Hiding in plain sight

On Monday we watched this heron from the iron bridge over the Kennet and Avon Canal in Sidney Gardens. We’ve often watched herons across the river before and they tend to stand out against a leafy bankside, but looked at from above you can see how perfectly the heron blends into the surface of the water. I can’t believe herons have many overhead predators, but I can imagine a fox stalking one, when of course it would be watching its prey at water level, and the heron’s habit of standing stock still for minutes on end would make it all but invisible. I imagine its camouflage would be just as effective from below. This bird extended and shortened its neck so slowly it was wonderful to watch. It didn’t catch its supper while we were there but flew off down the canal towards the river.

It’s been a strange couple of days at the Potwell Inn. It’s almost six years to the day since we both retired and moved to another city. I’m sure there are many careers from which you could cheerfully walk away without a backward glance but it’s been very different for me. For more than forty years my workplaces were deeply emotionally challenging. Mental hospitals, prisons, outer urban fringe estates – both wealthy and very deprived; in fact the well-to-do villages were way more challenging. It was a high commitment, high adrenaline and massively challenging environment with no script at all. My working days were mostly demand led – the telephone could convey news as daft as a cat stuck up a tree at three in the morning, or a call from a stricken partner to tell me that the love of their life had been killed in an accident. I had worked as an art therapist with women who had been incarcerated in a mental hospital (read asylum) as “moral degenerates” because they’d had babies. They were extremely elderly and completely institutionalised so there was no hope of redress for them. Every day was a cliffhanger and I loved it but the pace meant there was rarely any time out to recuperate before the next wave hit – and being a bloke I shoved it to the back of my mind. As a community worker I worked among guns and knives not to mention drugs, and before I was ordained I taught pottery in a prison and took convicted killers out on resettlement visits.

To be any good at all as a parish priest you have to be prepared to be fragile;

After that the church should have been a doddle, but anyone who imagines that a parish church is a haven of hope and goodwill has never known one. People will be appallingly rude and aggressive (knowing that you can’t answer back) – without a thought of how damaging they can be. To be any good at all as a parish priest you have to be prepared to be fragile; not to know all the answers and to risk condemnation from some of your congregation for “mixing with the wrong sort” or from your ‘superiors’ for treading too close to the invisible and infinitely flexible line of orthodoxy. In every one of those situations I was supported, taught and and inspired by the people I worked with, but there were always a few who treated the status quo as an idol to be worshipped. We were destined to clash, and we did.

And so the years of stress piled up and took their inevitable physical and mental toll. I first found the Potwell Inn whilst reading “The History of Mr Polly” at school in an English class, and carried the idea of a place of beauty and safety – just like it – with me all those years. For the first three years of my retirement I kept a private journal as I struggled to discover what I was for if it wasn’t work. The allotment came along and it’s been such a place of dreaming and consolation that the title of the blog gave itself to me. The Potwell Inn was born three years ago, almost to the day. The photo was of our youngest son and our first grandson walking hand in hand down an avenue of limes in Dyrham Park.

When I read the little biography that I added to the site, I realize that it’s all true but it doesn’t convey the sense that the Potwell Inn is also a hostel for the broken. The tagline about being human didn’t come from any hoard of communicable knowledge on my part. I’d spent so much of my life patching up other people I wasn’t sure any more that I knew how to be human myself.

Perhaps the previous paragraphs make more sense of why I spent most of yesterday in A & E with a racing heart that just wouldn’t slow down and worrying that it might stop altogether! A little spate of coincidences (perhaps what Jung would have termed synchronicities) – several people I’d known and cared about had died; the funeral director called me to tell me about one of them and the moment heard his voice I went into auto pilot, fending off the fear of yet more grief. I started to dream vividly at night – sometimes nightmares about being locked out and rejected – standard stuff I suppose; bread and butter psychotherapeutic issues, but it was enough to kick off an AFib attack that just wouldn’t go away. The self protective shell that I’d built up around myself had become a prison – I used to (half) jokingly refer to my clerical collar as “my prison clothes”, and breaking up that carapace has turned out to be both liberating and incredibly challenging. All of which means there’s a lot more to the Potwell Inn than I’ve allowed out before. The allotment has been central to that process, but I’ve still got reservations about the concept of the “nature cure”. For me, today for instance, the mindless pleasure of weeding, watering and planting out helps me to stop the carousel of dark thoughts. The photos express moments of joyfulness and thoughtfulness that I find around and about. The heron – still and silent like a preacher; the teasel whose sepals remind me of a lyre; the melon swelling in the tunnel, crops gathered and eaten and the flower borders alive with insects. They’re all little shout-outs from creation that say – or sing – come and join the dance!



I’m in two minds about this posting, knowing how uneasy I can feel when writers I’ve enjoyed seem suddenly to change tack, shape shift; enlarge and offer a glimpse into another possibility of being human. Here’s this imaginary place called the Potwell Inn in which an allotmenteer and his partner live and where they cook and grow food and travel a bit and muse about this and that; alluding occasionally to past, pre retirement lives, children and grandchildren. All very neat and tidy until the big crises of the twenty first century intrude and we have to pay attention to the environment and economics and politics. But even then, a predictably leftist, new age, hippy dippy character who if not actually in a box, is certainly capable of being measured up for it.

Really? Is that it?

Once, in an early session that began years of therapy I burst into uncontrollable tears. This was before I finally left the armchair and walked to the couch – it’s a long way in a small room. I was talking about Odysseus’ return to his home in Ithaca where his wife Penelope, who doesn’t recognise him dressed as a beggar, orders her maid Eurycleia to bathe him.  Eurycleia, his childhood nursemaid recognises Odysseus by the old scar on his leg. The simple recounting of that story unexpectedly reduced me to helpless vulnerability.

Looking back, I think the extraordinary reaction was due to the exposure of my need to be known. I don’t mean famous, rich or powerful – just known, and that demands a level of trust that most of the time neither I or anyone else can easily manage, and so we spend (forgive me for generalising, I don’t think I’m alone here) – we spend more time concealing than revealing ourselves, and then we beat ourselves up when people don’t ‘get’ us.

And all this reflection was provoked because last night we watched the TV adaptation of Sally Rooney’s book “Normal People” – which Madame had read and thought I’d enjoy. To tell the truth I was deeply touched by it; by the parallels in our own early relationship but perhaps more than anything by the way it evoked the confusion, the bewilderment and the overwhelming sensuality of falling in love as a teenager surrounded by people who don’t get it – parents, teachers, friends – grown ups in general. I haven’t watched the rest yet, I don’t know if I want to, because there’s no drama in happiness, and no happiness in drama, that’s for sure.

But that’s teenagers, and now we’re all grown up and far too sensible, far too willing to settle for less, far too willing to judge harshly when others break out, (I thought to myself), and then, quite out of the blue, I realized that in some complicated sense I’m still a teenager, but that now the disapproving voices are all younger than me. Something dreadful happens and growing up brings with it the terrible danger of first becoming a metaphor of oneself and then a cliché. We can become the same hatchet jawed judges who once judged us and sneered that we’d soon know better.  We can become them, but we don’t have to, and we can even stop it if we wish to.

What this pandemic seems to have done is to evoke in me the same sense of powerlessness, of being subject to the will of others who don’t understand, who can’t live in the bright tumultuous sun, who can neither love or be loved but treat life like a game of musical chairs and will fight to the death to be the last man sitting.

And so the rain came last night, absolutely on cue.  If only the rest of our lives were so predictable.

*H’m is the title of one of RS Thomas’ collections of poems.  The photo was taken on one of the beaches in his parish.

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