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.

 

 

 

Sleep mode


Sleep mode – the pc stays on but uses low power. Apps stay open so when the pc wakes up, you’re instantly back to where you left off.

When I was younger, I could sleep anywhere. I’ve spent nights on floors, coaches, trains and under stars on the side of mountains. Once, memorably, I slept in an abandoned house in a tiny French village, with nothing but a febrile breeze and a band of crickets for company. In those days sleep was an irritating if necessary interruption to all the things I wanted to do, to experience. From living in student digs in a castle to racing friends up the down escalator of the Pompidou Centre to hitching across Europe in the summer (sorry Mum).

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My friend and I shared the top bedroom in the front left-hand tower. We used to do Hamlet impressions on the roof.

How times have changed. Now it has to be in my bed with the linen sheets and the 100% cotton jacquard duvet cover. And most important of all, the thin cushion (for lying on my back) and the thicker cushion (for lying on my side). I remember once lumbering into my mother-in-law’s room years ago and helpfully flinging the pillows onto the bed as she made it. To my surprise she wrung her hands. “You haven’t muddled up the pillows, have you?” she demanded. I was dumbfounded. What did it matter if I had? (Those were the “If-we- have- two- pillow- cases- that- match -we’re – doing- well days) Now, I  understand.

Sleep, these days, is precious, particularly at weekends. On school nights, it’s different – though much better than it used to be – lying coiled like a spring, dreaming of recalcitrant children and OFSTED inspectors with daleks for heads. I once dreamed that my entire class had turned into adult versions of themselves and were sitting with their knees scrunched under the tables, with car-keys and mobiles where their pencil cases ought to be. To say nothing of the odd I-forgot-to-get-dressed dream and the Whoops-no-teeth dream. I can honestly say I love my job. But do I ever have these dreams on non-work days? Never.

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Sometimes on school nights, when my brain is addled and active and rolling like a sackful of cats, I pretend I don’t have to get up the next day. It’s magic. I can feel myself melting and spreading like heated honey, stretching across the bed, toes tucked into cool, linen on skin, sleeping like a starfish. Sadly my husband doesn’t really appreciate the starfish thing. But then he doesn’t spend his day hunched over children’s work or wedged into chairs the size of fruit crates.

My favourite way to wake up is, slowly on summer Saturdays. The window’s open and, as I surface, I’m reeled into shore by breeze or birdsong or the lemon lift of curtains. The bed is a criss-cross of light and shade and I stretch, luxurious, into the warm bits for extra snooze. Because I can.

Sleep is really the most curious thing. I can’t think about it too much otherwise I can’t do it, but it’s such an interesting concept, this Let’s- press- the- Off- button- and -shut -ourselves- down- thing, and we do it every night mostly without thinking much. The more active among us may resent it – “Sleep, those little slices of death – how I loathe them!” wrote Edgar Allan Poe. But I prefer Arthur Schopenhauer’s: “Sleep is the interest we have to pay on the capital which is called in at death; and the higher the rate of interest and the more regularly it is paid, the further the date of redemption is postponed. “

A happy little note to end on. God knew what he was doing when he invented Sleep mode. A breath, a pause, a taste of that other life – where no amount of rushing around will bring you what you yearn for. But there is rest, strength, hope for the new day.

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A Celtic prayer and gift from my dear friend Norita Erickson whose early death left so many of us in shock. But she lives still, I know she does…

Human Sleep mode – the human being is still alive but uses low power. Options stay open so when the human wakes up, you’re not back to where you left off. You’re given another chance.

 

 

 

Tea and Other Transforming Things


I refuse to believe you get fussier as you get older  more experienced (we’ve banned the “o” word in our house due to occasional bouts of melancholy). I mean it’s true that answering the question, “Can I get you a cup of tea?” is slightly long-winded these days  – “Yes please, quite strong, but not too strong. If you pour water over the teabag, go in search of milk and spoon, then squeeze the bag hard, adding about 50 ml of milk, that should be fine!” And in response to bewildered looks from colleagues, “Er, thanks!” But…this only signifies a developed appreciation for the little things in life, having accepted long ago that the bigger things, however promising, are unlikely to bring the transformational delight once anticipated.

It’s the same with mugs. At school, while younger colleagues are grabbing any receptacle likely to restrain a few mouthfuls of caffeine from lolloping unpleasantly down their leggings, I’m usually scrutinising the cupboard for just the right mug. It has to be large, of pleasant appearance – none of this World’s Best Teacher with picture of a fat teddy  for me – and preferably with gently sloping sides so you don’t surprise yourself with scalding tea across the face while swigging wildly during playtime arbitrations. (It’s so much better if you can squint down the length of your nose while delivering a lecture, to see what’s coming.)

