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.

 

 

 

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.

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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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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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Smug Painted Toes and the Smile of God


Now I know I am a skinflint. I can’t help it. Actually I didn’t used to be before I was married. I was the kind of person who would put unopened bank statements in the cupboard just in case there was bad news. One day my then-fiance opened the cupboard and they all fell out. And it was, er, very bad news. But luckily, the landlady was out that evening and didn’t hear anything. And he still married me, which was a relief, but as in all relationships, there had to be negotiated change on both sides and on my side these were mainly money related: –

1. Keep track of what you spend.

2. Open bank statements because this makes 1. a lot easier.

3. Think of other ways to cheer self up after a bad day.

4. Read “Freedom of Simplicity” by Richard Foster.

5. Spend money on the things you need FIRST.

6. Be as generous as you can.

(Just to say, he had a list too but these were mainly to do with flowers, candlelit meals and romantic walks)

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Well, in the first year I worked on 1-3. It nearly killed me. Old habits die hard. I remember a friend telling me she used to show her partner new purchases only when  friends were round to stop him going ballistic. But I didn’t want to do that. I did actually want to spend less money for lots of reasons. I just didn’t know how. I suppose it was a sort of addiction. Then I read the book. It was very good. The blurb said it would show me how to bring sanity to the compulsive accumulation of modern life, how to shift my focus off stuff so it enhances life, instead of filling it. Let go of the need to own. Live simply. Breathe; that kind of thing. The book had a profound effect on me. To the extent that, thirty years later, in the whole area of spending I think I’ve gone a bit the other way. Annoying, but I suppose the flip side of a compulsion.

How does this relate to toes?Well, I’ve never really thought much about mine. They’re pretty average looking; I get them out in summer. In recent years I’ve started painting them in a slightly haphazard sort of way, stabbing the brush generally southwards (it helps to paint them on the wine coloured rug). But as I’ve got older this has become more challenging. Which glasses? The right light? The right position? The results have often dismayed me and I’ve sometimes left the house with feet resembling rare steaks. This week, as it’s been warm, I wore sandals to work but hadn’t made them toe-pretty so compared to everyone else’s beautifully pedicured feet, they looked awful. And these days everyone seems to go and have their feet done in summer – pedicures and gel nails and the like. I’ve always rather pooh-poohed this idea, in favour of Principles, the same ones that prevent me buying things things like ready made ice cubes, pre-cut veg or grated cheese. Except when I’m ill. Or desperate. But I looked down at the toes this week half way through story time and I thought, “You, my dears, are ugly. And you deserve an upgrade”

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So I go into the beauty salon near our house and I say, “Hello! I’d like to inquire about your pedicures, with gel nails and…er…nail varnish, or something.” They all gaze at me as if I’m from another planet. Which I am really. They are very pert and pretty but thankfully, kind. The receptionist smiles warmly,

“You haven’t been here before, have you?” she says.

“Er, no. To be honest…” I lean forward confidentially. All three of them lean in too (all of which is quite unnecessary, as there’s no one else in the room) “…I’ve come to the whole pedicure thing rather late in life. I just want to make my feet look pretty. Can you tell me what you do, and how much it will cost?”

They tell me I need a Jessica Gel Pedicure. It costs way more than a skinflint imagines. I think briefly of other things I could spend the money on: –

1. A few paperback books

2. A pair of shoes

3. A summer’s worth of ready make ice cubes

4. A worthy cause.

And I wait, for that little voice in my head, the one that usually tells me what to do, if I’m listening. They all look at me expectantly. I look down at the brochure. There is a picture of a woman with fronds of hair blowing across her face. It must be windy, I think (or a wind machine). And she’s laughing. I have the pedicure. After the weirdness of someone you don’t know handling your feet, washing them, moisturising them and putting on several layers of gel (I think – I was drinking tea and reading magazines by this stage), it was actually lovely. Afterwards my toes look good enough to eat. I’m tempted to ask the receptionist if she’d like a photo, for the brochure.

