Fearfully and wonderfully made


If I’ve said anything random to you lately, I apologise. There’s only a certain number of times you can acceptably say, “Sorry?” or “Pardon?” without being written off as decrepit or deaf. Though I am, it seems, the latter, for weeks and weeks after a cold. It’s not that I can’t hear anything. I can hear lots – myriad creatures inside my ear buzzing and squealing and thundering around like a herd of elephants. I’ve made my peace with them. You have to. I even refer to them affectionately as my inner zoo. Exercise helps the animals sleep and so does wine. But just occasionally they get so noisy that I want to put a bullet in their heads, or in my own. Whichever’s quicker. Thankfully I do not possess a gun.

Anyway, last week I took my ears to a big London hospital to see a woman in a white coat and a man in a suit. The first one shut me in a room with various implements clamped to my head, along with some headphones. Through the headphones they played a series of bleeps, and every time there was a bleep, I had to squeeze this Wii controller thingy to signify I’d heard it. After a while I sort of nodded off. The animals were hungry or something and there was so much screaming and humming and whooshing (the seals perhaps?) that I couldn’t hear anything at all. The lady in white came back in after a while and repeated the instructions. I tried to explain about the zoo but she didn’t seem that interested. She didn’t even smile, which was pretty mean since I think I’ve invented quite a creative coping mechanism. Because of her dead pan face, I became irrationally desperate to impress her. We had one more try during which I worked out that every time there was a bleep in my right ear (this one contains fewer animals), 3 seconds afterwards, there’d be a bleep in the left ear. I was quite proud of my predictive bleeping to be honest. But when I bounced proudly out of the sound room, she just gave me a brown envelope to give to my consultant. And she was wearing her I’m-not-angry-I’m just-disappointed face.

It’s made me think about ears – as you think about any part of your body that isn’t working properly – and how useful they are. One ear works reasonably well but you really do need bi-focal audition (I just invented that term. Good isn’t it?). With one ear, I can’t figure our where sounds are coming from. Since my ears have been dodgy, I’ve – nearly got run over crossing a road, answered questions nobody asked, let a pan of potatoes over-boil, left the gas on, laughed in all the wrong places. And my brain has invented a lot of conversations that I wasn’t actually having. Even with myself.

When the steroid ear-drops start working, and my sinuses have sorted themselves out, I expect I’ll be grateful for those appendages either side of my head. Hopefully for a long time, but more likely for about 10 minutes. We’re fickle like that, aren’t we? Once one thing in our lives get sorted, we soon move on to something else. We always want more.

Note to self – Get up every morning and thank God for a different body part. Particularly those that are still working. Whatever we think about our bodies, we are fearfully and wonderfully made.

Can I just say, in case you’re wondering, that my ears are actually very small. But it’s surprisingly difficult to take a photo of your own ear with a mobile phone. In case you ever need to, put your face really close to the phone, hover over the button with your finger and turn violently away at the last minute, before clicking. This was my seventh attempt. 

 

 

Time-hingeing and the end of summer


We are having a bad day, the cat and I.  There are several reasons for this: the state of the world – Syrian children and the lunacy of politics (me); foxes in the garden (him); the blight on the runner beans and the infuriating speed of pigeons. Also, we’re both coming down off steroids. That may be a thing.

Today’s one of those time-hinge days. Summer’s at the wane.  Sunflowers nod to a listless breeze of dust and memory. In the bathroom, I’m humming that Joni Mitchell song. I do not like the slide into winter – the rain, the dark, the colds and asthma. They are not the worst things in the world to suffer but somehow a time-hinge day like today -fleeting sun, bronze light and shadows – fills me with dread and longing. To have summer over again, just this once.

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Yesterday I read about the world’s oldest man who lives in Indonesia and is 145. 145!! Apparently he just wants to die. All of his children are dead as well as his 10 siblings and he now has great-great grandchildren. He’s had his own grave ready since he was a spring chicken,  of 121. Imagine having gone to all that effort and to still be here 24 years later. You could have travelled the world, studied for a degree or two, read the complete works of William Shakespeare and still have a few years left to put your feet up and do the crossword. (Note to self: Do not waste money on a grave until you know you’re dead.) He attributed his long life to one thing alone – patience. Imagine seeing 145 winters, 145 Christmasses, 145 New Year’s sales – you’d need patience…

We went to the coast to squeeze the juice out of the last day of summer.

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The beach was half empty. The sun was steady, the water glistened. We sat above a tide mark of salt-crust seaweed, determined to store up gold for winter. Lying down, we literally sucked sunshine from the sky until we were plump and gasping. Then we had a cup of tea.

