Jesus of Gower
In the spring of 2016, I turned fifty. So, naturally, a mid-life crisis seemed in order.
Mine was pretty spectacular. It came to a head a week before Easter. Never mind the hows, or whys: but my faith was in tatters, I was seriously depressed and filled with self-loathing, I wasn’t eating or sleeping, I had lost a stone and a half in a week, and I was unable to concentrate on work (or anything else for that matter). I was a mental wreck, well on course to becoming a physical one too.
Much of the two or three months that followed is now a blur. But I know I received tremendous support from my family, and a few trusted close friends. I was signed off work, and forced to rest. I started to find some new outlets for my troubled mind that were therapeutic. I found time to read, properly, as I had not done for several years. And I began writing.
Perhaps the most helpful thing, though, was that I started to receive counselling. When my GP suggested this to me, I was sceptical. I had had counselling some years previously, and on that occasion the experience had not been at all beneficial. Why would it be any different this time? But then I reasoned, somewhat reluctantly, that there was nothing to be lost by trying again.
I think it helped that on this occasion my counsellor was male, and almost exactly the same age - in fact, he was just a few weeks younger than me. His name was Jesse. We met every month over the course of the next year. During our first three sessions together, he hardly spoke. He scarcely moved, even. There was a stillness about him that was immensely comforting. Yet his kind eyes - warm, gentle, reassuring eyes - never seemed to leave me, as I found myself pouring out to him a life’s story that I had never shared in its entirety with any physically-present person.
There was so much to articulate, and such a tangled web to unweave. There were tears, and not a few blushes, along the way: mine, of course - not his. Had he heard it all before? Was he unshockable, this serene Buddha-like figure, with the gentle half-smile, and quiet voice that spoke rarely, and barely louder than a whisper - yet, when it did, spoke words that soothed my vulnerable psyche as if anointing me with some fragrant, cooling balm?
It was only when we got to the fourth session, it seemed, that we truly began to explore, together: wandering through the flotsam and jetsam, scattered along the messy shoreline of the inner life that I’d laid bare before him. Moving from place to place, like beachcombers, considering one item after another, along that shoreline; clambering over the rocks, picking up the shells, poking through the seaweed, and letting the varied patterns form and reform along that impermanent mental shore. In every session that followed, my hidden cove looked a little different, and a little less cluttered and storm-tossed. My terror of the deep, the unfathomable deep, that roaring, threatening Tiamat of primordial chaos, so near and so frightening, slowly began to receed. And as each new aspect within my mindscape came into view, as each slightly altered state was acknowledged, I relaxed more and more in his company.
Our sessions always lasted longer than our allotted time. He didn’t seem to mind. He gave me the time and space I needed, to talk, to ruminate, or just to be.
The months, and the seasons, passed. I read, and I wrote more, and opened up to new friends online. Learning of their struggles, though different from mine, helped me face down my own demons. We helped each other, I think. They certainly helped me. My physical health returned, and my mental resilience grew stronger. There were dark days still, of course. Days on which I struggled to rise from my bed, to face the world. Medication helped, for a long time; and, in time, I learnt to manage without it.
I returned to work - slowly, by stages - and was amazed at how exhausting it all was. And already, I think, I knew that the return to my former workplace would be temporary. Things had moved on, and I wasn’t the man I had once been. Soon I would need to look for a career change: to strike out in a new direction.
But that could wait, for a little while yet.
I was feeling better. Winter passed, spring returned, and I knew my time with Jesse was drawing to a close. Just one more session remained, and Easter was approaching, once again: this time, without the existential dread that had almost overwhelmed me twelve months before.
For ten successive years, at dawn on Easter Day, my wife and I had celebrated the Day of Resurrection alongside members of various churches across Gower and Swansea, as we assembled for a sunrise service at one of Gower’s most picturesque viewpoints. Our numbers varied from year to year, according to whether or not it was an early or late Easter, the timing of the sunrise, and the weather conditions on the day. In 2016, in the dark hour of my soul, there could be no Easter hope - and so I absented myself from that accustomed gathering. But a year on, I felt ready to return, to welcome the rising sun, and to acknowledge the risen Son.
