When my mother was a little girl, perhaps 8 years old, she and her brother were playing on a piece of land by the water. They called it their “island” and drove in stakes scrawled with warning signs “Trespassers will be prosecuted”. They claimed the land for themselves and went charging up and down the riverbank.
But someone else was already there. Somebody who really did own the land. And he was watching them.
This was the shell of man, a war wounded soldier returned from the trenches of the first world war. Civilization, when he had returned to it, was all too much for him. So he had sold his house, but kept the end half of the garden. And here he had dug himself a trench. Lined it with plywood. And decided to live there. Right down in the depths of the earth.
He had been living in solitude in his trench until these two little children came down and unwittingly claimed his land. And for days, he simply watched them playing their games.
Over the coming months, they gradually befriended each other. They would spend hours playing together, the war veteran enthusiastically playing “horsey” for the kids, and making them cups of tea in his trench, he adored them and would do anything for them. They always begged him to come over to their house for tea, he was, after all their great friend and ally.
And eventually, after months of persuasion, he finally agreed to come over to their house for tea. This was a momentus occasion, even my mother as a young child recognized these first steps to re-engage with the world.
Eventually he got his foothold back in society, and got a job in a crew building roads. The kids moved frequently, every year or so, but he managed to stay in touch, coming to visit every couple of years to wherever they might be. The last time my mother remembers seeing him, she had just started university.
When my mother told me this story, it struck me as a horrific yet beautiful tale. It made me wonder, do we have patience today for damaged people in our midst? Would mothers today let their children play with fully grown men who unable to engage with the world? What would you do if your children brought home a dirty bedraggled man who lived in a hole for tea?
Trench warfare had scarred this poor man, but given time, and fresh nonjudgmental playmates, he was able to let go of the nightmare.
For Lent this year, I pledge to meet everybody with the same clear gaze, and perhaps play a little.