What is it about ‘the big, blue wet thing’? Why are we compelled to sit by it, stare at it, bathe in it, walk by it for hours on end? Watching the people around me, sleepy in that late afternoon echo-beach way, I decide it’s because it satisfies all of our senses. We love its colour, its texture, its smell and the curious rhythm of the waves. Of course we don’t taste it, but there’s a range of man-made add-ons here – chips, cups of tea, ice cream. wp-1472575870436.jpg

But there’s something else, something infinitely appealing about standing on the edge of an island looking out. Behind is land,  safety. Ahead is water, then a new place. When you get to the end of the land, you’ve come as far as you can without being somewhere else. And you can’t just drift into that. You have to get on a boat, or a plane or a train through a tunnel. You have to move.  I look out across the strip of water and I remember the old excitement I used to feel in my teens, hitching round Europe – the scent of adventure, the pull of the new. I hope I still have that when I’m 145.

Joni Mitchell is still singing*. The cat and I ignore her. We give one last sigh at the state of the world, and look down the moment at our lives. We say a polite goodbye to summer. Because when you get to the end, you’ve come as far as you can without being somewhere else.

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*And the seasons they go round and round
And the painted ponies go up and down
We’re captive on the carousel of time
We can’t return we can only look
Behind from where we came
And go round and round and round
In the circle game

 

From there to here…


The Vaucluse is the most beautiful place on earth. Well, perhaps not THE most beautiful. Cappodocia, Turkey probably is….then there’s Holy Island. Well, alright, there are quite a few beautiful place on earth and the Vaucluse is one of them. In fact, on our recent holiday,  I found it so beautiful, that it actually hurt in a Look-God-you-know-I-need-beauty-why-am-I-in suburbia? sort of way. (But God, who is used to my moaning, just chuckled and did a thing, which is what this post is about really.)

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The old house – shuttered and sprawling, with honey coloured stone – was run by a wonderful couple called Olivier and Christele. When translated, their website said things like, “We are a small family who love to receive and share the living environment so privileged,” and “We will guide you through our discoveries and our hot heart”. The living environment was indeed privileged with its vine covered terraces, inviting pool and shady corners. And their hot hearts provided us with ample breakfasts of lush fruit, home-made yoghurt and melt-in-the-mouth croissants. To say nothing of the cheese, and wine to die for (the latter not for breakfast obviously). The first night we ate outside as guests at their Table d’Hote along with five Belgians and a French couple (few English make it to these parts).  Olivier regaled us with stories of his visit to Brighton where he’d been required to put coins in a meter to make the lights work. We politely asked when this was. It turned out to be forty years ago.

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During the day we read by the pool or drove to tiny villages balanced so precariously on the edge of hills, that they seemed to float in a shimmer of heat and silence. We explored caves. We followed the River Sorgue to its source above Fontaine de Vaucluse and wandered in covered markets. We ate in brasseries in squares of sunshine or in the flower filled courtyard outside our room. We slept behind shutters which made the room so dark, you blundered into cupboards trying to go to the loo. We pushed them aside when we woke, blinking in bold sunshine. It was,  let me tell you, a slice of heaven.

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But here’s the thing. As I went through the various stages that we all go through on holiday – 1) This place is incredible. We are so blessed 2) I want to live here forever. It’s not fair 3) Nothing lasts forever, even life itself. Just enjoy it, you fool – I went on Facebook. That, in itself, is of course not particularly interesting. It happens all the time, rather too often in fact, and it was good for me not to have it available 24/7 for a week or so. But when I went on it one day I recognised, with a beat, some photos of my local area – Richmond, the River Thames, the lock at Teddington.  It seems that a friend, a beautiful and talented musician we knew in Turkey, was visiting our area. She had posted some photos of it on Facebook, excited about her visit.

My immediate reactions were, somewhat paradoxically, both surprise that she thought they were worth posting (after all this was Richmond Upon Thames, not Cappadocia or Istanbul or the Vaucluse), along with a beat of recognition and love for the place. How strange! Here was I, bemoaning my incipient return to “suburbia” and here was she, posting photos of her holiday there with excitement and pleasure. It opened my eyes. I actually live in a very pretty part of London. I should be grateful.

We’ve been back for three days now. We keep saying things like, “They’ll be having aperitifs on the terrace now,” or “I wonder if Olivier is raking up leaves”. The fascinating glimpse into the lives of these people – the cycle of guests arriving and departing (How can they remain so welcoming, so interested?) – is still with us. In an attempt to keep the spirit of our holiday alive, tonight we had aperitifs on the patio – a Peroni and a Pimm’s. We sat in the garden enjoying the environment so privileged. And then I served my husband a Saturday supper with my hot heart – pizza in front of the TV.

