Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Nineteen years

Nineteen years since Ann Wetherall died and tomorrow is the annual memorial by her graveside in Bibury, followed by breakfast at the Bibury Court Hotel at the hospitality of her sister, Tigger.

I first met Ann on the telephone. It was not an entirely happy encounter. She had an inflection in her voice that could relay a vivid impression of impatience. She was impatient, in fact, by her own admission (though this was mostly disguised by long practice and a natural graciousness).

I was not giving her what she needed - a fully catered weekend at the Abbey (an experimental Christian community at which I was resident programme co-ordinator) for a gathering of people she had come to know working in prison who could help her in her work of providing spiritual support to people in prison.

As result of working on a research project with Sir Alister Hardy at the Religious Experience Research Centre investigating spiritual experiences arising from imprisonment, Ann had found there was a spiritual hunger among prisoners that was not being met. She felt if prisoners were introduced to disciplines like meditation and yoga, and supported in their efforts, they might feel differently about themselves. This work, stepping beyond research, had spread and it now needed formalising.

But I had no cook available so she would have to cook - an activity that she did not wholly enjoy! I felt myself branded (probably out of my own paranoia) unhelpful!

Nevertheless I went to the meeting that weekend and was inspired. I volunteered to 'stuff things in envelopes' and would cycle into Oxford once or twice a week to do so, and more. I became the first employee (and effectively co-founder) of the organization (the Prison Phoenix Trust) of which I remain most proud.

It was an extraordinary friendship - too brief, lasting only five years - but utterly enriching. We used to work in an 'office' - a lean to at the back of her house - and stop everyday at 4pm for tea and conversation! What conversations - on the work, on India (where she was born), on life (the older, life experienced woman and the inquisitive insecure younger man) - woven deeply into the fabric of who I am. The day ended in guilty secret - we both became addicted to "Neighbours' and I used to watch it with her before going home!

In remembering her tomorrow, I find myself remembering my own better portion: the one she was so instrumental in bringing out and to life.

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