There were four painters in my house this week. Or maybe five. They kept moving as I tried to count them. My laptop and I retreated to the back stairs because I happen to have back stairs and front stairs but that’s a story for another day¹. At one point, I lost my husband in the confusion of the additional personnel in the kitchen as he went up one staircase to find me and I came down the other to find him and it felt like a metaphor for our marriage when we reunited in the middle of the ground floor or maybe I am over-thinking things.
The painters talked a lot. They had multiple conversations about eggshell and whether one litre would do but mainly about one section of one wall at the bottom of the front stairs. The boss explained where the cut-off point should be so no joins would be visible, but only on an individual basis, like it was a secret. One by one, they’d appear, and he’d repeat the same information four times. I heard the oldest one say he’d lost perspective in a corner because everything was white, and I imagined him being sucked into that corner complete with the roller he’d been holding for fifty years. I was trying to drown them out and write ‘Thoughts for the Day’² which are the hardest things to write because you have to offer hope and not burden and never give advice and always be positive and completely non-political and not too religious but mention the Bible or Jesus somewhere and create a connection with an audience in just over two minutes. The fumes weren’t helping. Somewhere between a migraine and vertigo, I ended up with thoughts on porridge, poetry, CVs, Centre Court and Maya Angelou but that’s five and I only need four.
In the one about poems, I mentioned something I’d heard on a podcast³. It struck me as profound. It was about connection. The interviewer said, “I think those of us who lean ‘bookish and nerdy’ can feel quite unseen until all the bookish nerds gather in one place and throw our arms around each other”. The guest talked about a passage from Alan Bennett’s play ‘The History Boys’ where the teacher is talking about literature to his students, and he describes that experience of reading a thought or a feeling or a way of looking at things that you’d thought was particular to you and you discover someone else has been there before. “And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours”.
“I’m not a tactile person,” someone said to me as they embraced me on a Sunday morning, and we discussed the joys of Anne Tyler and not reading the latest book of a great author who speaks to you in case they die and that’s it and you have nothing more to look forward to. We were aware that our beloved AT is 81 now. “Neither am I,” I said as we did the ‘two awkward introverts not quite sure what to do with our arms’ thing. We were the same height which helped, and I decided my issue with this form of affection is that I usually get lost in someone’s midriff. “I’m just reading your piece about not getting likes on LinkedIn,” said an ex-colleague, who is now a friend, as I sat down for lunch with her on a Friday on the way to an evening where I had to be a wife. “I want to give you a hug,” she said, “but I know you don’t like them”. And I’ve been trying to explain to my husband how these offers of hugs have been so wonderfully uplifting even though they haven’t always materialised and maybe I just need to start initiating them.
I’ve been trying to process why drinking coffee in the hall of the church I left two years ago and have now returned to is so deeply moving and how I don’t care anymore if no one discusses the sermon. It’s like bathing in 1 Corinthians 13 and even though I’m not a member, I’ve started to invite people who are already members to join me. “What did she say to you?” said the person I had invited to sip hot liquid with me in the foyer. It was a fleeting encounter. As we’d brushed past each other, a woman had whispered “keep writing” in my ear. “Keep calm and keep on writing,” said my companion. “I love your writing,” she said. “It makes me feel normal”. And I wanted to gather up all the people like us who have visible joins and who feel ever so slightly unseen and ever so slightly not normal so we could throw our arms around each other. And I hoped she meant that my writing felt like my hand coming out and taking hers.
And when it comes to these moments of connection, I find words no longer seem adequate. There’s a spiritual intensity. It’s like briefly catching the light, or heaven and earth brushing lightly against each other, or that perfect piece of music that lifts you up into unspeakable joy and transports you to a higher place. It’s the secular blessed by the sacred. It’s probably a feeling of belonging, the deep, deep relief of being with people who get you, the bookish nerds all together in one place. Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation⁴ says it’s God breaking in, that God can be mediated as much through a conversation as through a sermon, as much through a saxophone as through a pastor. There are no boundaries between the sacred and the secular other than the ones we create ourselves. As people bless us, they give us a glimpse of something more.
“When you least expect it, during the most mundane daily tasks, a shift of focus occurs. This shift bends us toward the universe, a cosmos of soul and spirit, bone and flesh, which constantly reaches toward divinity”.
And I worry that I might be coming over all religious but actually, I’m trying to break away from that, find something much bigger and much better than religion.
“But these moments are all about you,” my husband says. “You’re the centre of attention”. “Yes, I’m the receiver,” I say. But sometimes, I am also the giver.
The painters are very loud. They shout at each other over something-FM. Occasionally, one will break into exuberant song. They are happy at their work. They’re like the seven or the five dwarfs, heigh-ho-ing until they finish at 3pm. They laugh in sync. “That’s because they’re all related,” says my husband. “The oldest one’s the da. That’s his son. I think that one’s his brother. There might be a nephew”. “But connection is nothing to do with blood,” I say, “my family don’t get me”. My husband tells the painters he is doing an online fireside chat⁵, something important with investors at 1pm. He mentions noise and not touching the wi-fi and making a good impression. “Could you make me a cup of tea before you start?” says the da.
And I remember a Thursday evening, when I was anxious about just being a wife, and I wanted to make a good impression too and I couldn’t decide between two dresses, the blue or the green and my nail polish had chipped before I’d even chosen my shoes and I tell my friend how I’m feeling and she says, “just go and be Russell’s best friend”.
And so I go on a Friday evening to be a best friend and I chat and I smile and I chink a glass so he can make a speech, and I know he’s watching me to check if I’m ok and I don’t turn round so he knows I am ok and somewhere around 2.30am, as a candle burns low and the evening turns toward morning, another wife sits down beside me and she tells me she’s been there before. And it is as if a hand comes out and takes mine.
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 Get in touch if interested in the stairs.