In 2017, the wind was less bitter than in many previous years; the dawn sky was a dazzling blue, and the edge of the resplendent solar disc pierced the thin, wispy clouds without a moment’s hesitation. Arthur’s Stone - Maen Ceti - was not far away from where we stood. Legend had it that the Once and Future King had been bothered by a sharp stone in his shoe, and had tossed it away - all the way from distant Carmarthenshire, over there on the north-west horizon. If only I had found it so easy to be rid of the things that troubled me! Arthur’s castoff had landed on Gower, and had wondrously, magically, grown in size.
Magic. And miracles.
Did the stone table of Narnia split in half for me that morning, and did Aslan’s roar resound around the uplands of Gower? Perhaps not. But my dormant faith - small as a mustard seed though it be - had been rekindled. Perhaps it could grow, sufficient yet to move mountains - or cast stones, at least, across great distances. And as the dawn service neared its end, and our final hymn of praise concluded, I rejoiced at hearing the sweet song of the solitary ascendant lark, calling out his adoration to the Creator of all things. Not even Vaughan Williams could match the pure, peerless beauty of that moment.
As up he wings the spiral stair,
A song of light, and pierces air
With fountain ardor, fountain play,
To reach the shining tops of day.
(George Meredith - The Lark Ascending)
Many of the faces around us in the crowd that morning - a good turnout, that year - were familiar: individuals who had joined us on previous occasions, some whom we knew well, others whom we recognised only from past Easter dawns. As with most years, there were one or two we’d never noted there before. It’s hard to recognise people you barely know when they’re wearing thick winter coats, hats and scarves, shrouded in layers almost as completely as the dead; gathered in the receding gloom, waiting for the promise of morning. It was only at the end that I realised, with a start, who one of this year’s newcomers was. Standing there before me - acknowledging me with a twinkle in his eye, and a knowing half-smile - was my counsellor, Jesse.
I felt miraculously touched, just like the Magdalene. Mary, in the garden of Gethsemane, had asked the stranger: ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.’
But as he simply spoke her name: ‘Mary’－
So then she knew who was standing before her.
Not the gardener: but her Lord.
In that instant, that Easter morning, I looked into those eyes - the warm, gentle, reassuring eyes of Jesse - and I realised that for me:
Jesse was Jesus.
If you’ve ever watched the penultimate episode of the wonderful BBC television comedy Rev., about an Anglican priest in a struggling urban parish, you may recall how the protagonist, Rev Adam Smallbone (played by Tom Hollander), having been suspended by the Bishop of London (Ralph Fiennes) following an accusation of unprofessional conduct, is in the midst of a breakdown. He has been wandering the streets of his parish all night, carrying an enormous wooden cross. The next morning, on Good Friday, he encounters a derelict (Liam Neeson) on a hilltop. The drifter engages him with some offbeat humour, before turning to the haggard priest, and saying:
‘Adam, Adam, we all have our crosses to bear.’
Looking puzzled, the priest replies: ‘Yes…yes, we do.’
The tramp places a consoling hand on the priest’s shoulder, and assures him: ‘I understand Adam. I’ll always be here.’
Adam laughs, bewildered, but with a look of what might be understanding creeping across his face. His companion smiles, and gets up to go. The camera cuts away, focuses on the astonished face of the priest, then pulls back. The vagrant has simply vanished. In the next scene, Adam returns home, to his concerned wife, Alex (Olivia Colman), and tells her:
‘Alex, I’ve just met God.’
A deity looking remarkably like Liam Neeson, at that.
Of course, unlike God with Adam, Jesse didn’t pull a vanishing trick on me. And we still had one final counselling session together, a few weeks later. Tying up the loose ends, perhaps - like Jesus with his apostles, after the Resurrection, before the Ascension. After all the long, overrunning meetings of the past, this final one was actually shorter than our allotted time. We had said everything that needed to be said. Our journey together was at an end. I gave him - as a parting gift - a small booklet, containing some of the poems I’d written over the previous year. He was probably humouring me: but nevertheless he accepted them, graciously.
