Friday, 11 December 2015

Calais Visit 3

Since I got back from Calais I’ve been noticing clothes a lot more. I realise that after just a few days my mind has become fairly acutely attuned to categorising things in terms of ‘suitable’ and ‘unsuitable’. That is, suitable or unsuitable for protection in a refugee camp, in Winter. The distinction between the two, representing much more than a piece of clothing. The ‘yes’ and ‘no’ piles representing a distinction between on the one side - entitlement; privilege; resources; choices... Whilst on the other side – survival. Mostly that – survival, and the retaining of human dignity.

Last night at work back in the UK (welcoming people coming to the Panto) I noticed the men wearing thin clean white jumpers (there were quite a few) and suddenly the ‘unsuitable’ label pops into my mind shining a light on the simple privilege I wouldn’t have considered before Calais. Thin white jumpers which assume heating and clothes-washing facilities and a frequent change of clothes. Jumpers which in Calais would have been thrown firmly on the ‘no’ pile.

I notice people wearing shoes – that is, any kind of footwear that is not a trainer (suitable for running to jump on lorries/trains) or wellies/hiking boots (suitable for walking on muddy, flooded, bumpy ground). ‘Unsuitable’ shoes which assume the privilege of having solid even floors and pavements to walk on. Footwear which does not require the judgement of being more or less likely to give you trench foot...

Fellow volunteers – when I close my eyes I’m still searching the waist sizes of jeans! And taping boxes...

And seeing so many faces – the faces of the people who stood in the long line to take the toiletry packs we handed them from the back of the van. I am remembering all their faces – the smiles, the laughing ‘hello’s’ and ‘thank you’s’, the faces with pain in them, the downcast eyes, the joking, the disappointed faces, the hopeful and the resigned. The bald man taking the shampoo and catching my questioning expression - ‘yes, yes, I need’ as he rubs his head laughing. Laughing together.

I see the faces of the two young men from Afghanistan and hear their voices telling us about arriving on the boat in Greece, how scary it was, and about how they felt so touched by the kindness of people welcoming them ashore with cups of tea and biscuits, how they would never forget it.

I see the woman and young boy carrying a crate of bananas between them. There must have been a fruit distribution. Suddenly there are lots of people holding apples and bananas. A man who sees me tying bin bags around the fence where a rubbish point is, offers his banana. The generosity of people is so incredibly humbling.

I see the faces of the boys walking alongside our car drawing hearts in the raindrops running down our windows.

I smile seeing the little girl who is laughing and laughing, and sticking her tongue out at these funny people who have turned up in her field and are doing such a silly dance ‘Oh the hokey cokey...’ and insisting on sharing her smarties with us.

I see the woman’s face as she steps out from between the tents and we smile at each other and she is nodding her head to me, and it feels like between both of us there is a big longing unspoken welcome. I have never realised until that moment, how deeply it feels a smile, merely a genuine smile, can connect hearts through untold boundaries and differences. I can still feel her smile in my heart.

Our team – dropping donations; building shelters; repairing homes; working in the medic caravan; teaching English in the library; making up and distributing food parcels; sorting shoes; making up and distributing clothing and toiletry packs; joining a peaceful protest organised by refugees about the boy killed on the road and demanding to be treated as human beings; talking to people... Just four days of helping where we could, which is such a tiny drop in the ocean of support and change that is so desperately needed. It feels so inadequate, because it is. But if you are able to go, for whatever amount of time, please go. It will make a difference and sometimes the difference that it will make could be immeasurable. And there are amazing volunteers there who would really appreciate some help

One time when we were working in the warehouse, the dance track that was playing had the words ‘to understand is to transform’. It stuck in my mind. By participating in the work here, by meeting the people, we gain an understanding that no amount of media can give, and it is transforming. How much this has the power to transform the appalling and shocking injustice and harm taking place at Calais and to refugees around the world, is yet to be seen. But the old adage is clear – we can’t wait for our ‘leaders’ to do the right thing, we need to be the change we wish to see. And keep on moving towards understanding.