Come back Olivier – all is forgiven. I quite enjoyed the Brighton story really…

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How do you age?


I know this sounds a bit  barmy but I think ageing has little to do with age. When you look in the mirror, who are you expecting to see? A child, a teenager, a young person making your way in the world? In other words, how old are you on the inside? I know children who are older than me. I once said to an eight year old, “Do you think trees can talk?” He regarded me with disdain , and replied, “I don’t think that’s a sensible question, do you Mrs Jenkins?” My lips twitched. Eight on the outside, fifty-eight inside. Actually I was reading an article recently,  documenting some research from Canada which shows that trees do communicate. So there you go, now-not-so-young William Double-Barrelled-Surname! Hope you are reading this…

I am finding the whole process of ageing faintly terrifying but also interesting. Some people give you the impression of eternal youth, not by the way they look, but by the way they laugh or hug trees or twinkle at you. Others are earth-wise and sceptical at the age of six. Is age a personality-thing as well as a years-thing? How to embrace the inside-age when it’s at odds with the outside one? Is ‘growing old gracefully’ even worth doing?

When I look in the mirror, I obviously don’t expect to see this: –wp-1469377186241.jpg

Or this: –wp-1471625046490.jpg

Or this: –wp-1469377242783.jpg

But I do expect to see something like this: –wp-1469377261705.jpg

What I actually see is this: –wp-1469392036387.jpg

And that’s on a good day. It’s usually more like this :-

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Who is this version of me? She has my mother’s eyes, my father’s smile and hands like my grandmother. She uses an electric toothbrush, and wears sensible shoes. She no longer has much interest in partying  or shopping. She says to herself, like a character in a Barbara Pym novel, “The old blue velvet will have to do.” Except for old blue velvet, read ‘print frock with red wine on hem’. A Friday night treat is a book and a glass of Chardonnay. She reads obituaries. And yet…and yet. She spends all day with children. Many of her friends are younger than her. She still laughs at pooh and wee jokes.  People who take themselves too seriously bore her. She sniffs books. No, she inhales them…this explains why her nostrils are so large.
When I’m in someone else’s classroom and the teacher roars, “SIT DOWN!” to this day, I’m scrambling for a chair before a last-minute recovery and a self-conscious , “Ahem…yes! Sit down!” to the children in the room. I’ve been teaching for over 30 years but Miss Ainscoe with her mean little eyes and roary voice “Deborah! SIT DOWN!” is forever etched on my eight year old inside self. While my fifty-something outside self tries to remember that the things I say and the atmosphere I create in my classroom can, for some children, last a lifetime.

Does life, or our response to it, age us? I’ve had my share of ups and downs but I know people who have lived through unimaginable tragedy or cruelty at the hands of others and still have a hopeful, trusting view of things. They have not soured, they do not hate. They are ageing well. wp-1469387964249.jpg

Hopefully you and I will be a bit like our garden gate – a bit battered, a bit lurching but still standing, still hopeful we can offer something unique to the world.  And in our own way, perhaps, still beautiful (on a good day).

Forgive me if this post is a bit odd. It’s just that I want to explore the ageing thing, but no one will talk about it! (Is this the new taboo?) My mates say, ‘Stop it! You’ve nothing to moan about.’ Older friends say ‘Oh for goodness sake – just you wait!’ As for the young ones, they mumble things like, ‘You still  look great!’ while glancing with thinly disguised horror at my bat – wing arms. But this all misses the point. It’s not how others see you. It’s how you see yourself. And how you come to terms with the growing chasm between your inside and outside self.

So please tell me, how do you age?

Postscript – There are some insightful comments from readers below.  Please do read, and add your own thoughts if you wish. And thank you🙂

Waiting for Dad


The old man leans on the gate at the edge of the park. It is heavier than he remembers but then so are most things. Like his own stomach and the bag of weekly shopping. He sighs. If only he had taken better care of himself when the whole damn thing had started – the ageing, weakening, sagging thing. He could be like Malcolm next door, still running at the age of 75 despite the inconvenience of bow legs, and piles.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe gate swings open and they amble in. Tilda runs ahead, pigtails bobbing.

“Look, Grandad! Look!” She’s crouching by a clump of bluebells, strokes velvet leaves with fat fingers.

He and Renee look at each other, smile. She leans on him slightly as they walk. He feels the weight of her, fragile and bird-light. Tilda looks up and grins at them, a scatter of freckles and missing teeth.

