church, something that feels like a mini pilgrimage every time I do it.

And then, on Wednesday, I left again and flew back to Tokyo, and I have the same feeling I did when I came back at the end of August: my heart is not here. My body is here (even though it refuses to sleep), my mind knows I’m here, but my heart hasn’t caught up yet. My feet are walking on the pavements in Tokyo, but they are missing the farm tracks, the mud and the soft fallen leaves I was walking on a few days ago. I see herons at the park and miss pheasants, I smell car exhausts and miss woodsmoke, I see smart pedigree dogs dressed up in little outfits out for a walk and I miss the farm dogs who come out to bark and see me off as I walk past their home.

My heart aches for the landscape that shaped me, for the memories, for my roots. I feel like I’ve been wrenched away from the soil that I belong in. Having spent most of my adult life in large Asian cities I thought I was a confirmed city dweller and it has come as a surprise to understand that I am very much a country girl; a north of England, tiny village, muddy-booted, crop-watching, blackberry-picking country girl.


Good soil

St. Michael's kitchen garden

Last year I came to St. Michael’s on retreat for what I thought would be the last time. The Sisters were planning to move and the convent would be closed at the end of the summer. With a heavy heart I said goodbye to the house, the chapel and the garden. But in the spring an e-mail arrived; the move was taking longer than expected, and the convent would be open until the end of July. I had one more chance to visit.

It’s a funny feeling, coming back to a place you thought you had said goodbye to. I hadn’t realised it would feel as liberating as it did. I made my farewells last summer, I picked up pebbles and took a zillion photos, sat on my favorite bench and told myself over and over, this is the last time I’ll ever . . .

But I am back, and I have felt liberated from my usual rhythm. Instead of staying within the convent grounds for my whole stay, I have walked down to the Thames and along its banks. Instead of staying in silence I have had conversations. Instead of Spending most of the time alone I have spent time with others. What a gift it has all been.

I arrived yesterday in time for the midday Eucharist. The Gospel reading was the Parable of the Sower. During the intercessions, the Sister prayed that we would all have good soil. The idea, the image settled in my mind and has kept surfacing.

St. Michael's Passion flower

One of the most wonderful things about this place is its garden. There are two orchards, a vast lawn, a kitchen garden and other woody areas. Over the decades they have been here, the Sisters have cared for the fruit trees, planted borders and established a kitchen garden. Clearly, this is good soil. It produces fruit and vegetables for the convent table. There are borders of lavender, huge bushes of rosemary, towering fig trees; it is all nurtured with love, patience and green fingers and consumed with gratitude.

St. Michael cornflowers

Of course, this is not just a place to stay for a quiet break; it is a convent, and to stay here is to enter into the life and rhythm of the community. Joining the  Sisters in the Daily Office, sitting with them in silence, is to experience something simple and yet precious and profound. When you step away from the ordinary busy-ness of everyday life it is amazing what grows in the good soil of silence.

St. Michael's cat

This afternoon I spent a couple of hours with a friend, H. Over the years we have happened to be at the convent at the same time, and gradually shared snippets of information over the meals that were not in silence. Last year we became Facebook friends. When I found my place in the chapel yesterday I noticed the name on the chair next to mine, and wondered, could she be here as well? She was, and we decided to go for a walk this afternoon.

So we met at the mulberry tree in the garden at 4pm, went for a walk through Richmond Park and shared a pot of tea at a nursery. We walked back along the Thames and joined the Sisters for the evening Eucharist. After supper we ended up in the garden with one of the Sisters; first, we went to the kitchen garden so H could pick up some cuttings she had left there. Then it was down into the old orchard in search of a small stone cat I had seen every year. Neither the Sister nor H had ever seen it before, which produced in me an irrational fear that it would no longer be there and I would seem a bit loopy. But it was, much to the Sister’s amazement. It was duly rescued from the undergrowth and transported to the top of the garden, from where it will be moved eventually to their new home. Finally we arrived at the old mulberry tree and finding some berries ripe we helped ourselves to a few. It was only later that I realised we had gone ’round and round the mulberry bush’ in search of ripe berries. The faithful old tree has been propped up for years, still producing fruit from the good soil.

While we were walking this afternoon, H asked me how I was feeling about the convent moving, and how I coped with loss. The time I have spent here this year has felt like a bonus. I already said my goodbyes last year, and made my peace with not being able to come here again. That reprieve gave me a chance to come here and spend the time a little differently. I shall miss this place; the chapel and the garden especially. But this visit has shown me also that so much that has made this place special is portable.

