If I only had words
The youth group’s store room was upstairs, just off the meeting room in which it regularly gathered. The room was deceptive in its size; extending into the slope of the hall roof, it had a capacity adequate to accommodate all the unlikely equipment acquired by the group over the years. Some of what was stored seemed not to have left the room for years, but the suggestion that it be discarded would have been met with protest. The size of the room required that it have its own electric light, otherwise one could not have identified items lying in the deep corners. There was no light switch; turning on the light required looping one wire around the other, striving to avoid any contact with the live copper wiring. The youth group leader was always meaning to install a switch, he had never found an opportune moment. The leader was a qualified electrician employed by the state-owned electricity service.
The youth group store seemed a fulfilment of the commonly held belief that tradesmen’s own lives can be the worst advertisements for the skill of the tradesmen. Electricians, plumbers, joiners, painters, builders – their work away from home is sometimes not matched by the places in which they live.
Being guilty of a similar failing, there is never an inclination to be harsh on those who are in the habit of being like the youth group leader. Spending more than thirty years with words, a competence has developed in providing appropriate sentences, and even paragraphs, for pastoral occasions. On the odd occasion, the words have found their way into print, or onto the airwaves. Words for public occasions can be provided in an adequate, if not expert manner.
The most difficult words are those needed for personal moments. As long ago as 1980, there was a feeling that Suggs spoke for myself and many others when he sang the Madness song, “My girl’s mad at me:”
My girl’s mad at me
Been on the telephone for an hour
We hardly said a word
I tried and tried but I could not be heard
Why can’t I explain?
Why do I feel this pain?
‘Cause everything I say
She doesn’t understand
She doesn’t realise
She takes it all the wrong way.
The passage of nearly four decades has not lessened the sense of being inarticulate in important moments, the sense of not having words that remotely approach expressing the feelings inside. Sometimes, the words serve only to exacerbate pain. Sometimes, the wrong words are used in the wrong way with the wrong results. Sometimes the words just won’t do.
Like the youth group leader who looped the wires together, there is a sense of knowing that this is not how it should be; knowing that it could be done better, knowing that it should be done better.
There’s a saying in Ireland you may have come across. “there’s no hop in it”. It goes back to the days when a bunch of poor boys would save up and buy a ball. They would play it for days and perhaps weeks but at some point either the rubber would lose elasticity or the air pressure would lessen. Both scenarios would draw the comment ‘Agh, shur, there’s no hop in it’. But had two very different outcomes. The latter meant hunting down a bicycle pump and some older hand who had the needle to re-inflate. The former was a far more terminal result. If there was no hop in the rubber, it meant it was dead.
A few years ago I was watching a chick flick and the character played by the great Eli Wallach delivered a good line. ‘Don’t be a bit player in your own life’.
Sometimes, a bit player would seem adventurous. The vows of self-abnegation to which clergy are subject seem sometimes to reduce one to the place of a spectator in one’s own existence.