We met one another just once more - a few years later, on the Gower shoreline - a real beach, this time, not one cluttered by the detritus of a disordered mind. On that occasion, we greeted one another, as acquaintances, and politely asked after the health of each other’s families. I’d learnt, by then, from others what I had never learnt from him during our sessions (consummate professional as he was). I’d discovered that he was the son of a pastor. Not so surprising, I suppose. The son of a carpenter might have been even more impressive.
And now, Easter is approaching once more. The world has not stood still. In the half-dozen years since my mid-life crisis hit, the United States has had to endure the presidency of Donald Trump, Britain has had a double dose of Boris and BREXIT, Australia has suffered fire and flood, the light of democracy has been all but extinguished in Hong Kong, the Taliban have returned to power in Afghanistan, and war has revisited Europe. Oh - we’ve had a global pandemic too.
I won’t be meeting with others for a service on Easter dawn this year. Our outdoor Paschal service was a casualty of the pandemic these past two years; and, this year, the nearby car park has been blocked off by the landowner, rendering a dawn assembly impractical anyway. We move on. Times change. We can find other ways to mark the yearly cycle of life, death and rebirth.
But for whatever remains of my earthly life, I will always remember those past gatherings, and, in particular, the Easter morning when the lark hovered above the uplands of Gower; and, in the most unexpected of ways, I met with Jesus.
Note: I’ve changed the name of my one-time counsellor. Suffice to say that in ‘real’ life it is sufficiently close to both Jesse, and Jesus, for the conceit at the heart of this story to still work.
Fox Comes Down From The Mountain
There once was a Monkey who climbed a mountain.
And at the very top of the mountain, he met a Fox.
Good fellow, said Fox, why have you made so perilous an expedition for one as small as you?
I come seeking knowledge, said Monkey. There must be more to the world than what we see around us.
Fox reached up, and with his paw, he plucked the ripest and sweetest piece of fruit from the Heavens.
Most intrepid of Monkeys, he said, your courage shall not go unrewarded.
Here is the world. Study it closely, so that you may learn all you can.
But that is only a norange, laughed Monkey. The world is not a norange!
And yet I tell you, this is what you seek, said Fox. Would you refuse my gift?
Having climbed all the way up the mountain, Monkey knew it would be a long way down again, especially with an empty stomach, and so he accepted Fox's offering gratefully. Even though he did not believe the norange to be anything more than it appeared.
Now I would ask something of you, said Fox.
Anything, said Monkey.
Promise me you will not eat the whole fruit yourself, but portion it equally among all of your kind.
There are so many of us, said Monkey. One norange will not be enough.
I will have your word, said Fox, or you will leave here with nothing. The choice is yours.
In that case, said Monkey, I will share your norange.
And so Monkey made his way back down the mountain, to his family and friends.
What did you find? They asked.
Only this, said Monkey, holding out the fruit for all to see. And a fool of a Fox.
But remembering his promise, he tore open the norange and gave a piece to each of them, saying: My world is yours. All that I have in the world I give willingly.
And for every segment Monkey gave freely, a new one took its place, until every other Monkey had eaten of its flesh, savouring its sweetness, sucking the piece dry, and spitting out the pips.
From the seeds grew trees. And on the trees grew more noranges.
There was no place where Monkey did not simply need to reach up and pick for himself a full ripe and sweet norange.
One day, many years later, Fox came down from the mountain.
Who is the fool now? He asked Monkey.
I am, said Monkey. I did not believe you, but look... See how happy we are. You gave me the gift of more than a norange. You gave me the wisdom to realize the importance of sharing. Not just food, but knowledge. Thank you, friend Fox. You are truly the wisest of all.
The continuous thumping of guns had gone on all night; and every night all that week. Darling wondered how anyone could have survived under that dreadful, all-consuming bombardment. Even here, in the British trenches, the ground shook, rippling the ankle-deep stagnant water that covered the duckboards.
Darling's battalion was tasked with taking the village itself. To the left of their objective was the Schwaben Redoubt. He pitied the poor souls whose misfortune it would be to try to capture it.