“They’re beautiful! Be careful not to damage them now!” calls Renee.

“I won’t!” shouts Tilda and darts away on dimpled legs.

Trees curve above them, the path winds, dappled and fringed with blossom or water. Memory floats ahead to the bridge, the river, the view of the church. So when they get there, calling for Tilda, his yearning to see it and to be there looking down on pleated water, his wife at his side, is free of pain and he can just enjoy it. He puts his arm round her ignoring the stab of agony through his right shoulder and whispers in her ear. She smiles.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe colours in the woodland garden are pastel – white, pink, lemon. The path snakes out of sight beneath trees where they sat with their own children not long ago – picnics and cricket and Hide-and-Seek. There’s even a glimpse of Ellie’s blue jacket between trees and the sound of her counting, while the others run for it when her eyes close.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA“Do you remember those days?”

Renee smiles and squeezes his arm. “As if it was yesterday!” she says, “And it’s lovely to look back. But we have to keep going remember, to look forward.” He nods though he can’t help wondering what on earth there is to look forward to.

Today is a beautiful day though, he thinks, admiring the smell of sun on earth and shadows on grass.  Tilda hides behind bushes, jumps from stumps. He marvels at her speed, her agility. He loves looking after her while her parents work.

“Catch me Grandad!” Her voice echoes, bounces off trees, “Catch me! Quick!”

On the way back there are azaleas and cherry blossom, Renee’s favourite. She points out the house they’d planned to retire in. They laugh. They both know the old brick semi with its white fence and square of lawn was all they ever wanted really. That and her prize-winning angel cake.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA“Come on, Tilda!” he calls, as they reach the water again, “Stay near us! Time to take Granny home…”

The clouds have gathered and there’s a chill in the air. As they stroll back, the trees lean in, blocking out the sky. He shivers. At the bridge he hunts for familiar, for safe – the view of the church, railings, folded light on water.

They follow the path, heave at the gate, pass the pub. Soon they near the graveyard with its spring flowers and drift of blossom.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA“Oh! Look! Can we walk through? It’s so beautiful!” cries Renee pulling his arm.

“Alright,” he replies though he’d rather not.

The trees clasp hands in lacy sleeves. On the graves there are bluebells and tulips. It certainly is beautiful here, he thinks. No wonder she loves it…

“Dad. Are you…are you alright?” Ellie’s voice is gentle. Time tumbles. He feels unsteady, looks at her, confused, then down at the hand in his and sees smooth fingers between his knobbly ones.

“Ellie?” he says.

She gives him a squeeze. “You’ve been miles away, haven’t you?” she says, “You’re probably tired after the walk.”

She fills watering cans, tidies the grave. He just stands there, watching. Until he realises that the tennis ball in his throat has swollen and burst and made his face wet. Then he moves away. He does not want his daughter to see him upset.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhen she’s finished they make their way home. They pass the church as the bells begin to ring. The door is open and the nave is filled with lemon coloured light. He pauses. There are shadowy people in there, some kneeling, some sitting, all so still. Of course his eyesight is not what it used to be but he fancies he can see her in her usual place at the front, head bowed. Behind her on the pew, a perfect cuboid of greaseproof paper for after-service coffee. He blinks and she disappears. He hopes the God-man whose love she so trusted, is keeping her safe somewhere…

“Dad?” enquires Ellie, “Shall we…? The boys are coming and Tilda will  be home from Jake’s and desperate to see you.”

He nods. They walk slowly, listening to birds and bells across quiet streets.

They arrive at the house at last, Ellie exclaiming at the sight of Tilda’s car in the drive. His son-in-law is in the front garden. His grandsons are on the way. In the hall there’s the smell of tea, and angel cake. And as he hears squeals and a pounding on the stairs, he decides that God has many ways of bringing back life. If we let him, if we listen…

He leans on his stick smiling, allows himself to be engulfed. Then he’s led into the sitting room for tea.IMAG0058

This Ordinary Life


Whenever I arrive home after being out, I can’t sit down ’til I’ve done certain things : –
1. Put my shoes in the shoe place.
2. Put my keys in the key place.
3. Put my bag in the bag place (removing phone and glasses).
4. Taken my rings off.

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I put my rings on whenever I leave the house. I’ve worn them for so long, I don’t feel quite dressed without them. It’s always the same in the morning (after I’m clothed, obviously) – perfume,  handcream, rings. Ready to face the world.