I'm actually quite fond of this one. A child bought it for me because they'd run out of Best Teacher ones. I said "What is they'd had Second Best Teacher ones? He said that would've been fine as actually his Reception teacher had been the favourite

I’m actually quite fond of this one. A child bought it for me because they’d run out of Best Teacher mugs. I said “What if they’d had Second Best Teacher ones?” He said that would’ve been fine because actually the Reception teacher had been his favourite.

At home it’s different. I have three mugs, one for each part of the day. In the morning, I use the pale blue with the flowers on. It’s just the right size, shape and soothing colour for groggy-eyed school days. On non-school, it’s not really big enough so  I have a second one. For the afternoon, the most important cuppa of the day, I use the robin mug. Now this mug has a special place in my heart as it was given me by a child after we’d completed a topic on birds. I told the class about our robin and how he visits us every year and sits on the washing line or the log pile, his bright eyes and slab of red somehow comforting against grey skies and sadness. (I loved that class as they were gripped by my stories.) At Christmas I received the mug from a child who said it would remind me of my robin. Maybe his mother is a serious tea drinker for it’s actually the perfect mug for a 4 o’clock-ish cup of tea. Shortly after, I have to start on the decaff but this mug is great for the final cup of hard stuff – not too big, dainty, made of fine china, the handle just the right size for a fattening finger, and a tiny lip at the top for the occasional slurper.

Morning mug

Morning mug

My evening mug was demoted that Christmas from the afternoon. It’s a pleasant shape for tired fingers and has a pretty apple design. What I like most are the tiny apple leaves on the inside of the lip. Very tasteful.

So you don’t get fussier as you get ol more experienced, you just care differently. Gone are the days when you wanted fame and fortune, or a day with George Clooney, or a body like Mrs Clooney. You’re not particularly interested in status or exotic holidays or expensive jewellery. These things may have mattered once but they don’t now. The fact that you are healthy-ish and alive, and can (mostly) remember what you went into rooms for, you have a life-work balance and your children are independent and sane and able to run their lives without you – these things give great pleasure. As do sunsets and trees and a square or two of Green and Black’s chocolate.

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Will there be tea and bone china in heaven? My daughter tells me I once promised her there’d be ball-pools in heaven and if she finds there aren’t, she’ll never forgive me. Well, I think God, who invented tea and ball-pools, would not set eternity in our hearts for no reason. It must be a pretty great place to be. And I believe that, for Sheila and Norita and my grand-parents, and maybe David Bowie and Alan Rickman (who knows?) and for others I have loved, unlike life’s big things, this thing did in fact bring the transformational delight they were anticipating. The biggest adventure of all.

Of course one still wants adventure here. I don’t want to give the impression that I’m settling for a dull life without the excitement of new things. Which is why I’m making a momentous decision: I’m chucking the morning and evening mugs. I want the robin mug all the time really.

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Happy Old Year and the Little Painted House


At what point do you stop saying Happy Christmas and start saying Happy New Year? I’m never quite sure. After all, the Twelve Days of Christmas start on Christmas Day so perhaps we shouldn’t say Happy New Year until 5th January, when incidentally, you’re  supposed to take down your decorations and NOT BEFORE (but who does that? Honestly. We’re practically feeding them to the cat by the 2nd.) I was thinking this on the way out today when I saw someone I know, and ended up shouting “Happy Chr-ew Year!” which sounded impressively nautical to me. Except that this person is not in the sea-going profession. I pulled my hat down and scuttled into an alleyway, pretending I was a confused person ( which I sort of am half the time).20151204_214653.jpgWhen people ask about my Christmas, I never quite know what to say, because there can be a kind of code to these things, can’t there? Apart from the obligatory “Lovely thank you…”, you could basically select from the following: – Nice and quiet (a bit boring ), Lots of fun and games (Never got to read my book), Wonderful to see the grand-kids (But thank goodness they don’t live with us). The other question I always love is, “So what did you do?” One day I swear I’m going to say, “Marked my Science books, skinny dipped in the Thames, then painted the back bedroom.” Of course it’s still worth asking because there’s always a mild frisson of excitement when someone says, “Went swimming” or “Climbed Snowdon” or  “Had roast halibut”. But let’s be honest, the real question is, “I know you opened presents, had or didn’t have stockings, did or didn’t go to church and ate turkey, but WHICH ORDER DID YOU DO THEM IN??” Why are we bothered? What does it matter? Is it merely the desire for a fascinating glimpse into others’ lives?  Or are we trying to measure up to some Christmas ideal we’re actually not sure about. As if the peace and quiet/fun and games/grand-children will at some point become a perfect experience, without the tiniest hitch, as long as we do it all in the right order.

