In Her Own Words:
Back Stories

The story behind "Manannan's Cloak"

The Isle of Man (or in Manx Gaelic, Ellan Vannin), became my home in 2012. It is an island 33miles long and 13 miles wide in the Irish Sea; part of the British Isles, but with its own government, the oldest in the world. It has its own currency and the Manx Gaelic is still taught in schools. It is a beautiful place to live and you are never far from a bay, sea side town or the hills and countryside. It has the world’s largest working water wheel in Laxey, the tail-less cat and Loaghtan sheep with extra horns. It is probably most well- known as the venue for the annual Tourist Trophy (TT) motorbike races, which I wrote my impression of in another poem, “The Swarm.” There are many ancient traditions, superstitions and legends too. One legend is about an ancient mythical sea god Manannan.

Manannan was said to come up out of the sea conjuring up his magical cloak of mist which he wrapped around the island in order to protect it from invaders. Indeed the thick mist that descends     does a good job of disrupting travel to and from the island. Planes and ferries can be delayed for several hours or cancelled if it doesn’t clear. Manannan’s cloak is now rather unwelcome. In my poem, I wanted to convey the mist, but also that the modern-day island (with the female persona of Ellan Vannin) feels rather trapped by Manannan’s unwelcomed protection and attention. She is rescued by the conquering sun’s rays, who like a hero forces the possessive lover back into the sea, to reflect on how our weather can suddenly change and a beautiful day can follow a misty start.

The story behind "Status Update"

Between 1988 and 1996 I lived on a mountain slope in the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan. I was there as a nurse with the Leprosy Mission in one of their four hospitals. These were built in the country during the 1960’s, after a survey (carried out on invitation of the ruling Bhutanese royal family), showed a wide spread leprosy problem.

The 60 bedded hospital was the centre of our community. Hospital buildings were built next to the track that led up the valley, parallel to the river. Then purpose- built staff quarters arced around the hospital and an apple orchard was planted above them, giving a beautiful spattering of lacy apple blossom in the spring. It was a beautiful, quiet place to live. The hospital was staffed by a multi-national team from Bhutan, India and a handful of Europeans. We lived and worked as a community with one purpose, to care for and treat those with leprosy and in doing so share God’s love with them.

In my role as “nursing superintendent”, I led a team of 14 nurses, one of whom lived in the house just down the slope from me. She had a daughter, a shy, girl who was away in India at school for most of the year. This is who I received the unexpected message from years later, now married and living in India, longing for a child.

Technology didn’t play a big part in our lives during my time in Bhutan. Airmail letters took 3 weeks to reach me from the UK. We only had a phone installed in the hospital’s office a year before I left, which was the only one in the valley and I didn’t know anyone with a mobile phone or internet access.  The Leprosy Mission and its last remaining staff left Bhutan in 2001, having handed the work and the hospital buildings over to the local government.

 Things have changed and now I enjoy links on social media to many of my colleagues from those days and their children (now grown up,) living all around the world. My colleagues still call me “sister” and their children call me “aunty”. Maybe when the private message requesting my prayers was sent, this young lady was remembering other miraculous answers to prayer that we’d seen in the community back then; people who had been healed and whose lives had been touched by God’s power and grace. So, I was glad to be asked to pray but then I didn’t hear anything, didn’t even know she was pregnant, until about 10 months later when the status update thrilled my heart. That news that I received on that bleak, wet and windy day on the island, meant I didn’t care how soaked I’d got on my walk into town, I could just picture that baby in my mind’s eye, the answer to prayer.

I saw pictures of the little girl grow, until she was about 4 and then before “Raised from Dust” was published, her mother closed her Facebook account. I am still in contact with other members of the family in India so one day she may read “Status Update”, a part of the testimony to God’s goodness and grace.

The story behind "Journey Home"

When I started this poem, I set out to write about a physical journey on a London bus; a commute between Sydenham and Catford, South London, at the end of an early shift at St. Christopher’s and the reflection of an unforgettable incident that was shocking and unusual in my day as a hospice nurse. Within this, I am describing another journey, one which we all take, our life’s journey. Some travel bustling and carefree as the children who bundle on to the bus full of noise and life, thinking little of anything ahead, just in the ‘now’. We may travel like the youth, head down focused on his phone, technology taking all his attention, seemingly oblivious to everyone else around. The old woman on the bus sits, uneasy, worrying about her handbag, maybe her pension, which she has just collected; it is a journey in London after all, where the crime rate is high. However she is representing those to whom material comfort and possessions are the uppermost in their life and to be held onto and relied upon. Then there is me, a thirty-something professional, whose mind is wandering back and processing the busy day that I’ve just left and the people who have been in my care.

On public transport we can each sit in our own world, with our own thoughts, be anonymous. You rarely know what is going on in anyone else’s head as they stare out of a bus window. It is like this in life: you can travel along together and be independent, with only superficial contact with others, like passengers on the same bus. However, we all have one thing in common: our journey comes to an end when we reach our final stop. We will all die. We don’t know if that will be sudden like the gentleman who was on his way to the toilet, or ‘untimely’ like the son whose mother sat at his bedside, full of questions. We don’t know whether we’ll be alone or have a loved one with us, even if they are only able to offer their silent companionship.

Having worked for several years in hospice care, you may think I am a morbid person (maybe reading this poem has made you think that) or that I spend a lot of time thinking about death. I don’t, but I think it has brought home to me how precious life is. My years nursing in a hospice were far from morbid. I found my work very fulfilling and gained a special bond with my colleagues. The modern hospice movement pioneered by Dame Cicely Saunders transformed the care of patients with life limiting illnesses. She developed palliative care medicine, which specialises in treating symptoms, to allow patients to live life as fully as possible with whatever time they have left. She taught a holistic approach to nursing and medicine, recognising that the spiritual, mental and social is as important a part of a person as the physical. She also encouraged a multi-disciplinary approach to care, where all members of the caring professions were equally listened to and had their part to play in the care of the patient. I was indeed privileged to meet her and work in this field, to care for some amazing people and their families. It has made me not want to waste the life I’ve been given, to cherish friendships and family, to make the most of opportunities and I hope give respect to people that I meet on my life’s journey. I also hope to enjoy the beauty in the fascinating world around us and to try and make a difference in each day that I’m given. Whatever your beliefs in an afterlife (and as a Christian, I do believe in one), we only have one chance to live in the here-and-now, so go and treasure each day of your journey and be a blessing to the people you travel alongside.

 © Alison Stedman 2018