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It’s made me think about routines, how many we have and how they say a lot about us. There are usually reasons for them. For example my job – share likes the whiteboard on the left as it gives the children more space to get into their trays. I don’t like it there; it’s in front of the desk and makes me feel shut-in. So the first thing I do on a Wednesday, and the last thing I do on a Friday is move the  whiteboard. The other day, I noticed the beginnings of a groove in the carpet. The groove tells a story about my claustrophobia. But no  one would ever know that unless I told them about the whiteboard. (Obviously they do now.) I wonder how many times I’ve moved that whiteboard?

When I think about it, life is full of routines.
I take the throw and cushions off the bed before I do my teeth.
I always start the car in first.
I always cross the road if there’s someone behind me. Not somewhere like Oxford Street, obviously, or I’d be zigzagging like a demented crab, but in a quiet street like ours, where it would be rare. I’m careful not to do it obviously. First I stop and  rummage in my bag  or pretend to tie my shoelace, then I cross over. I don’t know why. I just don’t like the feeling of maybe being followed.

Do you ever get bored of your routines?
Once,  a long time ago, I got bored with my voice and decided to experiment. I went to school with someone who had an Irish accent. She had a very commanding voice and when she spoke everyone listened, even the teachers. I tried that for a while and pretended not to notice when people looked at me oddly. Then I became friends with a Geordie and found myself speaking like her. But my favourite experiment was the time I spoke with  a dimple. I mean I don’t actually have a dimple, but I knew someone who did and I was fascinated by the way her mouth worked to accommodate the dimple. So I decided to make my mouth move like that. Perhaps I’d develop a dimple of my own? I didn’t. I did however get my top lip caught rather painfully in my brace.

Sometimes we long for change, for a bit of excitement,  and then it happens and we don’t like it. I was seriously ill some years ago. This was not the kind of change I wanted, but we can’t always choose. People were kind, concerned. Every time I saw or spoke to them, they’d ask about my health, make a comment about hospitals or share a time when they or someone they knew had been ill. They were trying to relate, to be kind. But all I wanted them to do was to talk about nothing – the weather,  or work, or knitting . I longed for simple routine conversations, the  stuff  of normality.

Maybe the  routine stuff, the ordinary everyday days when literally nothing much happens – maybe they are, in fact,  the most precious of all…
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But one day I swear I’m going to come into the house, kick off my shoes, throw my  keys on the  table and tip my bag on the floor. Or go out without my rings on.

Just, you know, to live on the edge a bit…

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The eye (and ear) of the beholder


“…If you listen carefully, the earth is singing.” I swung round sharply. The two girls nearly crashed into me, their hands cradling petri-dishes filled with wood lice, ants and  a fat snail with a shell crisis. I had one of those rare moments of tenderness.

“That’s beautiful,” I said, “Really beautiful!” They looked up at me round eyed, then at each other with one of those she-can’t-it-help-it looks.

“No, it really is!” But they weren’t listening (not unusual). One of them was pulling the blonde locks of the other away from her petri-dish. “She’s lost her lid!” she announced to no one in particular.

“Don’t worry! It’ll turn up.” This is my stock response to losses of any kind – sweatshirts, pens, teeth. I once famously wrapped a tooth in a tissue, then blew my nose during PSHE and threw it in the bin, watched by 30 horrified children. But (after the furore subsided) I did actually find it, proving that one way or another,  it’ll- turn- up -theory usually works.)

In the classroom we examined our findings with magnifying glasses, discussed common features and drew them in science books. Bent over a range of garden insects, bright eyes rising and dipping, they looked liked excited birds. I heard them using words like thorax and coiled shell and felt proud. They drew ants with antennae the size of strip lights and centipedes with lost legs, “It’s hard to draw a hundred,” a boy told me, confidentially. I could see his point. Some of them had put daisies and bits of grass in the dishes  – to make them feel at home – and there was a fair amount of soil, dead leaves and pieces of bark.

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All this fascinated them – old leaves, insects – many with missing body parts – and earth from under the hedge in the playground.

“It’s a miracle!” said a child, pink with pleasure (We’re doing the miracles of Jesus in RE), “One of my ants was dead and and it came back to life!”

“It could have just been sleeping,” I suggested. Her face fell, “Though when you think about it, sleep’s pretty miraculous too,” I added quickly. She smiled.

The world is a source of wonder when you’re seeing things for the first time. I don’t think about insects much unless they’re threatening our bedding plants in which case we dole out killer glares and slug pellets. But I have a new respect for snails after cracked -shell-boy tried bravely to escape and try his chances on the end of a ruler. At the end of the lesson, we tipped them gently back into the nature area, near a pile of logs or under the hedge in a frill of shade.