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Bucks Fizz while cooking – the only way to do it…

And now for the New Year, full of things that have never been. Always a mixed blessing, with some stuff from the past year I’d rather forget, plenty I should have dealt with better, and a few I’d love to live again. But they’re gone, finit, bitirdi…How to welcome the new while making peace with the old?

My favourite present this Christmas so far, is a little painted house bought by my daughter. It’s tall and narrow and covered with tiny windows. I’ve put it half way along the passage that leads from the front to the back of our house and I keep walking past, and loving it. An odd choice for a favourite perhaps, when compared to money and perfume and books, which I also love by the way. But the house is special, because at the back, there’s space for a candle and when you light it and turn it round, it looks magical. With the blind up and the night behind. Like a beacon. A strip of stone leaking light into darkness.

If we’re not careful we spend so much time feeling afraid. The past reproaches, the future threatens. The present can be ruined by both. If you have faith (and you probably do if you’ve visited the blog before), you’ll believe there’s a heartbeat at the core of the universe,  a Light punching holes in darkness and, in the distance, a city on a hill. There’s something comforting about pinpricks of light – the 2015 memories you cherish, the moments that lifted you at Christmas, the things you’re looking forward to. They are more precious when viewed alongside the darker things. I could turn the light on, put the blind down – I would see better if there was no darkness at all. But this way, the light from the little house makes my way unique, and beautiful.

So Happy Old Year. Peace and strength to you as you look back, and look forward, and look up. Towards the Light.

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Bad Wrapping and the Gift of Hope


Sad fact – people have no inclination to open presents I’ve wrapped. This is because, instead of tantalising hints at treasure within, they give off an aura of utter tat, fallen from the back of a lorry or bought at a White Elephant stall. I tell myself it’s because I’m a “rip it off” person. My husband, on the other hand, is brilliant. Sizing the wrapping to be cut with a practised eye,  he can scissor a line through paper straight as an arrow (without cutting the tablecloth) and coax the lumpiest of shapes into  perfect hospital corners. He’s not much good at ribbons and bows. If there are any to be applied (and I can’t promise there will be), I’m quite good at that. But as for the basics, forget it. We have refined the process to factory-like precision. He wraps. I write eccentric labels and do pretty bits (stick on bows) and everyone is happy.

Which would you rather open? This one?

Which would you rather open? This?

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Or this? (I rest my case)

Or this one? (wrapped by an artistic friend)

Or even this? (painted and wrapped by a friend)

This morning we did the Christmas Food Shop. Observing others, it fascinates me how different we are.  Some trolleys were full of alcohol and little else, some with meat. There was one lady with a trolley crammed with just potatoes. I wanted to say, “A-scuse me! Are you having a potato printing party? ” But it seemed a bit nosy to say the least, so I contented myself with imagining a baked potato jamboree at hers, with Santa hats. There was a shaky old lady trying to read labels on jars of pickled onions and a teenager trying to help. “Sulphur dioxide. Are you alright with that? What about onions? You alright with them?” It made her laugh as she thanked him for his trouble.

After we’d stowed our bags in the car, there was an incident. From the queue waiting for spaces, a Mercedes suddenly swerved around the car at the front and roared straight into a just-vacated space. The young lady, whose space it should have been, started tooting furiously. She got out, strode over to the three young men getting out of the car, and shouted, “Oi! You were behind me!”

“No we weren’t!” replied the driver, “We were in FRONT of you. Anyway we’d been waiting f****** ages!”

The young lady, understandably, wasn’t happy. She called them a name, loudly. I won’t repeat it but it begins with a W. And has seven letters (in the plural). The young men strode off, laughing. I do not like this word but you could see her point of view.

What happened next was interesting. Four or five people, including my husband, indicated that they were about to go and she could have their space, even pulling out before they’d taken the trolley back etc. so she could park. She immediately reverted to the pleasant, gentle looking person she had previously seemed, and thanked us all profusely. We were outraged, but nobody wanted to pick a fight with three, er, unpleasant youths. But this was something we could do.

Christmas brings out the best and worst in us – my physical laziness (because that’s what it is. I spend ages thinking of eccentric greetings for labels), the kindness of strangers, impatience, selfishness, solidarity towards the wronged. But random kindness give us hope. It reminds me of the story told on Sunday…

Four candles were burning on the advent wreath. The room was still and ever so quietly they began to talk to each other.  The first candle sighed, “My name is Peace. But people don’t recognise my value and won’t allow me into their lives.” Gradually the candle’s light got smaller and weaker until finally it went out.

The second candle trembled in a draught from the window. “My name is Faith,” she whispered, “But I feel as though I’m not needed. People don’t believe anything any more unless they can touch it and hold it in their hands.” And slowly the candle flickered and died.

