Advent, sheep and a kiss from a stranger


It’s been a strange week.

I’m on my way home from work after what is called a challenging day. It’s a fitting end really; that is to say, there is darkness, traffic, and rain-galloping cats and dogs. And the lower lid of my right eye keeps doing this thing where it moves without my help. Like being flicked with an invisible finger. I sit in a queue, head thrown back listening to Eddie Mair who would actually be a best friend in real life on account of being Scottish and soothing and always finding ways to put things in perspective (well, he is a newsreader.) There’s a tiny scrap of sky on the right that’s still light. I watch it, fascinated – just a narrow shred, but somehow trnasformative. I crane my neck a bit and find myself staring into the eyes of a man in a car alongside (he shouldn’t be there really, there are chevrons). Now I know when my face is in thinking mode, I look a bit glum. When I was young my teachers were always saying, infuriatingly, Cheer up Deborah, it may never happen! I used to walk around smiling – which is the only way they’d leave me alone – but frankly it just scared people and after a while it hurt, so I gave up. Anyway, I quickly look away, like you do, just in case the person thinks you’re staring at them. Then I look back to see it he’s looked away, and, if I’m honest, because he has a nice face even though he’s breaking the law, and he’s still looking at me, And I’m about to look away again but, quick as a flash, he blows me a kiss! Honestly! A man half my age and me, a married woman, with dark roots. And tics.

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Anyway, I can’t help smiling, mainly because it’s so ridiculous but also because of his cheeky grin and the fact that he reminds me of someone I might once have taught. He gives me a thumbs-up and immediately powers off, lurching in front of me. Probably a ruse I think, or a dare, or an alcohol induced joke. But I’m smiling into the darkness and my mood is thinning. I look up. The wedge of light has gone, but although I am a deflated balloon, I lift a little. But then there is commotion behind me on account of the traffic in front having gone and several drivers leaning on horns. I gesture apologetically and they gesture back. One or two are, er, quite negative. Oh well, perhaps they had a bad day…

The next day we deliver sheep for Advent. It works like this. We go round the village shops and ask if they would host a sheep. I have a spiel which I’ve practised in front of the mirror – Hello, I wonder if you can help me. I’m from the Baptist Church and hopefully this.plan will benefit both of us (wave sheep). We were wondering if you would like to host one of our sheep during the run-up to Christmas. This should bring families with young children into your shop to look for them (and hopefully spend some money?) so they can bring their names to our Messy Church Christmas Carols and win a prize. 

The first shop keeper looks sceptical, until the sheep-waving part. Oh my goodness!They’re gorgeous! she says, wanting a cuddle (with the sheep, obviously). The next one was a bit frowny. How much does it cost? Free? You mean there’s no money involved? She looks amazed. One lady runs excitedly around her shop trying a sheep in different positions. What do you think? Here? Or here? No, how about here?! My husband has shop-keepers asking to host one. It’s extraordinary. And I suppose it all goes to show – everyone is a child at heart.

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The next day I get a copy of a letter to my GP from a consultant allergist. Now I’ve had a few of these lately from various consultants and they all start in the same distinctive way –

Dear Dr ______, Thank you for sending me this 52 year old primary teacher. She describes a 13 year history of asthma…

Now this is probably some kind of Hippocratic tradition, but I always wonder. Are they really saying – Thank you so much for sending me this 52 years old primary teacher whose nasal polyps are so fascinating and unusual that my medical curiosity is finally satisfied?

Or is it sarcastic? – Well, thanks a bunch for sending me this 52 year old primary teacher. Just what I’ve always wanted – an overanxious hypochondriac with so many questions I can’t blow my own nose without her asking how long it will take and if it’ll hurt. 

What irritates me most is I had to nag my doctor endlessly to refer me for my allergies. It should say – Dear Dr. ______, Please pass on my thanks to your patient, a persistent, polyp-ridden primary teacher who looks far younger than her 52 years…

And there’ll be another one soon. He’s referring me to a Nose Specialist. Did you know they even existed? Are there Toe Specialists as well and Armpit ones?

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A surreal week.

And on top of all that it’s advent. The shops are alight and there’s an advent candle at church and we’re planning carol services and nativity plays, and writing cards and buying presents and getting the tree down from the loft….And In the middle of it all, there are these signposts. But sometimes I forget to notice them. I have to be watchful and remember to breathe, and look out of windows at the sky, and forgive people and read things that inspire me to be kind, like the bible and Winnie- the- Pooh.

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The signposts are often small. Like a sheep, or a child or a letter that makes you smile, Or a kiss from a stranger They wake you up, the flick of an invisible finger pointing to life, to Christmas, to the ancient magic; we’re never alone…

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Shoes and Other Taboos


When I was a little girl, my dad used to line up all the family’s shoes on a Sunday night and clean them. So I had never cleaned a shoe in my life. In fact I didn’t even know where the shoe cleaning stuff was kept or where to buy it. My father just produced it, with a flourish, a tiny box crammed with tins and brushes, and having covered the kitchen table with newspaper, he’d lovingly work polish into leather. Then I went off to university and from there to my first teaching job. I was so happy when my husband proposed because, apart from having secured an actual man who liked me, I was really looking forward to having clean shoes again. The problem was, in the house where my husband grew up, a different person cleaned the shoes – him.  And he was really looking forward to having a break from all the shoe cleaning stress of his youth. I was dismayed to find he didn’t even possess a shoe cleaning kit. But it was too late – I’d married him.