He checked his watch. It was almost half past the hour of 7:00 am, on the !st of July, 1916. The Captain blew his whistle. The shrill blast was repeated all along the line by junior officers, including Lieutenant Christopher (Kit) Darling, and as one, the army scrambled out of the trenches.
Men fell around him. Men flew into the air. Arms. Legs. Heads. It was as if the sky had opened and was raining blood and body parts. All Darling could think about was moving forward, toward the barbed-wire, the Germans, and death. Then, suddenly, his world disintegrated in a blast of searing heat and crushing pressure.
He didn’t know one of the British shells had fallen short of its target. He didn’t know much of anything at all.
From the back of a horse drawn ambulance, he could see an angel. A golden angel looking down on him from the blue sky. He blinked in surprise, wondering if he was dead, and if the heavenly host was welcoming him home. Then he remembered he’d seen it before. It was the Golden Virgin of the Basilica, in the centre of Albert, a small market town in Picardy. The angel had been knocked sideways but (miraculously?) hadn't fallen, and now lay on its side.
The ambulance was a simple converted farm cart, able to carry six men on stretchers, in two tiers of three on either side. He was on the top tier. It was a hot day, and the canvas sides of the ambulance were rolled up to let in a fresh, cool breeze. Darling watched the countryside drift slowly past. A lance of pain shot through his heavily bandaged leg.
Also on the top tier, on the other side of the ambulance, was a young chap who looked to be in a bad way.
Darling reached into the breast pocket of his tunic, hanging from a hook beside him, and offered the man his cigarette case. He watched the fellow light the cigarette with shaking hands.
“Been in the army long?” Asked Darling.
The young man shook his head. "How long is too long?"
"Who are you with?"
"Third Battallion. Royal Welsh Fusiliers."
The young man answered by blowing a smoke ring.
The two lapsed into silence. When they arrived at Amiens, Darling looked across at the young fusilier. He was very pale, too pale, the half smoked cigarette still clasped between
A week later, Darling was feeling well enough to take a short walk in the hospital grounds. Catching the eye of an orderly, he thought to ask about the young man he'd been in the ambulance with.
"Doc don't fancy 'is chances," the ordely told him, "but wi' a name like 'is it's no bloody wonder."
"I never learned his name," said Darling. "What is it?"
"Graves,' said the orderly. "Robert Graves."
After the house burned down the man was now living in an apartment. The cheapest he could afford was still over his budget. Working the night shift at the gas station didn’t pay well. Certainly not enough to account for the toll it took on his mind and body. The house was co-owned by his ex wife, so she received half the insurance. He still thought she was behind it. Although she was cleared of arson by the investigation; airtight alibi visiting her family out of state. She could have planned it with someone, paid someone to do it. Purely to make him even more miserable. The same person had most likely sent him those letters. Accusing him of repulsive crimes.Threatening him.These things didn’t shake him as much as they would have in the past. As he lost more from his previous life he found it increasingly difficult to care about anything at all. Himself included. He even had to give the cat away because he found it too much of a burden. It was an act of mercy to release the creature from his prison-like apartment and cold inhuman touch. “Not enough empathy to even care for a cat!” She had shouted at him. It stung even more so now since it turned out to be true.
The hours during the late shift fluctuated. 1am could last longer than 3am, or 5am could suddenly vanish if he closed his eyes for a second too long. Being surrounded by artificial light made him feel like a reptile in a glass box. Sunning in a gargoyle-like position under a red glow. Only the gas station company colors were a kind of mint green. In this particular hour, he was all alone. The holidays had cleared most of the students out of town. The last hour had vanished. Only six left. The radio didn’t work, so he stood in silence every night. Instead of reflecting on his past and the connection to his current living situation, he preferred to distract himself. Mostly by people watching.