The third candle whispered, “My name is Love. I no longer have the strength to keep burning. The world has become so selfish and uncaring.  People only think about what’s best for them.” And with a  sputter and a sigh, its light went out

At that moment, a child came into the room. He stopped and looked at the candles, puzzled. “You should be burning!” he cried, “You should be alight. We need you!”

Then the fourth candle spoke. “Do not be afraid,” she said, “As long as I’m on fire, I will always give the other candles light and life. My name is Hope.”

And with a small piece of wood, the child took the light from the candle of hope and used it to light the way to peace, faith and love again…wpid-20141130_114837.jpg

A big thank you if you have clicked on the link and read a blog post this year.

Wishing you a peaceful Christmas and a hopeful 2016…

One Moment One Christmas


It feels like it happened yesterday. Though in fact it’s fifty Christmases since we were in our little house by the sea. Funny how the intense impressions of youth are saved forever on your hard-drive, whereas why you came to the Post Office remains a mystery. The kind Indian man has eyes that twinkle as he runs over possibilities for me: – “Stamps? Letter? Parcel?” He leans forward, for his little joke, “Dri-ving license?” We both giggle inanely. And I point my stick at him as he knows I will.                                                   “Rude!” I shout, causing the rest of the queue to stare in alarm at the unsupported stump of my right leg. I used to wear a prosthesis but these days I hardly bother.  I am who I am.  I see my hand tremble as I sign for the parcel.  E.  Homes.  He puts the small package gently into my hand and closes the fingers around it. He is smiling.                       “Happy Christmas!” he says.                                                                                                                             

Ellie did not know what she’d expected, but she hadn’t expected this; a sea of tents as far as the eye could see, thick ribbons of mud and a sharp wind that made the canvas pitch and tremble like boats at sea; piles of rubbish everywhere and grubby children . Men ambled about, shoulders hunched against the weather, shovelling mud from tent flaps or raising mobiles hopefully to the sky. Worst of all were the sounds of despair – savage coughing and moans of pain from behind canvas, cries for help whipped away in the unforgiving wind. She saw a couple of young doctors, about her age, moving from tent to tent, immediately surrounded by men, women and children, asking in broken English for pain killers, antibiotics, dressings. What struck her most, as she made her way to the makeshift school, was the team spirit  – the sharing of food, drugs, possessions, the kindness.

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“You have it! I can man-age,” she heard a man say, offering an inhaler to a small child. He was wearing jeans and a thin jacket and coughing loudly into wet tissues. She saw women giving their food to other women’s children. She saw a teenager remove his jumper and give it to the coughing man. Craning her neck, she glimpsed the latter’s chip toothed smile as he pulled it over his head. It was thick but tight and the arms were too short. She heard laughter erupting from the group around him. This place, she decided, was misnamed The Jungle, where the each survived at another’s expense. These people had next to nothing, but they shared everything.

The school, with its wooden frame and rows of pallet benches, was full. Weary men sat alongside round eyed children, hugging themselves to keep warm. She took off her rucksack, took our her books, smiled.

The next week was a blur of impressions – days spent teaching English phrases, evenings helping dish out food at the camp kitchen, nights tossing and turning in the tired caravan buffeted by sea winds. In the run up to Christmas the weather worsened – sleety rain battered the camp, the wind was needle-sharp and everywhere the mud deepened and swelled, sliding into everything – shoes, clothes, tents. The students were keen to practise their English but there was one silent child. who always sat on the second bench. He was about eight years old, with thick hair and heavy eyes narrowed by eczema. He sat on the bench and swung his legs and listened. Ellie liked to walk up and down when she was teaching and she felt the boy’s eyes follow her everywhere.  A young man always brought him in, lifted him onto the bench, then returned for him after lessons. Curious, one day she asked one of the refugees about him.

“We no know!” He shrugged, “He no speak. Ahmed, he find him on journey from Syria. Ahmed look after him like brother because he alone. We call him Jack.”

From then on, she made a special effort to smile at him. She gave him a chocolate bar and when Ahmed came for him, she asked if he needed anything for the boy. Ahmed, a sullen teenager, transformed into a tender friend where Jack was concerned, bowed politely as he reached for the boy’s hand.

“Thank you!” he said, “We need only place on lorry to England. Everyone do!” And then he left.

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The days dragged on. Ellie’s train was booked for Christmas Eve. One day, a French volunteer brought a Christmas tree into the school.  It had been roughly cut and shoved into a green bucket that someone had decorated with red paint. A shop had donated it along with decorations and strings of tiny lights. So it was that on the twenty first of December, Ellie found herself up at seven, decorating the school with other volunteers for a surprise party. They made paper snowflakes to stick to the windows, filled plates with tiny Buches de Noel and hung paper chains made from bandage wrappers. Someone had donated a hundred cans of Cola.

When the students arrived, they stared. The children pointed. Even the men smiled and touched the paper snowflakes wonderingly.