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And as I walk away, careful not to bash into lamp posts while I admire my smug, painted toes, I remember that God – who goes with me everywhere, although I sometimes forget this, and who may be a He or a She or Something Else, no one really knows – is not a skinflint. He has an extravagant smile, evident in things like daffodils. Or twins. Or badgers.

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When I tell my husband about the foot quandary, he just laughs and admires my toes. Then he says, just to rile me, the answer is probably to wear socks and sandals all year round.

Not that his today-socks would be much good in winter anyway…

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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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Waiting for Grandad


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

 

 

 

Banishing Thugs


There’s something about stairs. They’re kind of magic because you walk up them and you’re somewhere else, usually on the first floor of your house. But it’s amazing isn’t it? I mean, you’re standing in the same place as your kitchen sink but you’re…well…up. We never had a proper landing in our old house so I love my stairs. The other day I curled up on them in a stretch of sunshine. It was an odd place to sit but strangely comforting.  I looked up the stairwell at the banisters and the hanging light-thing, and I watched the sun skim unfinished wood. And I thought, I should sit here more often.

Last weekend I had a ball. In Northampton. With about eighty Baptist Ministers’ spouses. (If you think the words in bold are basically incompatible, please rethink your version of reality.) We came from cities and villages, big and small churches. We had grey hair and dyed hair and that lovely young hair that’s all swingy and sleek, like in adverts (sigh). We wore jeans or glasses or hearing aids or all three. We brought guitars or drums or knitting needles. And we talked. Boy, how we talked. Even the men. All three of them (but one was the speaker.)

The weekend made me think. Being human is hard. When you’re young, you’re going to make your mark on the world. Then one day, you wake up middle-aged to find the world has made its marks on you, including neck wrinkles and sticky out veins and the fact that Leo Sayer will never be Number One again. Then there are people who believe in God (and I always absolutely do, apart from sometimes), that He will help with this. Bit unpredictable how, but it usually involves bringing along the right person or the right thing at the right time in the right way. To make things better. And then, when they are, the whole Maybe I can change the world thing, comes back, but this time more modestly in small ways but quiet, like ants.

Anyway, on this weekend we had the most gracious and lovely speakers called Nigel and Judy Wright who have been in ministry over 40 years and have both made a mark on the world. They spoke on how to live the Jesus life. They talked about slavery and wisdom and how to live well. Nobody escapes scars but you don’t have to grow old with them. Embrace simplicity, endure, refuse to recycle evil. Don’t forget to pray, and breathe, and surprising things will happen.

Well, I prayed and breathed, and surprising things did. I relaxed and slept and didn’t think about work. I read a bit and walked a bit and ate a lot. There was the chocolate fountain and the cocktail bar and the quiz. We made jewellery or origami or scrapbooks. We ate cake. And on the Saturday evening we entertained each other – with stories and tea towels. And a uni-cycle (You had to be there really…)

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And the reason I love these weekends is because they remind me to pay attention. To things that really matter, instead of that procession of thugs marching through my mind in hob nailed boots –  email this person, ring so-and-so, do school work, pay trip money, prepare Sunday School. Hurry, hurry, so you can get it all done double quick…

So if you haven’t been on one, you really should. Of course you might not be married to a Baptist minister which is a bit tricky (I have heard there are single ones, though I’ve never actually met one). But then there are other inspirational/pampering things you could go on. Maybe now is the time…

And if, like me, your time and money is limited, you could always try sitting in places in your house you’ve never sat before. Or walk upstairs and admire your ripe garden.

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There are other places to banish the thugs. This one is good.

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Or this one

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I quite like this one (different perspective)

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I’ve been meaning to sit here for a while. It saves getting up after  putting your socks on.

Interesting that when I’m busy writing blog posts, and taking photos, the thugs don’t stand a chance…

What helps you to relax and take your mind off things?