There was no one to watch tonight. The hours trickled by without so much as a car pulling into the parking lot. It was as if time had stopped outside the store. He frowned as he noticed a dark gray car parked out front. He hadn’t seen it drive up. There didn’t appear to be anyone inside, though the windows were tinted. Biting his lip, he grew uneasy. The car was somehow familiar to him. The numbers on the license plate rang an alarm bell in his head. A silhouette of a figure stood near the gas pumps. Under the broken light, he couldn’t make out any features. Nor movement. The person stood perfectly still. He turned in an attempt to pretend to rearrange the items on the shelves while double checking the position of the alarm under the counter and the gun stashed in the safe.
When he looked up he grew cold. A woman was standing in the middle of the store. She was absorbed by the rows of candy in the second aisle. Her pregnant stomach protruded, stretching out her t-shirt. He was astonished how she could have possibly stuck inside without him noticing. But he then realized he was also starring for another reason. She looked very familiar. When she looked over at him they locked eyes momentarily. She suddenly doubled over in pain. A clear liquid and blood dripped down her legs. The store shook with her agonized screams. You’ve got to help me! Come help!
She must have had a miscarriage. He tried to call an ambulance but the signal on the landline was dead. How could that be? He squeamishly crept over to the woman, now sitting in a dark red puddle. What should I do? He started to ask, when all of sudden it hit him. His eyes widened. He knew exactly who she was. Seeing his look of recognition, she twisted her expression into a menacing smirk.His head smashed into the floor and he found himself flat on his stomach. Something grabbed both his arms and pulled them behind him. The bones in his feet snapped as if a powerful set of teeth had bitten down on them. He screamed, tears running down his face. It flipped him face up and he was suddenly staring straight into the woman’s eyes. I didn’t even…we…I only touched you! I’m not the father! Please! His leg bones shattered with a loud snap. Something from within her was dragging him across the floor towards her. The thing protruding from her belly was hideous. It was almost incomprehensible. A mangled deformity of some kind not meant to be seen by human eyes. Like an animal turned completely inside out. He sobbed helplessly as it continued to devour him. Why? He spat out through his own blood just as his ribs were split open. She tenderly brushed her hand across his cheek as he succumbed to shock and lost consciousness.
The woman was left with her own thoughts again, while her spawn digested the carcass. Why indeed? She had asked herself countless times. And the man behind it all didn’t even know. She sighed. It was too much to ask for an answer. She cleaned up in the restroom, tucking her appendage neatly back into its womb. And then she set the gas station on fire. It burned much faster than the house had.
La Cucaracha Vuelve
I wasn't expecting to see a cockroach when I opened the kitchen pantry door. But there it was. I brushed it off the shelf, onto the floor, and ground it into the terracotta tile with a boot heel.
It was there again the next morning. The same one. I'm sure of it.
"Listen here," I said. "We don't pay to have the place sprayed every three months for no reason, you know?" Then I brushed it off the shelf, onto the floor, and ground it into the terracotta tile with a boot heel.
It was there again the next morning. Looking at me from behind a packet of breakfast cereal.
"Cheeky bastard!" I said. "This is a tastefully renovated three bedroom bungalow in an exclusive suburb. You don't belong here." Then I brushed it out from behind the breakfast cereal, off the shelf, onto the floor, and ground it into the terracotta tile with a boot heel.
It was there again the next morning. Sitting on top of a bag of self-raising flour.
"You're taking the piss, aren't you?" I said. "Four days in a row!" Then I brushed it off the bag of flour, off the shelf, onto the floor, and ground it into the terracotta tile with a boot heel.
I emptied everything out of the pantry, onto the kitchen bench, and sprayed every shelf with insecticide; specially formulated for cockroaches.
It was there again the next morning. Crawling all over a bottle of maple syrup.
"I don't mind giving to charity to feed the starving children," I said. "But I'm not feeding you!" Then I brushed it off the syrup bottle, onto the shelf, onto the floor, and ground it into the terracotta tile with a boot heel.
The cockroach was there again the next morning. It had, somehow, unscrewed the lid of the Vegemite jar, and was making itself a sandwich.
"You are bloody kidding me!" I said. "Can't you take a hint?"
I was just about to do the bootscooting boogie, when it knocked me onto the floor, and ground me into the terracotta tile with all six of its legs. And I might be wrong, but I'm almost sure it was wearing little tiny cowboy boots.