“You can only come to the party if you speak in English!” announced Ellie.

“O-kay!” the students called, “We spik Eng-leesh!” They passed food, drank the Cola and Ellie told them they would be playing English party games.

“Chrees-mas tree!” The voice, young and clear, rang out from the back of the school room. Everyone fell silent. Ahmed was making his usual late entry with Jack limping at his side, the boy pulling his sleeve and pointing.

“Chrees-mas tree!” he said, again. Ahmed was trying to smile, pulling his dirty sleeve across his eyes. Everyone was staring. When they got to the front of the room, Ahmed lifted the boy up and held him so he could see the baubles, the lights, the star on the top.

“Chrees-mas tree!” he said again, sighing with delight. The refugees gathered round, smiling, chucking him on the chin. Ellie would never forget that Christmas. There was more laughter, more hope in that room than she had ever experienced. And it came, in true Christmas spirit, from a child. Half way through, someone came in with post for her, a brown padded envelope from her mother. Inside was a note and a gift. “For your little house by the sea,” it said, “To put you in the mood for Christmas!” And inside, wrapped up tightly in bubble wrap, was a decoration from home – one of her favourites : a tiny Christmas tree hung with gold twine. What were the chances of that? She would never forget Jack’s face when she gave it to him. In fact, she would never forget that day. Not ever.

On Christmas Eve, she went early to find Ahmed to say goodbye, but the tent was empty.

“They gone,” said a neighbour sadly, appearing suddenly behind her.

“Gone?” Ellie was shocked, “Gone where?”

The woman pulled her headscarf over her face and readjusted it, pointing towards the tunnel. “There traff-eec jam today. Because of Chris-maas. They go find lorry. Poor Jack. He not want go. But Ahmed, he make him! He need treatment, you know, for leg.”

“What leg?” Ellie was confused.

“jack always limping,” she replied, “In Seey-ria, a soldier, he ask him if he want treat. Then they take him away and they drive over his leg. He need hospital now.”

Distressed, Ellie peered into the tent. The two sleeping bags, pillows and piles of blankets were still there. But clothes, any personal items had gone. She felt heavy as lead. What were the chances of them getting across? Almost nil. Much higher were the chances of injury or arrest. Only last month a pregnant woman had died falling off a lorry. As she backed out of the tent, filled with fear for her friends, her foot fell on something small and knobbly. She bent down and picked  it up.

I am thinking of this today as I chunter home, as I think of it every Christmas. The party with the coloured lights, the food, the kindness of strangers. After fifty Christmases in this, my adopted land, that was still my best ever. Those volunteers and friends particularly Ahmed, who looked out for me after my brother died on the journey, they gave me the most precious gift of all –  my voice. I found the organisation that Ellie worked for and I wrote to her. We corresponded for years. I told her we shared the same name. They called me Jack while I was silent. But my real name was Elias, Elias Homsi, conveniently anglicised to Eli Homes.

I unwrap the parcel in front of the fire and read the Christmas card – Eli, I always meant to give you this. I’ve finally got round to sending it. Happy Christmas! Love Ellie x

I hang the tiny Christmas tree with its gold twine and painted decorations. I will show it to Ahmed when he arrives tomorrow.

 

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Based on eye witness accounts of the appalling situation faced by the refugees at the Calais camp.

If you enjoyed this story, would you consider donating to help with the refugee work in Calais? It doesn’t have to be a lot – only 50p will buy a hot meal for a refugee. Please click on the link if you’d like to help…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Prayer, Advent and Latin Verbs


Call me sad but I loved Latin verbs. At an all-girls school, stuffed with hormones and self-obsession (I levelled out but have recently declined again – for obvious reasons), Latin verbs were immensely comforting. Like the shipping forecast , there was a predictability, a rhythmic quality to the conjugations that soothed you, suspended time and made you acutely aware of the moment. To this day if I start reciting, “amo, amas, amat…” my senses are filled with memory – the smell of wax on polished wood, pink blotting paper. and on the floor, clean squares of sunshine where dust motes dance a late, lazy waltz. Miss Everley, with her pointy shoes and ever-present smell of patchouli, would be proud of me.

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The word advent is Latin for arrival. The verb, advenire, to arrive, is one of my favourites because the -ire verb endings (fourth conjugation) were the friendliest ones. Look, this may sound odd, but try it. Try saying it out loud : – advenio, advenis, advenit, advenimus, advenitis, advenitunt.  See what I mean? Don’t you feel soothed and generally more benevolent towards the world? This is probably because when you got to the second person plural you couldn’t resist saying “advenitits” and this made you giggle inanely. It was, of course, the real reason we favoured it. But I can assure you Miss Everley would have had none of it, striding over to you, eyes like gimlets and breathing close-range patchouli flavoured threats at you. This was so unpleasant that, if you had a compulsion to say “advenitits” you had to whisper it in order to stay alive. Of course, if the rest of your class had noticed this compulsion and hatched a plot to hold their breath at the second person plural, you were stuffed anyway. Sigh.

