When I was studying at Oxford University there were occasional invitations to make up a college rowing eight. No previous experience was required: sometimes it was simply a case of getting someone to sit on an empty seat. There were practice sessions fitted in around other educational or sporting commitments just to ensure that we knew where we were in the order, and whether our oar would be on the stroke or bow side of the boat. It was essentially “messing about in boats”, and great fun.
There was, however, a fleeting moment in one practice session on the Isis River which will forever be treasured in my memory. It was a sequence of no more than three or four strokes when it all came together. We were heading downstream, not trying to push ourselves, but rather to relax. As we did so for a few seconds we found that we were perfectly balanced, rowing as a single unit, and sliding through the water effortlessly. There seemed to be no friction. It felt as if we could continue indefinitely without breaking into a sweat.
For this one time in my short and undistinguished rowing career I was privileged to experience what it was all about. It was such a remarkable discovery that whenever I revisit this stretch of the river I still pause at the stretch of the river where a scratch eight found itself in perfect rhythm and harmony.
Then, as quickly as this perfect experience had come, it disappeared. We reverted to out normal performance, out of time with each other, splashing, catching crabs, trying to gain forward momentum by individual lunges with our oars, to the frustrated and despairing cries of the unfortunate cox.
Although this happened over fifty years ago, it came to mind recently at Mill Grove during an evening when things also came together. It is this that I would like to describe. After more than two years we were edging our way out of the Covid period and trying to find a “new normal”. One of the casualties had been regular meals with members of the extended family who used to join us after work or school. On this occasion three of us, who had dined often before the pandemic, found ourselves together again.
We met around the snooker table and played a game with rules adapted for three individuals competing against each other. Our scores were recorded on a board designed for such vagaries. Soon we were being reminded of each other’s styles, strengths and weaknesses. As we took our turns, the friendly banter increased. Then things came together. I had just potted a red and, inspired by this modest achievement, announced that I would follow this by taking on the black. It was in an unpromising position tight to the cushion. But undaunted, I pointed out the pocket into which I intended to send it. I think I even suggested that as it was such a difficult shot there should be some modest acknowledgement from them should I succeed.
In the event the black headed in a completely unintended direction, but amazingly I managed to get the white ball into the designated pocket. It’s still not clear how this happened, and I doubt whether it could ever be repeated.
The three of us were completely focussed on this event, and so the amazement was shared. After a period of shock, we began to see the funny side of things, and the game came to a standstill. All three of us were laughing uncontrollably. This may be difficult for the reader to understand, but for us it was a time of unalloyed joy. Not only were we enjoying my misfortune at having failed to achieve my stated goal, but the other two each received seven points as a result (that is the way the scoring works in such games). But there was something more going on. We were beginning to recall times past and all the fun on the snooker table that had come to a halt with the onset of the Covid lock-down. We were happy laughing together at my expense. We had been reminded that we really enjoyed each other’s company.
Ruth had kindly prepared a meal for us before she had to leave to be with a family needing her help. She came to let us know that the meal was ready and to say goodbye. The game was suspended, and the three of us sat down to enjoy a relaxed dinner in the kitchen. She knew what we liked best, and we did justice to the egg-fried rice, Arctic roll and peaches. As we ate, the conversation flowed. In some ways we represented three generations of the Mill Grove family. I was the grandparent; one of the others was in his twenties, and the third, just into his teens. There were occasional references to the snooker, and times past. One of these events was the occasion when the youngest of the three had bowled me out on the beach at Borth-y-Gest. It was recorded on camera and reproduced in Links, the annual newsletter. There were uncanny resemblances between this and the missed black, not least the shared joy.
But before long we were into a very serious and open-ended discussion about the War in Ukraine. We tried to understand the motives of Putin in invading this neighbouring country which he claimed was part of Russia, to fathom the ugliness and suffering that is part of the reality of war, and to explore possible future scenarios. My two younger friends were very well informed and relished the opportunity to air their views.
Each person listened to and respected the contributions of the others, and it was obvious that we were all out of our depth or at sea. Who could possibly say that they knew the answers to such questions? In this respect it was a remarkably level playing field.
We finished our meal and had a brief prayer-time, just as in the old days. We read the story of the blind man in Jericho who cried out to Jesus to heal him. And as we used to do, we read it dramatically, each of us taking the part of a different character. Then we prayed briefly for each other, our families, and the world, ending with the words, “Lord, have mercy”. In many ways this brief prayer was the only one available to us following our heartfelt conversation about what was happening in Ukraine.
It was time to do the washing up, and then to get back to finish the game of snooker. Before long one of us had managed to pot the black. The youngest of the three was I think the winner. But I’m sure that such trivial matters such as the score will be forgotten while memories of the laughter that stopped the game earlier, and the conversation that followed over the meal, will linger, perhaps for a lifetime.
It had all come together.
I have reflected since on what factors combined to make it possible. They include the fact that we had known each other for many years, that Mill Grove was a safe place, that there were shared boundaries and stories, that Ruth had made both the game and the meal possible, that play of all sorts was integral to all our times together, and that we have genuine respect for each other.
But I would like to close with a reflection about time. Both the harmony in the rowing eight, and the spontaneous eruption of laughter at the snooker table, were short and sweet. Yet they were in my view significant. And this raises the question about how far a single experience can affect a person’s life. Put another way, is it possible that “quality time” really does count? My growing conviction is that it can. And this is both an encouragement and a challenge. Encouragement because it is possible that in a therapeutic environment there may be a moment or time which becomes a catalyst for change, or a means of healing; challenge because we never know when those moments will come, and so need to be alert all the time. They cannot be planned or prescribed.
But you can recognise them when they come.