The Sisters will make a new home in another place, and in a year or two they will be ready to welcome visitors again. There will be another garden, another chapel, but the same Sisters, the same community, the same rhythms of worship. Just as the atmosphere here has opened our hearts to worship and to one another, just as the community has found good soil here for decades, so they will find more good soil in their new home.

I arrived and will leave here with great gratitude. The good soil I have found here has grown silence and prayer inside me. It has fed me with mulberries and beetroot, damsons, tomatoes and apples. I have had conversations that have grown my faith. I have been blessed with friendships and a feeling of connectedness that I will carry with me when I leave. Good soil, indeed.



Arisugawa rain 1

It’s the rainy season, and so I am feeling a kind of soggy melancholy , an absence of something, a general dissatisfaction. I am wondering if this is saudade, apparently a longing for someone or something that is absent.

It’s almost the end of term, an in-between time. I’ve finished teaching but still have some paperwork to do. I fly back to the UK next week, but I have a lot to do here before I leave. Sometimes I feel that I’m right here, I am completely where I stand, all of me is concentrated on being where I am, and then other times I feel that I’m not quite here, but not quite there either. Nothing completely connects. This is one of those times.

In London ten years ago, on July 7th, 2005, four suicide bombers blew themselves up and in doing so killed fifty-two people and injured over seven hundred.

In Tokyo ten years ago I spent a lovely evening with a friend; a production of The Producers and dinner, I’m not sure which came first, but I think maybe the theatre. I remember I came home feeling content and relaxed, looking forward to flying back to the UK a few days later.

At home there was a message from my father on the answerphone; a little cryptic, he sounded urgent and was trying to reassure me. He told me that my brother was OK, I wasn’t to worry, everything was fine. Having no idea what he was talking about, I called my parents back, and turned on the TV. I remember perching on the edge of the sofa, rolling my eyes, listening to the phone start to ring, and then absorbing the news from the muted BBC. Four bombs had exploded on London transport.

My father’s message made sense then. My brother was living in London at the time, commuting to work on the Tube every morning. He had been at his desk by the time of the attacks. When I checked my e-mail he had already been in touch, reassuring me that he was OK; he was at work, everything was fine. He had called our parents to tell them the same thing, just as I would do in March 2011; e-mail to him, phone call to parents; it’s OK, it was a big earthquake, the tsunami did terrible damage, but in Tokyo we’re all right. Rattled, but all right.

And then I remember having that feeling, an emotional dislocation, knowing that my country was going through something huge and I was thousands of miles away. I have spent most of my adult life in Asia, and most of that time in Japan. I have consciously removed myself from my own country, I have chosen this distance. And yet, sometimes I feel very far from the mothership. Or rather, I feel the distance between.

I spend my life being British in another country. I routinely get asked random questions about the Royal Family, the correct way to make a cup of tea, the best places to go in London and how to get around, what I think of Stephen Fry, Jeremy Clarkson, the monkey named after the baby princess. Sometimes I have an answer, sometimes I have nothing. Sometimes I want to say, don’t ask me anything after 1990. I don’t know how much a stamp costs, I’ve never watched Downton Abbey, I’m a bit of a fraud, really.

Then I go back to the UK and get all the questions in reverse about Japan. What’s the weather like, is everyone really polite, are your students silent all the time, have you ever been on one of those really crowded trains I’ve seen on YouTube? It all feels like an exercise in time and space, all designed to make me aware of the the distance in between.

I remember calling my brother a few hours later that evening. The trains and buses weren’t running yet, but he was happy to stay at work and go home later. When he had moved to London and decided where to live he had told me that he could walk home from work if he needed to, it was only four or five miles. I asked him to walk home that evening; he declined, and said he’d take a bus or the Tube later. When he got home he sent me another e-mail to tell me he had taken the bus and had seen Tony Blair getting out of a helicopter at Chelsea Barracks. I was annoyed with him for taking a risk, as I saw it, but a month later I was in London myself, and several Tube lines stopped running. I felt almost irrationally determined to get back to his flat on the Tube and when I emerged at Clapham Common I felt victorious in the most deliciously bloody-minded way. Then I understood why he hadn’t walked home that evening.