For me, advent is like Latin verbs. There’s comfort in the routine  – making the cake, decorating the house. When I think of advents past, my senses are filled with cinnamon, snow and the smell of oranges. When the children were small we lived abroad, in a country that didn’t celebrate Christmas, so we used to make biscuits in the shape of holly or angels to hang on the tree. We made crackers  and filled bowls with oranges. It was very cold and there was often snow, which my husband had to shovel off the roof to stop it leaking. We missed family and friends but those makeshift festivities were among my best ever. We sang carols and met up with other ex-pats who taught us their advent routines – gingerbread houses (Norway), sweets in shoes (German), glogg (Sweden).  Of course I romanticise it – there were illnesses, breakdowns in the snow. The apartment never seemed to get warm. But they were happy times.

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This year we can light candles, go to church, sing carols. We’ll put out the Christmas cushions and the nativity scene. We’ll remember, as you will, that there are many celebrating the season with tents for homes and empty stomachs. And we’ll give thanks, as you will, to God or life or both (depending on which combination you believe in) that we have warmth and light and loved ones, to help us through the winter months. Then we’ll turn on the News and remember, as you might, that we could have done more for  others – filled a Christmas box, given money, donated at work. There’s so much need, we can become immune to it.

At times, I feel overwhelmed by the tide of evil sweeping the world – not just the terrorists and the wars and the starving children, but the selfish thoughts, the angry words, the jockeying for position that goes on in my own life, and maybe in yours. All this can drive us to despair. That’s why I’ve started using the Lord’s Prayer. it was brought to my attention recently in the News. Apart from praying it at church, I rarely prayed it. I know there’s been some controversy lately and maybe the cinema isn’t the best place for it. But in the car, or on Break Duty or  cooking, really is. It’s such a great prayer and seems to cover all the bases, all the things that are wrong with the world, and with me. Jesus  thought of it but it could equally be prayed by anyone seeking after truth, after God, whoever they conceive him (or her) to be. There’s a rhythm, a soothing quality to it that’s immensely comforting. Like Advent or Latin verbs.

And I can’t explain it, but when I pray, things happen. Good things.

 

 

 

 

A Breath or a Pause? Paris and beyond…


You know that thing when you open the dishwasher, and shove something in mid-cycle? Well, I do it really fast, before the dishwasher actually realises so there’s no pause in the cycle. Just a quick hiss of water, the clunk of the mug or fork as it bumps into its friends, the bang of the door. Then, immediately the soothing whoosh resumes.  And I can relax. You see, if you don’t do that, if you move slowly, precisely, the dishwasher realises and does a sort of, “Mayday! Mayday! I appear to be open! Captain, stop operations! Wait until the items are arranged in the trays in height order. In height order, I say! When the door’s closed, after sixty seconds (so this lousy operator thinks we’ve broken down completely) and not a moment before, you may resume wash cycle.” My way’s better though. There’s no pause at all. Just a breath.

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The appalling events in Paris this weekend have resulted in a wave of outrage and sympathy across the world. Iconic buildings are lit like the tricolore,  people are demonstrating and lighting candles, Facebook is helping you update your profile picture in French colours.  The empathy and support are overwhelming and that’s how it should be. Discussions on the radio include those who want a full-scale war and those who insist violence should not be met with violence, calling for another way. Then there are those who claim it’s the politicians’ fault. If they hadn’t recklessly made war on Iraq, this would never had happened.

It’s interesting how our reactions are so much stronger than they were, say, after the Sharm-el-Sheikh air crash. Of course we were upset, particularly when we found out everyone on the plane died, there were Brits who couldn’t leave the country and an ISIS- affiliated group claimed responsibility. More people died than were killed in Paris but somehow the latter is far, far worse. Did Facebook encourage us to change our profile pictures to a Russian flag? (Which is, after all. not that different from the French one.) Did I even think of it? No.

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Somehow it’s more real when it’s in the west. Russia? Of course it’s sad for them but they’re so far away and anyway, they dope their athletes. France is just a few breast strokes away.  It’s practically Kent, give or take a tsunami around 8,000 years ago. Literally, it could have been me.

1,750 migrants perished in the Mediterranean this year. More than 200, 000  have died in Syria. And our hearts have bled for them. But I confess those situations have not affected me the way the Paris one has. Something about the planning, the co-ordination, the years of preparation that went into such attacks perhaps? Is it also the chilling fact that on the same day, quite a number of individuals chose to destroy so many regardless of the most valuable thing they themselves possess – their lives?