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Calais Visit 2

Our first stop was at the L’auberge des migrants warehouse where we spent a couple of hours stocking up vans for the convoy we were joining for the afternoon’s distribution. We combined our blankets, sleeping bags and tents with those of others so that each van only contained one type of item for a more efficient and quick distribution once at the jungle. Other items were put in their relevant categories in the warehouse where we joined other volunteers sorting through the mountain of clothes.

Donations at L'Auberge des Migrants

More donations were arriving all the time and lots more people are desperately needed to help with sorting through it all, so that it’s possible to get it where it’s needed in the camp. If anyone’s got any days to spare- the warehouse needs you! I filled my empty car with items not required, to bring them back home instead of adding to the growing disposal issue in the warehouse. An enormous truckload of pallets turned up which was brilliant as shelter-building is the big thing in Calais over the next couple of months. The pallets are making great floors for the new structures which are rapidly going up each day in the camp.

Once in the camp the vans were opened one at a time or far enough away from each other so as to keep things as calm as possible. People formed the familiar lines behind the vans and if not helping with the actual distribution procedure we took the opportunity to chat a bit with people who were waiting. I was struck by how much joking, laughter and smiles were shared with us, the ability of people to keep such a strong sense of humour under the harsh and awful conditions they are surviving in. Others talked of their journeys or their families elsewhere. It’s hard to hold back the tears. The man who wanted to show us his phone video of his children left behind in Syria, film of them laughing and in his arms, “I miss them so much”. Saying he hadn’t been able to speak to them for a week now and had heard there had been a bomb just a couple of houses away. He had felt the journey could be more dangerous for them so he left first to try and secure a safe home in the UK which he could bring them to. How hard to weigh up the least dangerous decision of only inherently dangerous options.

Another thing which was striking over our visit was the generosity of people. People wanting to share their small amount of food or make us tea, serve us a meal, offer a chair to sit on... So many greetings “Hello, how are you?”and shaking of hands. Constantly feeling humbled by the people we meet.
We dropped several boxes of tools, diy stuff, tarps etc to the builder’s corner which is a constant hive of activity, hammering and sawing, putting the frames together for the ‘houses’ which are replacing the inadequate tents for the growing numbers of families, women and children coming to the camp. I was told an estimate of about 200 more people are arriving each day. I met several people just arriving while I was there, looking a bit bewildered, tired or asking where they could find medical care. There is nowhere near enough medical care for all those who need it. The shelters are based on priority need, families with children, so for now, many are turned away when approaching for wood or ‘houses’. This is where I decided to plant a large amount of my donation cash as it feels like this is the most urgent need at the moment with colder weather, rain and Winter coming.

In this field, we also arrived while a great community atmosphere was being expressed through Kurdish music and dancing, which we clapped along or joined in with. The resilience of spirit again which is so evident here!

The amazing smile of the pregnant woman I talked with, pointing to her belly and saying “nine month”, about to give birth living in her tent here with the life-threatening level of hygiene issues within the camp – how could anyone find this situation acceptable and not entirely shameful of our governments?

When I went back to the car for some more tools, two small girls were playing, running hand in hand laughing through the grass amongst  the butterflies...The shining beauty of these young lives held captive and placed in danger here by our Government’s cruel border policies.

As we drove back to the tunnel we passed groups of men on the long walk to risk their lives again in the nightly attempt to cross to the UK, and wished so deeply that we could assist them safely to a new life in safety. 

Saturday, 29 August 2015

Calais Visit 1

I just returned from visiting the refugee camp at Calais and have been asked by several people to tell how it all went and I feel strangely stuck - I think because of the enormity that it touches on, and the immensity of feeling that arises from directly looking into the eyes of someone asking you with such desperation for a blanket, or for shoes and knowing your country's politicians and media are doing their best to erase their humanity. And because the words - sorry I have no more shoes, sorry there are no more blankets left - make me feel ashamed and make my heart hurt.

The first person to approach me was an elderly man who was pointing through the car window, asking quietly for a blanket. And for trousers. I wanted him to wait so that I could get him a blanket and trousers. He was saying 'I came from Pakistan' and was starting to say more, but there were a lot of people gathering and I lost him before I opened the car, distracted by police threatening to pepper spray people. I don't know why the police turned up threatening to spray people. I wondered if it is partly to put people off from bringing aid. I have heard his voice and seen his face in my mind all day today. I really hope he gets a blanket from someone else soon.

