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Reform Magazine | August 19, 2017

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On the pilgrim way: A summer of pain

Sheila Maxey learns to be astonished in the midst of pain

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It has been a summer of pain – eight weeks and counting of the sharp, stabbing pain of shingles combined with ongoing pain in my right shoulder and arm which is quite incapacitating. I am learning again how narrow my world becomes at times like these. Terrible things have happened in the world – in Orlando, in Nice. We have had Brexit and considerable political chaos. The stream of desperate refugees continues, each one with a heartbreaking story to tell. And I am deciding how many co-codamol to take. I have taken refuge in thrillers, one after another.

However, into this narrow world, come little pinpricks of light. Because I sit so long in our conservatory, I realise how lovely our garden is. This poor, cool, rainy summer has made it bloom as never before and I feast my eyes on it. One day I saw a hedgehog make its way across the garden and into next door – such a thrill.

I am reminded of Mary Oliver’s poem, ‘The Messenger’, which begins: ‘My work is loving the world.’ If she had stopped there, I would have been overwhelmed with guilt about the narrowness of my current pain-filled world. But she goes on:

Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?
Am I no longer young and still not half-perfect?
Let me keep my mind on what matters, which is my work,
which is mostly standing still and learning to be astonished.

And so, some astonishing pictures from these past weeks manage to push the pain aside for a while: the snowy peaks of Svalbard, far within the Arctic Circle, seen from our cruise ship; brilliant blue gentians in the botanical gardens in Tromso, still within the Arctic Circle; our shamanic pagan son playing his fiddle for the hymns at our granddaughter, Hannah’s baptism; walking fast, with my husband in his new mobility scooter, along nature reserve paths with the wind in my hair and the sound of the wind in the reeds.

I have been surrounded by kindness: a doctor nephew promptly prescribed his favourite painkiller, a niece cut back the jasmine which was almost blocking the doorway, a friend visited and lent me thrillers – and everyone tells me to rest. In theory, rest could be very productive: I could read improving books and have profound thoughts. However, rest and pain don’t work that way with me – so I am grateful to Mary Oliver for pointing me to what matters. Her poem goes on to unpack what it is to learn to be astonished:

Which is mostly rejoicing, since all ingredients are here,
which is gratitude, to be given a mind and a heart…

Sheila Maxey is Book Reviews Editor for Reform

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This article was published in the September 2016 edition of  Reform.

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