This is not to condemn anyone, except myself perhaps. I’m trying to understand my own reactions. There was something on Facebook this morning about looking in the rubble for those who help. It challenges me to live the way God intended – praying and finding ways to stand alongside – holding the hands of those who mourn, giving money or making food, sending clothes  or packing boxes. This is what is behind the profile pictures, the iconic buildings, the demos. What else can we do?

This one will be in the media for a while, I imagine. But how long will it take me to shrug it off and move on? I don’t want to be the kind of person who cares deeply but briefly. But this will mean thinking things through, stopping the machine, taking time. Then acting. Instead of throwing things in and slamming the door.

A pause not a breath.

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Hills and giving thanks on All Hallows Eve


We’re climbing the Malvern Hills,  and I’m wheezing like a catfish. I briefly consider whether dropping dead on a narrow path between trees in sight of the summit, is a good way to go. An action exit, so to speak, in pursuit of something beautiful. But decide against it. There are few walkers up here and we might be left for days. Or eaten by foxes.

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The views are incredible. The Malvern Hills rise, sheer and spine-like, from the Severn Valley in the counties of Herefordshire, Worcestershire and Gloucestershire. Eight miles long, from the highest summit you can see parts of thirteen counties, the Bristol Channel and the cathedrals of Worcester, Gloucester and Hereford. The hills are known for their spring water, made famous by the area’s holy wells and later through the spa town of Great Malvern which clings, crab-like, to the side of the hills. Aldwyn, the monk who originally founded the Benedictine community and priory in 1085 because of its  remoteness, would rend his cassock if he could see the old town grown up around it now. Though he might be pleased that the holy wells originally thought to bring health and healing as early as the twelfth century, developed into a spa town in Victorian times later becoming the first bottled water plant in the world. Today the town is  beautiful, even in the rain.

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It occurs to me that I could do with those healing properties now as I lurch, with bursting lungs up the steep incline towards the summit (not THE summit, I hasten to add, but the nearest one). My husband is positively bounding compared to me. The problem, when you have asthma, is you never know quite what’s going to trigger it. And, unwisely, I’d left my inhaler in the car. I briefly consider the problems the Air Ambulance Service might have landing on the scrubby slopes ahead of us, to say nothing of the headline in the Malvern Gazette- Asthmatic Londoner Loses Lung Function on Lower Levels #ourglorioushills

My husband stops and watches me critically. “Do you want to go back? Perhaps we should…”

I consider his question. I would like very much to go back, to correct those earlier years where I smoked for a while, drank too much and lived in beautiful but freezing, damp old places which did my lungs in. I would like to have lived wisely and well and looked after those vital body parts you need more than ever when you’re older – eyes, skin, lungs. Well, all of it is quite useful really, especially at work or ordering an Indian Takeaway, (JENKINS! cough, cough, J-E-N-K…No, I can’t say it louder! Cough, cough!).    But it’s too late for all that. The eagle has landed, so to speak. What to make of what’s left?

I look longingly at the view which is becoming more impressive by the step. As we rise, the Severn Valley unrolls and the town begins to hunch its shoulders beyond the trees. Having got this far, it would such a shame to miss the big view from  the top. My breathing’s not too bad, I decide. And I never know these days whether I’m being a tiny bit neurotic. I once told my doctor after a particularly bad winter that I was worried I’d forgotten how to breathe. A capable type with a distractingly large bosom, the sort you can’t take your eyes off even when reliably heterosexual, she gave me a long, measured look.

“You may have forgotten, Mrs Jenkins,” she said, “But your lungs won’t have. I would advise you to live your life and let them get on with it.”

Well this is my life, so I figure as long as I rest often, I should be alright. After all it’s not much further. After some persuasion, we continue. And after several breaks, no coughing fits and a near collision with a cyclist (A CYCLIST!! I want his lungs), we arrive at the top of the hill. And it’s breathtaking.

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We sit for a while enjoying our victory. On the way down I reflect that in my younger days it never occurred to me I’d get something like asthma. But then there are lots of good things I never thought I’d get to do either – live abroad, rebuild a house, raise socially acceptable children (this is a miracle in itself – God is good). And so many people live with far, far worse.

So tonight, on All Hallows Eve, I’m celebrating goodness. I don’t celebrate Halloween though I’m happy to give out sweets to the neighbouring kids who do. I didn’t encourage my own kids to dress up etc. (there were sometimes alternative parties at church) though when teenagers, I didn’t stop them if they wanted to. In Turkey, we gave out sweets to children celebrating the Muslim festivals to be friendly and culturally relevant, and I don’t see this as too different. In my opinion it’s just not worth offending and upsetting people over. It doesn’t help with the negative press believers sometimes experience. But this is just my personal view.