Other faces and voices are still being processed in my mind.
Sister, why did you not give me a jacket?
Because you were not in the line, I'm sorry.
But I waited for an hour.
I'm sorry.

Look at my feet, I have no shoes. Please you have shoes?
Lots of people showed me their feet in their split shoes or their flip-flops.
Sorry - I will bring more shoes next time.

Please a blanket, I am cold. Very cold at night, I cannot sleep.
There are no blankets left, I am sorry.

Shoes, please. There are no shoes left.

I took no photo's. I would have liked to, but each time I thought to reach for my phone, it didn't feel appropriate. French TV crew turned up and continued to film despite being asked to stop. A person's dignity. A person's consent. Concepts for the media to reflect upon.

As we were about to leave, a young boy, maybe 8 or 9, came to the car. The car was empty now except for a bag of pots of party bubbles I had brought in case I met any children. I pass him the bag and when he looks inside his face turns into a big excited open-mouthed smile. That moment. I don't know anything about him or what difficulties he had journeyed through to end up living in the appalling conditions of this refugee camp but even if I had brought nothing else that day, it was worth it to see that boy's smile and to bring him some moments of bubble fun.

Despite my car not being a van I had managed to pack in what had been almost a whole roomful of stuff that had been collected in my house, leaving out only a couple of bagfuls. Compared to the need, it felt next to nothing, but when I started to feel deflated by how minimal our contribution, I was reminded that it was not nothing...  Thank you Hayley...Tonight some people will sleep in a tent or under duvets or in sleeping bags that they didn't have before. Some people will be wearing warmer clothes, wearing shoes on their feet, brushing their teeth, eating organic beans... Someone will be playing swingball and some kids will be blowing bubbles.

It's a tiny sticking plaster that leaves me feeling sickened, sad and angry at our politicians lack of humanity, but nourished by the goodness of people who are taking some responsibility into their own hands, however small, and refusing to buy into a narrative that is becoming more cruel, and more wrong each day.

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Early Evening On Milton Common

Apple blossom and May flowers.
A fox sat still in the evening sun staring.
Buttercups and boats sailing.

Something about the clouds... and childhood.  Mine.
Laying in the summer grass near a round wood.

And my mum, knowing the names of everything.
Clouds, birds, flowers...

Enough blue sky to make sailors trousers forever.
Or so I thought.

Somewhere tonight my Dad is walking amongst bluebells
and I was too busy to go with him.

Everyone I pass is hand in hand
and the birds are flying together, home.

Mind insistently settles on everything that has gone wrong.

...When a little dog tears through my thoughts
Scattering them into a million fragments of now
each one exclaiming Look! We are alive! Catch me!
This here is all there is
And all there ever was...

It’s enough.

Friday, 1 May 2015

Beltane Blessings!

So, Beltane, a day of freely frolicking about in the woods with my love and an evening of wild dancing around the flames under the open sky...?

Actually today was passing just like most others over the last six months, in a mad rush of no time and lots of stress and seemingly endless pressure to stretch time and energy over many competing elements, and coping with the continued fallout of sadly very estranged relations with ex-love... when I decided to stop.

Just for five minutes. Stop. And count my blessings.

Five minutes to give thankful thoughts to the people who keep love alive in my life, and help me to sustain a passion for life, because that's what Beltane's about. So... my most passionate Beltane thank you to some very amazing people who I can't actually imagine my life without.

Here's four of them, when I managed to squeeze in a quick walk to some bluebell woods earlier this week inbetween the madness :

And this picture represents the richness and sweetness and lightly whipped melt in the mouth deliciousness of good friends and their ability to lift the spirit! I collected a parcel from the post office today (smelt the sweet hawthorn blossoms as I whizzed past on my bike!) which contained a beautiful box of these finely crafted homemade vegan meringues, and me and my son had the pleasure of a lovely unexpected mid-afternoon Beltane feast!

