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

 

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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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Gold


The day is dark and November-heavy. There’s no milk. I search through the window for a breath of beauty but there isn’t any. It’s wet, and last week I left my umbrella in a John Lewis changing room. I went back but it’d gone and I was cross because it was a pretty one – small with a leather handle and a black frill – the umbrella, not the room. I imagine a John-Lewis-type discovering it, in her underwear. I am not a John-Lewis-type. Shops like that scare me. I only go in there for sales and curtain material (or coffee).

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Anyway I’m going off shopping, big-time. It makes me want things I didn’t know existed – like headphone earmuffs or a cashmere hot water bottle (I don’t even have any headphones.) Also it’s draining and makes my feet hurt. I wish I lived in the country where there are no shops and you can smell soil and hear rain on leaves. London is drab in winter – wet or foggy and grey with sky like a scowl. The suburbs are concrete slabs with beds on. They have no secrets and no soul…

But it’s Friday so I can be slow, and there’s my Kindle and coffee and the local paper. The rain stops. Through the window, birds, a tiny rosebud. It’s a bit battle scarred and sad, but it’s alive, tight as a fist. All the other branches are dead, stems shrivelled, making the bud stand out, all yellow and hopeful like a smile.

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The rain’s brought out colours. Across the garden raindrops shiver from trees, there are berries and die-hard poppies. I like the way they just stand there, not caring that they’re a mess. Look, we didn’t expect to be here, in November, okay?! It’s a bonus. Enjoy it while it lasts…. I hope I’m like that when I’m old – bright, dishevelled, grateful… I don’t want to be a sour old woman, seeing the worst in everything and everyone. Life can do this to you, if you don’t pay attention, if you stop looking…

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What’s happened to me? I used to love autumn. All that shrugging on coats and scarves and easing conkers out of spiky shells. And a new hat – always a new hat for winter. I’d forgotten.

I go for a walk and see that God, who does autumn every year and knows what works, has tossed gems through south-west London. Behind cars or concrete – bush-low berries, coy trees on brick. Through bare branches, glimpses of pubs or backs of houses. Late roses and leaf art on pavements. And holly.

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When it’s grey, don’t forget to look for signs. Panning for gold is a way of life. And the bleaker the day, the more they stand out. If you’re looking right.

I take photos, go shopping and buy a hat.  From a shop.

From the bus there’s a sea of umbrellas and fine spraying rain. But I’m happy because of the hat and a horse chestnut which hammers the top of the bus with fists full of conkers. And on the walk home, there are berries.

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I think of the John-Lewis-type, (bold, confident, matching underwear), and wish her joy with her new umbrella. And hope the stray spoke doesn’t have her eye out…

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