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To an observer of earth, like God, we are ants. Tiny, obsessive creatures rushing around, our heads full of dreams and deadlines. Yet he filled this place with beauty  – trees and sleep and centipedes, even those with missing legs – to make us feel at home. And one day you’ll wake up and realise you haven’t got long to enjoy it. Don’t forget to listen to the child, the one inside, who sees small miracles. The one who looks beyond the soil and leaves and pieces of bark our lives are littered with, and remembers that if you listen carefully, the earth is singing.

Only it turns out she said, “(You might die)…if you mess your hair it in, that earth is minging…”

Ah well, beauty they say is in the ear of the beholder. They don’t? Well, they should do…

 

Do Noble Women Fall?


You know that thing when you’re cleaning the toilet and a bit of toilet juice spurts up and stabs you in the eye, and you want to stick your head in a bucket of bleach? Well, that must be awful…

I sometimes wish I could be more restrained about life, mosey along doing what I have to do moderately, with a calm purpose and a clear eye . I know women like that and I find them fascinating. They are a breed apart, always careful, always prepared, with small handbags that somehow contain things for every emergency: folded carriers, hand-gel, a map of the Top Ten Nuclear Bunkers…

It reminds me of the woman from Proverbs 31 who I have felt condemned by most of my life. If you are a bibley person, you will know who I mean. If not, then she is this contextualised ideal that many Christian women seek to emulate – a woman of noble character. Here are the parts I cringe at most -“She gets up while it is still night, she provides food for her family…She makes linen garments and sells them, and supplies the merchants with sashes.” Now this is clearly meant for a different time, but I think there are still women of my generation who secretly feel we’ve failed in some way. I am not a morning person. I get up to prepare food while it’s still night i.e.dark, once a year, to put the Christmas turkey on. Needlework O’Level (Yes, it was actually called that then) was the only subject I failed, and I have never met a merchant with or without a sash, yet alone made one for him. 

My daughter has a thoughtful and intelligent friend who is doing philosophy at uni. She contacted us the other day to see what we thought of the question, “Can you have knowledge without experience?” My daughter and my husband said “no”, I said “sometimes”. But for me the bigger question is, “Does knowledge change your experience?”I know that if I rush around, I may lose my glasses, fall over small children or crash into furniture. But this knowledge, though frequently reinforced, doesn’t seem to change my experience much.

Last week I went to stay in an Oxford College with my friend, Fran. We were writers with a mission – write as much of your novel as you can in three days while soaking up the inspiration of the Oxford greats (C S Lewis, Tolkien, Lewis Carroll, John Fowles and many more). This involved eating big breakfasts in the Hogwarts-style Great Hall, writing all day and frequenting tearooms and pubs where the writers used to hang out to inspire each other. It was wonderful. On the last night, we were bemoaning the end of it while Fran unlocked Keble College’s great door (it was locked at 9pm but we’d been given a key), when she turned and tripped over a high lintel. What happened next was a kind of slow motion  low-jump experience. She sort of twisted and fell gracefully into Keble College like a descending swan, wings outstretched to break the fall. Landing with a surprised “Oh!” on the cobbles in front of us, there was a beat, followed by a muffled “I’m alright”.

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Well, she wasn’t really. Covered in bruises with a sprained wrist, I suppose at least there were no broken bones and she could walk. We were both rather shocked and spent the next few minutes moving from, “Are you really okay?” “Yes, I’m fine” to “Why was that thing there?” “Dunno, it wasn’t there earlier” to “We should report it,” ” Yes we should.” You see, set inside the big door was a little door and at night, the key only opens the little door. If we’d had the experience of going through the little door, stepping over the lintel during the day, we would have known to do it at night. This knowledge would have eliminated the ground-slamming experience. I explained this, kindly, to the head porter the next morning who watched me patiently. He would notify the Head of Safety. They always used to open the small door during the day until recently. Yes, he could see this maybe wasn’t the best change of plan. He understood why I was concerned about signage. Anyway (sigh), as mentioned, he would refer it to the Head of Safety.

On the train on the way home, I decided some things: –

    1. Life is full of falls. Self-reproach isn’t helpful. But a muffled “I’m alright” before getting up and limping on with dignity, is.
    2. Everyone has accidents. Fran is more Proverbs 31 than me. She wakes up at 5.30 every morning, even on holiday, and doesn’t mind cleaning.
    3. Sometimes knowledge can improve experience but sometimes it can’t, depending on the situation. It’s time to stop blaming ourselves for the people we didn’t become.  Despite my clumsiness, I’ve decided I quite like the way I am -a bit dreamy, with a love of trees, writing and open doors (even ones you sometimes fall through). And I think God quite likes me too.
    4. I don’t get up early to prepare food but I do get up early to go out and earn it. Instead of linen garments I sell words. And as for the merchants…well,  if you see any, tell them to meet me in Keble College Great Hall this time next year and I’ll happily give them some sashes. It will be more in keeping there. But they should watch out for that lintel, after 9…

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What aspects of your personality would you change?