Tomorrow is All Saints Day when they pray for the dead in Orthodox churches. Protestants generally regard all Christians as saints and if they keep All Saints Day they use it to remember all Christians past and present. So I’m remembering Aldwyn and the Benedictines for starting a monastery in a beautiful place, my grandparents who started our family long ago in India, my parents. I’m giving thanks for my husband and my children and my cat (who sleeps with his paws crossed so is definitely a believer).  And for all my family and friends, who mean so much to me, whatever they believe about life, God and Halloween.

I’m also thankful for hilltop views and autumn leaves and Ventolin. For holidays and small children and good doctors (whatever the size of their bosoms). For quiet water and sunsets and tiny little cakes with cream in.

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And that God, wiser and more far seeing than we can ever imagine, somehow uses the random yuck that life flings at us, to make the small things sweeter. Like breathing.

Who and what are you grateful for, this All Hallows Eve?

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Empty nests and the unnecessary use of signage


I stare at the sign in amusement. Let’s all get home safely? What’s that all about? I know I don’t get out much and I haven’t, thankfully, been on the M1 for a while, but have I missed a sea change in British culture? I mean, it’s a bit pally isn’t it? Surely, Wishing you a safe journey, or even, Have a safe journey home, is more appropriate. We drive on, while Sunday dusk folds around a low moon, and I wonder why I’m irritated. I think it’s something to do with the let’s part, which I used when my children were small, as in, Let’s go and clean our teeth now, and sometimes at school – Let’s use our best joined-up writing. Bearing in mind drivers in the U.K. have to be at least 17, it seems rather patronising. After all, we’re all adults here.

At least the apostrophe’s in the right place but surely there should be some form of punctuation at the end. Exclamation mark? Ellipsis?

But there’s more. A little further on, another sign pushes its way through the dark. Check your fuel level. What? Do you not think I’ve done that already? This is swiftly followed by Be alert, my mum’s at work and Someone loves you. Drive with care.

We decide the Department for Transport are missing a trick here. How about Let’s not overtake on the inside! or Let’s use our mirrors before a manoeuvre. Actually , forget the DoT. There are lots of useful messages that could be relayed in this way. We become vocal in our enthusiasm.

Let’s remember to floss! Be alert, that’s a dreadful shirt. Have you put your pants on? Be aware, of armpit hair!

According to a recent article in The Guardian, some “emotionally intelligent” signage is being trialled on major roads with the conviction that empathetic signs are more effective than authoritarian ones. The writer of the article points out that this is yet another example of the “infuriatingly chummy way” in which organisations increasingly speak to consumers. (“Hi Deborah, are you having a good day?” “I’m sorry, do I know you? I’d just like to book a check-up please.”)

Of course my new found grumpiness  could be a) reluctance to adapt to modern life b) middle age (Alright,  late middle age), c) my youngest leaving home. But I doubt any of these are actually relevant.

We had just dropped our daughter off at uni. I’d missed the signs on the way up as I’d been asleep, recovering from several weeks of what-I-call Restless-Mother-Syndrome (E.g. Me: Must get you Sudocrem. Her: Why? Me: You just never know...)

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It’d gone well. Her digs were lovely, her flatmates friendly, her kitchen large and clean. We’d helped her unpack and get on-line. And as we left, she invited a pleasant looking lad to share beans on toast with her. He was called James. An infinitely comforting and uncrazy name, I remember thinking, with biblical overtones.

I am very glad that I’m not the kind of stalkerish mother who is on Facebook all the time, checking for clues to her well-being. You know the type – clicking on any new friends to see if they’re nice (holiday snaps of pleasant faced parents and pictures of cats or Jesus), examining Freshers photos with eagle eye, comparing things like smile width (Ooh Steve, she looks a bit pale there! Do you think she’s getting enough sleep?) Then there’s the sort who openly fusses on the phone, the verbal equivalent of patronising signage.  (Let’s remember to eat well! Don’t forget fruit and veg! Freshers’Flu’won’t get you. With Vitamin C! Check your chapped skin!) Sudocrem anyone?

I think if God, who’s brought my daughter thus far (from baby to lady including measles and a nasty fall from a very high slide – not recently), were to trial “emotionally intelligent” signage on me, it would be things like: – Let’s try to let go, shall we?  Check your trust levels. You’re overreacting again! Be aware, I’m always there.

But thankfully, God is less patronising than mums and the DoT.  Don’t worry about anything…Do not let your hearts be troubled…Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged. The Lord your God will be with you wherever you go (Phil.4:6, John 14:1, Josh. 1:9)

So go fly, my Lovely! Laugh. Breathe. Watch for signs. And let God walk you through life, learning through trial and error how to be happy. As we did. As we are.                             Until we’re all safely home.

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