'Well!' I thought to myself. 'I wasn't expecting that!'
My Aunt always smelled peonies
when my grandmother entered the room
the fragrance her presence.
the smell of honey
My uncle John
the cringe of gunpowder
still lingering from his chosen death.
her home and head cluttered
her head would rise
"I must make tea
we are all here now."
Elephants Can Cry
Did you know that elephants can cry? They're the only animal that can. Now, I don't believe that they cry because they're sad, but they can feel emotions. I know this because of an experience I had as kid.
Every spring my family traveled down to Louisiana to visit relatives. The zoo in Baton Rouge is one of the best I've ever visited. My personal favorite exhibit was the elephants. I loved elephants dearly, and this zoo had two. The last year we went down, I was seven at the time, one of the elephants had died. The one left behind, I think her name was Dolly, was very lonely. And by very lonely I mean VERY LONELY. She stood around looking sad, with her trunk drooping. She missed her friend a ton, and when we showed up to say hi, she got so excited. She raced up to the trench around her enclosure and watched us. Dolly kept reaching her trunk towards where we were. My dad reached his hand out towards her over the fence, and she tried so hard to reach it. There was about a six inch gap between his fingers and her trunk, and we got a lot of pictures of that. One of the keepers told us that Dolly had been very unhappy since her friend died, and apparently wanted to have Dad join her. Luckily, she couldn't reach him over the fence. Dolly was disappointed when we left, and continued on through the zoo. To this day, I remember her, and wondered what happened after we left. I have to admit that I'm glad that Dad didn't get kidnapped by an elephant. Still, I suppose that it could be called a close encounter.
You will call me a liar, but the truth is often stranger than what you might expect. The experience for me was a first. One that left an indelible mark.
In my dream, I am being chased. Though the day is s warm and the sun shines brightly, terror envelopes me to the point of distraction. My mental state can only register the chase.
I run. My breaths expel in rasps. Pain stabs at my side. Sweat blinds.
Reaching the corner, I look over my shoulder to see a shadow fast approaching, but am I just seeing things? Are my tears distorting the person chasing me?
At the corner, I turn to the avenue and race uphill only to trip on a wooden beam left behind from a construction site long gone. My hands hurt as I brace myself from slamming my face on the concrete. I'm abruptly turned onto my back.
The shadow's weight is on my legs. It grabs my hands and pins them with its knees. Then its hands wrap around my neck and it begins to squeeze.
I'm choking; unable to catch my breath. Struggling, but unable to get free. Kicking the floor, but the concrete causes my heels to bounce.
I realize that my eyes are closed. Desperately needing to find a way to escape, I open them to find myself in my bed. Willie's dusty blonde kinks are buried between my legs. I'm being siphoned.
I got the dm on December 24th, 2021 at 6:00 PM pacific standard time.
My friend was dead.
My dear, dear friend who had dreams, aspirations, love, and beauty to share. My friend who loved to go on walks and hug trees, who chose to denounce her religion and go on a journey of enlightenment. My friend who I hadn't audibly spoken to for almost exactly a year. Was dead.
By her own hand.
I couldn't believe it. It's a joke. No, I could believe it. I did believe it. She's gone.
I can't count the tears I've shed or the regrets I've had. I can't express the pain I've felt added to my own depression and anxiety, something we talked about on a daily basis and supported one another in...
But something absolutely unexplainable. Is her voice in my head.
Some people talk of ladybugs or butterflies visiting them after a loved one has passed.
My friend decided to stick herself into my brain and not let go.
I can't tell if I'm possessed, or she has chosen to haunt me. Or, the opposite, she's decided to be my guardian angel.
But since she's passed, there she has stuck. To talk to me. Whether I like it or not.
Little worms growing up out of the ground reaching towards sunlight, or maybe the rain, space-like, or of the sea.
Sea urchins on land, perhaps, sea urchins of the forest.
Purple spindles, must they be spun by dawn I wonder.
Purple fairy club.
All its names leave more question than answer.