 

 

 

 

Other Mothers and the Kindness of Spring – Short Fiction for Mothers Day


The narrow blades knifing through earth showed no hint of bloom. Carly watched them, remembering the promise on the pack, Plant now, blooms for  Mothers Day. She watered the pot before school,  all anxious-eyed and pajama-ed, curtain of hair swinging onto cheeks sharp with cold . What if they weren’t ready in time?

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On the way to school, she told Dad about the mothers day cards.
“Miss Parsons said we don’t have to make one, ” she said, stepping over the cracks with pointed toes , ” But I think I’d better, just in case…” Dad said nothing. They walked on for a while in silence. Across the road, Bruce from Number 7 was punching his football against a gate. A flurry of birds rose screaming from a tree. Somewhere, was the smell of toast.

Dad ran fingers through his hair.
” You know, lots of people won’t have a mum to celebrate with,” he said carefully,  “But there are those other mothers, you know, someone who is like a mother to them – warm, supportive, kind…” Dad stopped. Carly couldn’t bear it when his voice broke. She shouted across the road to Bruce,
“Can I be in goal at Break then? ”
Bruce kicked the ball towards her, narrowly missing a toddler on a trike.
” BRUCIE! ” his mum shouted, “Get over here! ”

The mothers day cards in 6P would sport vase shaped cones filled with paper flowers. The greeting, and a photo of the child, was planned for the central flower. Miss Parsons had taken the photos the day before and printed them off specially.
“Be careful! ” she warned them,” It took me ages to work out how to print them. If you cut your hair off, too bad! I’m not reprinting. Carly, did you hear me? ”
She was always shouting in her direction, thought Carly, wishing her teacher liked her. Since Mum  left, she’d found it so much harder to concentrate. Sometimes when Miss Parsons was having a go at the class, she would say with glittering eyes, as if aware she’d gone too far,
“Of course I don’t mean everybody! There are some people who I never need to remind about behaviour. Because they’re always listening, always sitting up, always paying attention… And I’m looking at them right now! ” And she’d swivel her eyes around exaggeratedly, nodding at certain children like a demented bird. The Emilys and Olivers of this world, backs like ramrods, would gaze back smugly. She never looked at Carly.

At break, when the others were gone, and she was making last minute adjustments to her pile of tissue paper – perfectly straight, with no  overlaps, Miss Parsons called her over. Carly  shuffled across on wary feet. Her teacher looked stressed, she thought, her hair even crazier than usual and there were two bright spots in the middle of her cheeks. “You know, Carly,” she said, “You don’t have to make a card if you don’t want to. I know your mum is…well, anyway, I’m not making one, My mother isn’t around any more either.” The bright spots seemed to spread a bit while she was speaking. Carly didn’t know what to say. She opened her mouth.

“Lots of people don’t have mums to celebrate with, but there are those other mothers, people who are like mums – warm, supportive, kind…” (Dad had meant Mrs Jenner who came to fetch her from school, and taught her how to knit and bake if she finished her homework. Her card would go to her.) She tailed off, rather incredulous at Dad’s words bursting out of her like that, on reflex. To her alarm, Miss Parson’s eyes filled with tears. Black eye liner began to snake down her cheeks,  and her eyes became red and puffy like someone from Vampire Diaries. When  she reached out and grasped her hand, Carly began to panic. Surely Miss Parsons didn’t think she meant her? She couldn’t think of anyone less motherly. Mums were soft and warm and wore pearl coloured frocks, like Mrs Jenner. Miss Parsons was hard-edged and brittle with too-bright lipstick, a sort of painted brick in trousers.

“Carly, you don’t know how much that means to me!” her teacher whispered, “I’ve lost my mum, and I’ve not a mother myself. Thank you for that!” When she let go of her hand to trumpet into a mascara-ridden tissue, Carly turned and fled to the playground.  She kept out of Miss Parsons’s way after that. But. later in the day, when her teacher did a, “Of course I don’t mean everybody…and I’m looking at them right now” speeches,  she smiled straight at her.