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My husband is a very nice man. He is kind to children and animals. He is patient. In nearly thirty years I have never seen him lose his temper. My husband works in an office at the end of the garden built by a company called Green Retreats (Is this product placement?) It’s not green though, it’s brown and it’s certainly not a retreat. Inside that office my husband writes sermons, composes emails, liaises with outside organisations, draws up rotas, plans meetings and does a million other things. He is the hardest worker I know. I have also never met anyone with greater integrity. All this in one slab of manhood. (I am honestly not angling for a jewellery-related anniversary present. Though I’m willing to accept one. Gracious, as always)

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When I married this man, I’d read a book. It was called, “How to have a Perfectly Happy Marriage” or something like that and so I thought, naturally, that we would. Since we’d read the book and everything. So it came as a surprise to me that, although I’d married this near-perfect man, that there were things about our marriage that weren’t perfect. And most of it, unsurprisingly – since this is the basis of most problems in any relationship – boiled down in some way to communication.

According to the University of Kent, effective spoken communication requires being able to express your ideas and views clearly, confidently and concisely in speech, tailoring your content and style to the audience and promoting free-flowing communication. That’s all very well, I’m thinking, until you add in variables like a malfunctioning computer or a long hot day at work or corns. These things tend to influence the way you communicate so that instead of being concise and appropriate you just want to roar at everyone. Of course you can’t, because they wouldn’t like you, so you have to save it all up for when you get home and then you roar at your loved ones instead. Sadly we can do that because although they may not like it, they will usually keep loving us, whatever.

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Then there are those things that you gradually stop talking about – the old chestnuts that come up again and again and send you round in circles until you’re dizzy with frustration and fatigue. Because nothing seems to change, at least not for long. Because human nature cannot be changed, at least by us.  And life, with its tendency to throw things at you out of the blue, if you are not careful, can squeeze the joy out of everything… How is it that sometimes the simple act of talking, the thing that draws two people together in the first place, can be the hardest thing to do? Maybe it’s the shape of what we say conjuring up things from the past, things that the speaker may or may not know about, that pull the familiar triggers of guilt, blame and anger. We are not free to react solely in the present, invaded as we are by past hurts and future fears. And so after a while, if we’re not careful, something inside us curls up and hides. It’s then that the most damage can be done if we remain silent. Because, as my mother used to say, what goes in must come out. One day it will explode. And the fall-out could be huge.

So, even though it’s always painful, we’ll keep talking about the shoes…

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My story, The Evenness of Things, now for sale as an Amazon Kindle e-book, is about the effects of long term silence on a relationship. In the story, a woman buys a house without telling her husband, a  misguided attempt to deal with a tragedy from the past which now threatens to overwhelm her completely. But Daisy believes that the house will save her…

The story is about the unpredictable impact of grief on faith and relationships, the need for retreat, and how life itself can show us how to cope, “if we let it, if we listen.”

 

Bruises


How do you gauge your stress levels? Some people get neck tension, others drink. I count bruises. This week was a 2-bruise week. Last week was a 5-bruiser. When I have too much to do, I race around and bump into things – doors, tables, chairs (mostly empty ones). I have been known to walk into parked cars .Once I walked into a skip (It was at night. They really shouldn’t put those things on pavements. It’s asking for trouble).

I’m crossing the playground at speed with a box of polystyrene balls when I notice, in the mishmash of noise and chaos, a tiny child dancing. Her friends are playing stilt-walking, stiff legged on those upside down flowerpot things.. Nearby there’s a skipping game and a football match. She’s flitting about, weaving between them, her arms up, her face a curve of pleasure. She’s in a world of her own.

I stop, nearly dropping my balls. “Hello!” She looks at me, but carries on dancing.

“Hello Mithith Jenkinths!” Her voice is carried away by the skipping and an indignant ref.

“You’re a wonderful dancer!” I say admiringly. She nods in agreement. As she spins past, I ask her if she ever gets tired.

“Not really,” she says, stopping. I crouch down.

“Why do you think that is?”

She lowers her arms, considering. Huge eyes, gap teeth, a scatter of freckles. (But it’s their eyelids that really fascinate me. They’re so smooth. Did I ever have eyelids like that?)

“I dancth becauth I’m happy!” she says and wrinkles her nose in a smile. She raises her arms and whirls away.  When the Infant Bell goes I pick her out, balancing on one leg, bright eyed as a bird. Then slowly she topples forward and runs to her line.

According to the Stress Management Society, stress is caused by two things: whether you think a situation is worthy of anxiety and how your body reacts to your thoughts. My body reacts by walking around really fast, convinced that if I just move more quickly I’ll get everything done. But things get in my way and slow me down – the shelf unit, the whiteboard, the bin. It’s as if the entire inanimate world is lying in wait for me. (“Ha! We’ll get her with the swing door, arms full of Art balls!”) And I come home covered in bruises, thinking of things I didn’t do.

“My Dad says, “Slow down! You’ll just get to the end of your life quicker.”

Gandhi said, “Man is but the product of his thoughts. What he thinks, he becomes.”

Jesus said, “Watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” (The Message)

I should maybe stop counting bruises.

I stroll out of school, careful to avoid the bins with my trolley. A bird lifts off the field. A dog barks. There’s the rumble of traffic. The world dances on, spinning, I trust, above huge, cupped hands. It makes no difference if I run or walk. The moment comes but once.

I turn the corner by the toilets and look back towards school. Quiet light. Trees. Yawning windows like tired eyes.  A good day today: Sun on the playground.  Little girl dancing.

No one’s looking. Shyly, stiffly, like those girls on flowerpot stilts…I do a little gambol.

Demonstrating the new Trolley Dance

Demonstrating the  Trolley Dance