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.


Love more. Connect more.


It has been a long, strange week. Some of it I expected; my schedule at work was quite packed, I knew I had a lot to do. I knew my evenings were also spoken for, and that the days would be long. In the middle of it all was the US election, and I was, like most people I think, expecting Hillary Clinton to be elected. By Wednesday I was just feeling relieved that all the campaigning, and all the unpleasantness that had gone with it, would soon be over. I was looking forward to it not being on TV every time I turned it on, and I was looking forward to not having to listen to Donald Trump anymore.

I am not American, so I was only a bystander, I had no vote, but of course an American presidential election affects us all. I am British, and you may remember we inflicted something similar on ourselves back in June, when by a relatively small margin we voted in a referendum to leave the EU. I didn’t have a vote then either, because British citizens lose the right to vote after living outside the UK for fifteen years.

Now, here I must say, the majority of my friends were horrified at the Brexit result; most people I know voted, or would have voted, remain. I do, though, have some friends who were, and continue to be, delighted at the referendum result. Likewise, the majority of Americans I know were not Trump voters, and my Facebook newsfeed has been reflecting the horror, despair and heartbreak that many of my friends are feeling. I know there are some Republicans among my Facebook friends, but they seem not to be posting  at the moment. It feels a lot like Brexit, and has given me a lot to think about.

Had I had a vote in the US election, I would have voted for Hillary Clinton. I understand that many people even in her own party found her an unattractive option, and that for a lot of Americans she is far beyond that. I know that she was a flawed candidate but I did not, and still do not understand the visceral hatred many people voiced throughout the campaign. I just don’t get it.

Donald Trump. Well. It’s hard to know what to say. He said himself, months ago, that he could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot someone and he wouldn’t lose any votes. In the end, it seemed there was nothing that could make people not vote for him. The comments about immigrants, about Muslims, about women . . . jaw-droppingly, mind-bogglingly dreadful, and still he rolled on. I had a conversation a week ago with a friend who is a Republican, and she was focusing on Mike Pence, almost voting for him and ignoring the name right at the top of the ticket. Maybe a lot of people did.

So here we are. The world waits to see what the Trump presidency will look like. Millions of people in the US are scared about what is to come; for undocumented immigrants, for women, for LGBT people, for people living with diseases or chronic health concerns, for the planet itself. We don’t know what is going to happen. As a candidate, Mr. Trump promised or threatened many things. With a Republican House and Senate he could get a lot done.

After the Brexit vote, hate crimes increased in the UK. People inclined to hate felt liberated, it seemed, to express their hatred to whomsoever crossed their path. There was a brief flurry of petitions, half the country scrambling to find a loophole to undo what had been done. There was a lot of distress in my Facebook newsfeed then, too. I was part of it, I needed to say, I am heartbroken, I don’t know what has happened to my country, where has it gone, what have you done to it, how do we get it back? It is still raw, months later. I still don’t know how we did that to ourselves.

And yet, I do. I know there were a lot of lies during the campaign, but I also know the Leave side seemed to have far more passion and brought people out to vote who had never voted before. The Remainers didn’t seem to get their act together enough, didn’t seem to believe we could really inflict such damage on ourselves. Some of my friends campaigned, stood outside in the rain handing out leaflets, called voters to ask if and how they would be voting. But how do you talk to someone who is voting Leave because of Napoleon?

There are people in the UK who thirty years ago would have been solid Labour voters. In 1997 they must have hoped and expected that the New Labour government would be in their corner, redress the balance of almost two decades of Thatcherism, and yet, they weren’t. For the last twenty years, these working people have watched their jobs disappear, watched the free movement of people within the EU, felt left behind, and wondered, why doesn’t someone do something for us? They were easy pickings for the likes of Nigel Farage, now gleefully skipping through New York to pay homage to the president elect, Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and others who thought they would rock the boat just enough to improve their own lot.

It is an awful thing to see your country divided down the middle, distrust, hurt and anger spilling out, the country you love spatchcocked because people who got tired of not being listened to finally turned out to vote and really did make a difference. In any election, the losing side feels disappointment, but after Brexit, after this election, it’s more than that. It’s important to remember that in both cases half the country is happy with the result. But the other half is distraught.

What can be the reaction to division and hate? We have to love more. We have to connect with each other more. Hunkering down is not an answer for our broken hearts. I am not suggesting that people should try to talk across the divide about what has happened. Everything is too raw, and will be for a long time, maybe even for the next 4 years.

I have a friend in Tokyo who was, and still is, cock-a-hoop about Brexit. We have agreed to not discuss it. There is absolutely no point, because he thinks it’s brilliant and I am still convinced that we have done great damage to ourselves. Neither of us will be swayed by the other, we both believe, sincerely and passionately, that we are right. I don’t believe our friendship would survive a heated discussion about it. But we meet for lunch, we talk about other things. We connect on a human level about things we agree on. I have lunch with my friend, not a Brexiter. We connect on the things we share and it is balm for my heart.

Two memories:

(1) Quite a few years ago, I was having lunch with another friend, and I mentioned someone who was one of my few Republican friends. My lunch companion declared that he wasn’t friends with any Republicans, that it would be impossible.

(2) Also a number of years ago, a Church of England priest who was spending several months in Japan preached at church one Sunday morning. He started by describing what he had seen on his travels so far, what were well-known cultural differences between the UK and Japan, and I remember sitting there, inwardly rolling my eyes, thinking, really? Is this all you’ve got? It wasn’t. He moved from, oh, look at that, it’s a shrine, it’s a kimono, it’s sushi, to an exhortation to always seek out the ‘other’. Whatever is alien, whatever feels strange, whatever feels right outside your comfort zone, go there. You will only grow and learn by encountering new things.

There have been a lot of awful things said in the course of the election campaign; some of it was lies, some of it was hateful, but it is over. If President Trump does start to do the things he has spoken of, then there are people and rights that will need to be defended.

But there are also people, whose hearts are broken, who are feeling frightened. There are people who voted for the winning candidate, who are feeling vilified and don’t understand the anger from the other side. Apparently they didn’t hear the hateful things as hateful things and voted, I hope, for a positive reason. I suspect that many on both sides voted for the lesser evil and are feeling bruised by the whole process.

America is a great country. I take issue with plenty of things about it, but the people are great. Mr. Trump doesn’t need to make them great again, because they already are. They are welcoming and friendly in a way that British and Japanese people find beyond them. They work hard, for far less vacation than people in many other countries, in a way that other countries respect and emulate. Look at China. They have an immensely beautiful country. It’s stunningly, breathtakingly beautiful. They have big, open hearts and an eagerness to get things done.

It’s a time to guard our hearts. It’s time to put love and kindness into the world. Post your anger, disbelief and distress on Facebook, if that’s what you want to do. I see those things, briefly, and then I hide them. I am guarding my own heart. Sign petitions, if that’s what you want to do. In June I signed them too, and felt a tiny bit better. But don’t spend too much time receiving input into your heart from the media. Turn off the TV, turn off the computer. Our output is more powerful; we need to send our love out into the world. The world needs it now.

Love more. Connect more. Please.

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.