The mothers day cards adorned the classroom for a week, and every day someone asked if they could take them home. Miss Parsons had replied so often that now the whole class would chorus, “No! On the Friday before Mothers Day!” Only Carly didn’t ask. Although she was pleased to see a few buds on the daffodils, there was no point pretending. There would be no mum to give them to.

But when Friday arrived, all the flowers were budding. Before school, she bent over the lemon coloured fists plunged tightly aloft, and breathed in the scent of Spring’s kindness. She had waited long for this. On the way to school, she celebrated by stepping on the cracks as well as the spaces, unless there were tiny plants pushing up between the stones. When they arrived in class, the mothers day cards had been taken down and arranged on the side ready for Hometime. Everyone was excited. “Is today the day?” they kept asking. Even Carly asked.

At home, Miss Parsons arranges daffodils in a  jug. Who would have thought it? The child said she’d grown them from seed, and cut them specially. Lifting the card from its position near the flowers, she rereads Carly’s greeting.

To the Other Mothers,

On Mothers Day I am saying Thank You because you were kind.

Love, Carly x

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This is after all the heart of Mothers Day, she thinks. Thanks for kindness, to those who have loved. She moves them onto the dresser, next to the photo of her mother.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Happy Valentine’s – Scars in our Eyes


I have scars in my eyes. Particularly the left one. If I were to wink at you with my right eye, you would have no nose. You might argue that this is a good thing in a way, but I assure you however misshapen your nose (I have one nostril higher than the other), it’s better than having no nose at all.  Faces look like donuts , soft, featureless, with a hole. I see your hair,  ear, the pattern on the curtains, the edges of things but not the essence. I open my other eye, and all is normal again. To my relief your nose returns, in all its glory.

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This doesn’t bother me at all now. When it first happened years ago, it was traumatic to say the least. But, after treatment for a very rare condition, my right eye was saved and I can still read the bottom line on the eye chart. People function perfectly well with one eye. After all, my right eye’s near-perfect, my left has peripheral vision, and my brain makes up the rest. The only thing I can’t seem to do is light candles. Apparently, watching this is quite hilarious.

When my nephew was small, apart from being blonde, blue-eyed and very angelic, he had this great party trick. My brother-in-law would say to him, “Now Little One, what do you love?” And he’d put his finger to his cheek, cock his head, think for a bit, and begin.

“I love cars!” His little eyes would brim with excitement, “And I love trains, and clouds, and sunshine and little cakes wiv icing on! I love Nanny, and the seaside, and ducks and chocolate…” Sometimes he’d pause for a minute and my brother-in-law would prompt, “What else do you love?” Then he’d be off again. “I love trees, and tractors and those lorries wiv milk bottles on and big fat rabbits…” It was an absolute joy to watch, because here was a child who was brimful with delight, and in love. And the recipient of his love was simply – Life.

I’ve never forgotten this, and I remembered years later when the treatment for my eyes began slowly to settle the watery curves, gaps and constant feeling of sea-sickness into something resembling normality. I watched the world from my bedroom window as I began to see detail again – faces, stars,  leaves on trees, and think how much I delighted in them, these tiny emblems of God’s love in the world. And as my vision returned, the scars left a reminder – there are gifts everywhere. Don’t forget to look. Past the thumbprint on the lens.

St Valentine was not a lover of women. He was a lover of life, of God, secretly marrying young couples when Emperor Claudius had forbidden it. When imprisoned for his deeds, it is said he helped and prayed for the blind daughter of the Roman who judged him, to such effect that Asterius became a believer himself. In 269, Valentine was sentenced to a three-part death (beating, stoning and decapitation) because of his belief that a Christian marriage should be available for those who wanted it. His last words were supposedly written in a note to Asterius’s daughter, signed “from your Valentine”, inspiring the romantic cards and gifts of today. But St. Valentine’s true gift to the world, was not cards but kindness.

There’s this great psalm that talks of the way God put us together in the womb, planning our days with infinite precision, forming physique and character – a love for trees or tractors (or in my nephew’s case, everything). You may not be serenaded with cards or roses today. There may be someone precious missing – a person, who adores you and is with you. You may not have been loved like this, or you may have loved and lost. In some way you feel you will never recover. It has scarred you and part of you has died inside.

But, you are loved  – by your world, whoever and whatever that may be – your family, your friends, God (who knows death and scars), the way the sun throws patterns on wood. These things are part of God’s Valentine’s to you, to the world. As Valentine the man was. as you are, a bringer not of cards but kindness.  (I have a colleague who is brilliant at this – always sharing helpful stuff, leaving chocolate on our desks.)

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Dare to believe you could still live brimful with delight. Thumbprints on the lens but gifts to be found.

Don’t forget to look.