After over a year of being largely prevented from doing things in groups I feel like the luckiest man alive to have been part of four very special collective experiences in one week.
The first was in the beautiful surroundings of Regent’s Park in London. It was the Irish Chaplaincy meet up and the first time in almost a year and a half that most of us had seen one another in the flesh. Eighteen staff and volunteers were there and it was an absolute delight from start to finish. We strolled around the lake and through the rose garden, we sat for a while above the waterfall in the Japanese garden and chatted, we walked again, we basked in the sun, and then we had lunch from the café. One person sent a message the next day to say, “I enjoyed every second of it,” and that pretty well summed up the sentiments of everyone. We’re all looking forward to doing it again in July.
On my early morning walks through the Kent University campus I’d noticed that tents and food waggons had appeared on one of the lawns and it had an attractive looking vibe about it. It was the Summer Food Festival, with live music on Friday evenings, so a couple of days after Regents Park I was there with Yim Soon and our friends Marcus and Jenny. They had brought a bottle of wine and we had taken some nibbles. We chatted, we shared news about our children, we laughed, we wandered around the food stalls, we listened to the various student bands strutting their stuff on stage. There was a profound joy and excitement for me in being part of a collective experience. The food was good too. We went Thai, and I ended up eating a green chicken curry and rice and half of Yim Soon’s stir fry. I needed to get some carbs inside me in preparation for what I was doing the next day.
It was the idea of a guy called Lestor who likes cycling crazy distances (and at crazy speeds) and thought it would be fun for lots of people from the Canterbury Bicycle Club to ride crazy distances all on the same day. The ‘Tour of Kent’ included two groups of six doing a ridiculous 200 miles, starting at 5am, plus several groups doing the same 100-mile course and setting off at a more respectable 8am. I’d only tentatively signed up at the last minute (for the 100 miles!) as I hadn’t done much serious riding this year but I was so happy in the end to be part of it. Yet again, I was struck by the power of being part of a collective experience. My group passed other groups on the road and greetings were called out, and at our first café stop, 40 miles in, it was nice to see some people there that I’d done a 100-mile ride with last summer. It was a great treat as well to indulge in a bacon roll with my latte. That’s one of the best bacon rolls I’ll ever have, and I wasn’t sure I’d be able to move again to manage the remaining 60 miles. But manage it we did, even what turned out to be nearly 2000 metres of climbing. That included, after 70 miles, a 20% hill. It was brutal and there was some choice language expressed by some of the riders, partly directed towards the person who had designed the course (and then not come on the ride himself!), and a lot of funny comments later on the Club WhatsApp chat. It was lovely to see all the pictures and banter on the chat. Our collective experiences, both joyful and painful, create memories and the retelling of these memories and stories is one of the things that binds us together as humans.
The final collective experience was on the Tuesday evening and it was the fifteenth and final lesson of my Korean course. We’d also come on quite a journey together as a group and just like on the Tour of Kent there had been plenty of ups and downs on the way but how good it was to have made it to the end. My Korean had come on leaps and bounds and I had thoroughly enjoyed the deepening connections with this disparate collection of, mainly young, women from Germany, France, Russia, Spain, England and Korea. I had tentatively prepared a Korean song to sing at the end if there was a chance. It was an 80s hit and on a cassette tape that Yim Soon had once made for me. We sing it together occasionally at gatherings. The lesson, and the course, came to an end and I duly picked up my guitar and sang ‘Love is always in that place’ to the faces on the zoom screen and the teacher, who knew the song, told me afterwards that she’d been in tears.
I’m looking forward to my next collective experience, which happens to be another bike ride. More joy, more pain, more memories, more stories. And may love always be in that place.