You

September 1969. I remember the first morning I walked into my classroom, 1D, at my all-boys secondary school, and met Mr Starling, the form teacher. I was excited to find he was also my chemistry teacher – the synchronicity of it. Already in love with chemistry, it was the one thing I was longing to start.

I did not feel safe in life. Although now, in the early evening, I sometimes long for home, I realise that home, though safe and loving in all the important practical ways, was not consistently psychically safe. At school I was one of the wimpy boys. I was scared of bullying and, although I suffered little from this in reality, I kept a low profile.

I do not remember who invited me to the youth group at St Margaret’s Church. Maybe it was early on before we knew each other better. I imagine a boy who wanted to be friends but I have no memory of that reaching out. I do not think of myself as someone who would be invited to such a thing, not popular enough. Indeed, writing this brings back to mind and body feelings the felt experience of smallness and of being uninteresting. I feel diminished in entering this memory-time: small, uninteresting, anxious, lonely, hanging out with the less popular odd-balls. I feel a sad ache in my chest for that younger self, lacking in confidence and self-belief. School is a battle-ground.

So neither home nor school were safe, or I didn’t feel safe. I felt inadequate, a bit ridiculous. I had no interests of my own. Or rather I did have interests – reading, nature, classical music – but I feared these would not engage others.

It is strange that I accepted the invitation. I was vociferous to two friends that I didn’t believe in God. I have no idea why I was so against You. It was aversion, not atheism. Maybe I was frightened of opening myself to You, so I held You at bay. Early ideas of God are so often transferred from our parenting.

I remember enjoying the youth group: snooker, table-tennis, music, the kindly curates in black cassocks, girls (in delightful contrast to my all-boys grammar school). I think of it as sanctuary. I was more myself, freer. I was liked, and I was good enough at snooker and ping-pong to keep up.

I have almost no memory of the 30-minute God-slots that were held each week. A talk; some slides; venturing out to Belfairs woods, a few minutes walk from the church. It was certainly religion-lite, and thank God for that. I do remember sitting in church telling You to fuck off. That’s what makes me say that I was antagonistic to You rather than atheistic.

One evening, I must have been about 13, we were all saying the Lord’s prayer at the end of one of these God-slots. You touched me. You felt like sunshine and warm honey pouring in through the top of my head and filling me up. It was an utter revelation. Although I didn’t articulate it then, I say now that You made Yourself known to me; You showed me You love me utterly; and instinctively I knew I could trust You. Everything changed in that moment. My life turned and turns on this axis.

(This is new: not that I remember Your touch, but how it finds a context in the felt identity-memory of a teenager.)

Suddenly the world opened out, a world that was completely and truly mine, something for me. What I had been offered was of essential importance. It gives the only possible meaning to life.

Yet, I was confused. I knew a response was required. You were not asking anything of me, but the world had changed and so must I. I remember walking my paper round in the early morning troubled over what I was going to do.

I decided to start going to church. It is interesting to think what a 13-year old could make of Anglo-Catholic liturgy. It must have been a culture-shock. And yet I have no memory of disorientation. I simply accepted it and absorbed it or was absorbed in it and felt at home. You disorientate me; church is tame.

The church became a second home and family to me. The other youngsters were nice to me, and we played together and made music together, as well as going to church together. I miss it.

One time I borrowed the church key from the vicarage so I could sit in the church alone with You. Even back then this was my preferred mode of being with You. Solitude, silence, stillness: alone with You with whom I can never be lonely.

You claim me as a son. You are the possibility of a father / parent who loves me uncomplicatedly, who wants me as me. When I remember this in this body I relax and I am ok, in the right place, here and now. This is my meaning. I don’t need to justify my life. It is profoundly grounding and presencing. I don’t need to be anyone else.

3 thoughts on “You

  1. I’ve never responded to anything like this before, but ‘You’ resonated so strongly I needed to say thank you. The teenage feeling of being an alien, not safe at home or school was so real. Then the experience of knowing a group where I was affirmed yet still on the edge and eventually the knowing by God that was being loved and most amazingly loveable. Its helpful to recall and yet saddening that the older, wiser me finds it difficult to abandon and trust in the way I once did. In bed after reading this I thought of a poem I had written called ‘I remember’ but I don’t see a way of sending it. Is there a limit on characters I seem to have overrun? Thank you I have work to do now. (Robin passes your writing on with the comment last night ‘I think you may have things in common’).

    • Here is Val Dawson’s poem:

      I remember

      The first thing I really remember is fear.
      I won’t be in the class she told me. That’s wrong!
      How do I tell her? I’m cold with dread.
      But I don’t remember the telling of it,
      Nor how she reacted, that’s gone for ever
      I only recall the breath-holding fear.

      I remember walking to the new school alone,
      Not recognising anyone I knew from before,
      So turning away in tears, unable to go in.
      Recognising the uniform, a lady takes me back.
      But I don’t remember entering the classroom
      And I never told ‘her’ about being scared.

      There were years when fear was addictive,
      Creeping into the bedroom to steal, from a pocket,
      Money to buy sweets and if possible friends.
      So much deception and lies, trying to be noticed,
      To be significant, even for the wrong reasons,
      But I don’t remember that it ever worked.

      Years later, into the small bedroom, now mine,
      She brought my birth certificate, pointing out
      a strange name, my mother’s, not ‘hers’.
      I can still feel the struggle to take it in, all the
      years of deception and family collusion
      And how I knew it already, inside.

      But not all my memories are disturbing.
      I remember how my daughter held me tight
      A week before her body gave up the fight.
      The others in the house, waiting for supper
      Were still, as she held me for precious moments
      And I knew myself loved as never before.

      And now I’m held and loved in a different way
      So that sometimes my legs go from under me
      And at others I know it’s safe to be vulnerable,
      Allowing unforgotten feelings to surge through the calm
      But with facts and details still lost in confusion,
      Leaving only a raw unacknowledged pain.

      How does this remembering and forgetting work,
      What stays and what goes, and what comes back
      With unexpected ferocity and wounding?
      It‘s a mystery to me, this whirling cycle of exposure,
      Yet memories are who I am, what life has made me,
      This vulnerable child, held together by love.

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