‘His life was trees’ was one of our favourite bench inscriptions back in those park-roaming university days. How would we choose to be remembered, we wondered, if the totality of our lives had to be whittled down to a one-liner (which, depending on the park’s location, stood a high likelihood of being defaced anyway)?
On Saturday I was back, for the second time in a week, at Holland Park which has the highest bench per capita ratio in the world, probably. It was a sunglasses and anorak afternoon and we clung to the sunny side of the paths to avoid the autumn-encroaching chill which loitered in the shade. We picked up a few tiny conkers which had fallen prematurely among the horse chestnut leaves and wondered if there was any way of converting them into something lasting – I’m thinking jewellery – before they crinkled up and lost their shine. Wrapped in our scarves, we sat like old ladies with a pot of tea in the late afternoon sun, telling life stories and watching the world go by.
On Wednesday night, another friend and I had chosen to enjoy our pimmsy picnic on a bench dedicated to a lady who was born in 1899 and who ‘loved London’. She sounded spot on. This time, in our amblings, we discovered a bench which rested there in loving memory of Marjorie Labow ‘who often stopped here to smell the roses’.
In solidarity with the unknown Marjorie, we wandered round the garden and smelt the roses. A stranger gave me a funny look for doing that in the street the other day. But it’s hard to walk past roses without a) having a moment of missing Granny and her generation and b) pausing to appreciate their scent and beauty. Marjorie got that.
It’s been a busy few weeks and I’ve been waking up at night thinking about money, the future and the sources of my security, and feeling – unexpectedly and for the first time – deeply fearful. Stuck in a moment. These tears are going nowhere, baby. I can’t lift myself out of it so I revisit again and again and again – in an act of prayerful CBT – what is true.
‘It’s obvious, isn’t it? The place where your treasure is, is the place you will most want to be, and end up being… Look at the birds, free and unfettered, not tied down to a job description, careless in the care of God. And you count far more to him than birds… Instead of looking at the fashions, walk out into the fields and look at the wildflowers [or, if you’re a city-dweller, hang out with the roses like me and dear ol’ Marj]… They never primp or shop, but have you ever seen colour and design quite like it?… If God gives such attention to the appearance of wildflowers—most of which are never even seen—don’t you think he’ll attend to you, take pride in you, do his best for you? What I’m trying to do here is to get you to relax, to not be so preoccupied with getting, so you can respond to God’s giving. People who don’t know God and the way he works fuss over these things, but you know both God and how he works. Steep your life in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions. Don’t worry about missing out. You’ll find all your everyday human concerns will be met. Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don’t get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes.’
[A slight aside but – speaking of birds – did anyone else notice that sparrows have disappeared from London? They used to be everywhere and now you never see them. Thanks to one of my Holland Park buddies for pointing out their absence.]
The voices in my head have been battling this one out (the general life angst, not the missing sparrows, though that made me sad too). So, a couple of weeks ago, when Helen asked me a simple question about how I was doing, I forgot my I’m-fine-thanks church face and all this stuff tumbled out in a muddled confused tearful heap of questions and fretting and regret. Have I actually got this wrong? Am I banking in the wrong place? Emily in the world, she reminded me with a twinkle in her eye, which reminded me in turn of one who I miss who’d have said the same. Just live up to your brand. She smiled and gave me a hug.
On Saturday, as I smelt the roses, felt the chill and the sunshine, and talked with a friend, I encountered peace in my here and now. I was encouraged by the fact that there’s a posse of us who are joyfully trying to let another reality shape our moments and actions. Believing in the possibility of changing the world and delighting in the journey. Negotiating flourishing in our contexts until hope is realised and faith becomes sight. Appreciating the beauty of things in their time but pursuing the eternity that’s been set in our hearts. Grappling with the implications of choices, celebrating the victories and encouraging each other to persevere when it’s harder. We get knocked down, but we get up again.
See how the flowers grow, oh me of little faith. Drawing, as ever, on my favourite R S Thomas poem, I decide to keep an extra eye out for the sun breaking through and illuminating spaces in my surroundings and I commit to remembering that those glimpses are the pearl of great price. ‘Life is not hurrying on to a receding future, nor hankering after an imagined past…’
I don’t know what would go on my memorial bench before it got trashed or nicked and its place remembered it no more. Fortunately it’d be someone else’s job to work that one out. Hopefully something about a life fully lived by someone who loved God and others. Who saw beauty in the moment, who smelt the roses, and who pursued what mattered. Who wasn’t afraid to die, or afraid to live. Who didn’t let it get away. Who finished the race.