Thank you to amazing friends (and brilliant cousins) who have been there on the phone or through the post, or in their kitchens pouring tea (if I ever got time to call on them!), and being an astounding help with childcare or dog care, to help me through what is one of the most difficult times ever for me and my boy. My heart swells in a blossom-filled ocean of love to you - Beltane blessings! xxx

Friday, 2 January 2015

A New Year's Day Exposure

I guess I might wake up in the morning and decide this post is self-indulgent navel-gazing which should have been kept for a private journal, but all the same it's been fairly therapeutic to work through. And I would like to encourage the people who are struggling with life's challenges that they don't need to hide behind the 'Happy New Year'  or 'Happy Whatever It Is' obligations in silence, because actually not everyone's happy all the time and it's good to share some of the madness and get it out so that it's less likely to kill you.

I had a cosy New Year's Eve tucked up on the sofa with a blanket and my dog at my parent's house.  Mugs of tea followed by a little of the whiskey from the bottle my brother gave me many years ago which I only ever drink on New Year's Eve so that it can last forever. My final Christmas chocolates, a lit candle, and a creepy film with my mum and dad. Wonderfully comforting.

Checked Twitter for updates on what my son was doing - nothing directly from him but the group that he is with in Scotland were reassuring in their tweets about a 'rip-roaring ceilidh' and a 'magnificent feast'.

Then today.

New Year's Day and on the way home, alone with my dog, we went for a walk. And I suddenly saw a part of myself in the landscape I faced. 

The kind of empty, bleak and abandoned part.

A long way away from the motivated, grateful and nourished part.

And when I got home it rushed in, like a hungry sea. The grief I've been holding down so that I can be strong for my son, for my dog, for my parents, for myself.

The grief for the relationship I haven't been able to save - 19 years of memories and shattered expectations of how it was going to be, of how it should be able to be healed. And I can't heal it.

The grief for the secure and happy family I've failed to provide for my son.

Grief for the brother or sister he never had.

Grief for all his pain that I cannot protect him from.

Grief for the partnership that I have lost.

And so I fell right down a deep pit of bleak, empty, abandoned self-hating despair, coloured with all the other self-hating griefs of the years. Of not being a good enough sister to save my brother. Of not being a good enough friend. Of not being a good enough dog guardian. Of not being a good enough daughter. Of not being a good enough lover. Of not being a good enough mother. Hate, hate, hate. The pit of generally feeling pretty crap about everything. Hideous negativity which I'm actually not very used to dealing with, as I'm usually too busy, and I generally do pretty damn well at being 'fine'. The sort of sadness which feels like it's sucking all the air out.

Not a nice place.

Then something happened and I remembered I'm a witch. Really not a very good enough witch of course, but even so, just the word is alchemy. It means I can choose to work with the powers of nature and life to create change, to transform, to survive the fire.

And I began to stoke the fires within. To remember what ignites me, what feeds my passion.

To remember that despite all my hated perceived failings, I am earth that supports, earth that has been walked on by the sacred feet of all I have loved, their footprints always in my heart. Earth that is powerfully strong and regenerates, however much it has been harmed. That I am fertile soil which any day now I can plant with the seeds which I wish to germinate within myself, and that Spring is coming soon to aid my growth.

To remember that I have tides always flowing within me, lifeblood in rivers of hope with every heartbeat. Oceans of emotions that means I feel and contain despair and joy and all the wild horses inbetween. I am waters which enable me to flow in and out of creativity, in and out of the story I am imagining, giving myself permission to be the ebbing as much as the flowing. I remember something my son said when he was four about having an ocean of joy inside him. I can find that ocean, and do my best to help him find it again.

To remember that I am air. My life is breath moving through my lungs that I guess has been circulating around this planet for billions of years. Air that is shared and connecting me with everyone. We are all this breeze, this change in the weather. I am winds which are blowing in from the East, purifying, bringing fresh beginnings and a clearer dawn light.

I breathe in. I breathe out. And at last there is some respite from this storm and I am grateful, I am nourished, I am motivated... enough.

Enough to meet my boy from the train tomorrow, to be the solid earth to support him always.

Enough to begin rebuilding my path, weeds and cracks and stones and all, my own way.

Enough to remember how it's all held together with love, all of it.

So I ended the day with kindness, with a climb out of that awful pit, and a doodle of some of the places I find comfort. Just to remind me.

I checked Twitter one last time before bed, for any news of my boy:

"Everyone is relaxing in the library and the fire is roaring".

New Year Blessings to all. xxx