Fearfully and wonderfully made


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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Advertisements

Waiting for Dad


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ellie?” he says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The eye (and ear) of the beholder


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

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

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

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

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

wp-1463241916115.jpg

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

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

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

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

wp-1463250968940.jpg

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

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

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

 

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.

11128343_10152765621466059_7428479341963474634_o

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.

IMAG0167

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.

 

 

 

 

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.

wpid-20151027_124837.jpg

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.

wpid-20151027_130929.jpg

wpid-20151027_145710.jpg

wpid-20151027_142422.jpg

wpid-20151027_150644.jpg

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.

wpid-20151026_151701.jpg

wpid-20151027_120436.jpg

wpid-20151027_121221.jpg

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.

wpid-20151028_131530.jpg

wpid-20151027_090306.jpg

wpid-20151031_170014.jpg

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?

wpid-20151031_183355.jpg

 

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)

freedomofsimplicitylrg

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”

wpid-20150417_123010.jpg

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.

wpid-20150417_190148.jpg

wpid-20150417_151441.jpg

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.

19_12_89_prev.jpg

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…

wpid-20150417_121738.jpg

 

 

 

 

 

The Blessing of Good Signage


I’ve had a revelation. About signage. It happened the other day at a church in the middle of Derbyshire. Despite the cold, and slicing rain, the approach was beautiful – a thumb of stone, a fist of graves and  beneath the lychgate, crocuses.  Inside did not disappoint either. There was amber light, wood and brass, and slabs of paving as soft as upturned faces. It was one of those places that fills you with stillness.

wpid-20150213_144108.jpg

 

wpid-20150213_143305.jpg

But I do not remain still for long. I spend most of the time, as usual, in front of the noticeboard. I see that there is All Age Communion on the first Sunday of the month at 10am. (Regrettably there are no 9.30 or 11.15 services on these days). I wonder briefly if that punches a hole in anyone’s routine. A bit of an upheaval perhaps if you are a creature of habit. I see that there is, “… a fine choir which sings at 9.30 or 10am each Sunday and occasionally in the evening”. that there are regular organ recitals, bible lectures and rambles and that I need to contact Alison for details of the Chattabox group. But best of all, there’s an advert for a talk at a neighbouring town.

wpid-20150213_142749.jpg

Isn’t it wonderful? These are the things that matter to the people who live there. They would matter to me too; remembering which Sunday the kick-off’s at 10 instead of 9.30 or 11, on which evenings the fine choir sings, and to book my ticket for the Pie and Pea supper. There’s something gloriously togetherish about these things. Who needs the Odeon or the West End? Give me the Pack Horse Routes of Derbyshire any day…

But this is why I love signs and notices. They say more about the person who put them there than anything else. This one, in a well known British supermarket, for example –wpid-20150314_100813.jpg

A snappy piece of signage. The sub text? We’re going to make it impossible for you to make this saving because after reading the terms and conditions, you’ll be brain dead anyway.

Then there was this one –

wpid-20140814_164610.jpg

The sub text – I care about Facebook likes and being thought of as adventurous and you must do too, or you wouldn’t be on this plane in the first place  (Wrong. I have to be practically drugged and carried onto planes these days.)

But there are other signs too – the ones that tell you things without saying very much at all.

I brew beer, I'm a Christian and I have a sense of humour

I brew beer, I’m a Christian and I have a sense of humour

wpid-20141205_125841.jpg

In or out? I’ve done both several times in ten minutes. Not sure I’ve made the right decision though…

There's beauty in dead places

There’s beauty in dead places

Life returns, even in graveyards

Life returns, even in graveyards

When you see the rainbow, you forget the rain.

Rainbows – my speciality

I’m a firm believer in signs. I think life holds more of them than we realise. We have to watch for them. Often we have to wait too.

But I think they say more about the Person who put them there, than anything else…

 

I follow a talented blogger, Ellie, who paints pictures of the signs she sees and writes about them. It’s well worth a look if you’re into signage 😉

yellow-flowers

 

  https://propheticpostcards.wordpress.com/

How Merry is Yours so Far?


I’ve been struggling with semantic honesty lately. Don’t know why, but I’ve found myself analysing what we say and imagining what would happen if we took each other at our word. For an English person this could be social suicide because so much of what we say is cultural, not literal, as in, I really should be going, Oh, must you? (Thought you’d never leave…) or Good Christmas? Lovely thanks! Really quiet…(It was actually quite boring).

When my children were small, an American friend pointed out that I was setting myself up for angst by asking my children, Shall we clean our teeth? instead of her direct, Go and clean your teeth! After all, I had no intention of cleaning mine and the question set up the – quite likely – scenario of the children refusing and me chasing them until they caved in (must warn my son’s fiancee). But change is harder than you think and it felt wrong to be so straight. Why? Will Brits just do anything to avoid directness?

There’s a joke in our house that my husband will never say yes or no. Darling, are you in tonight? As far as I know. Dad, is your computer on? It certainly seems to be. Sometimes we even amuse ourselves by conspiring to get him to say the definitive words and it’s hilarious how adept he is at avoiding them. Has he been forever scarred by his past, working for a) a local authority, and b) a private company, as a surveyor? British builders are famed for scratching their heads and mentioning best case scenarios but avoiding definitive dates.

Dad, are you carving the turkey yet? I certainly seem to be...

Dad, are you carving the turkey yet? I certainly seem to be…

In our house on Christmas Day when we see someone for the first time we say Happy Christmas! in a heartfelt and congratulatory way, as in, It’s Christmas Day and this is the first time I’ve seen you and so I greet you with festive joy!  I hasten to add that we don’t say Good Morning to each other formally on normal days but then we get up earlier and 2 out of 3 of us are so groggy and depressed that it actually is morning, that a cursory grunt is the best you can expect.

Have a lovely Christmas! we all hooted to each other on leaving work. Give someone the Christmas they’re dreaming of…says the John Lewis advert. Have yourself a merry little Christmas…croons Frank Sinatra immortalising the words of Judy Garland in the film Meet Me in St Louis. (Interestingly, the lyrics, written by Hugh Martin, were changed as they were considered too depressing.) Despite the advertising and the hype and the fact that we all know we’re spinning this impossible tale of perfection and romance, we still do it, but I wonder what we actually mean when we say these things?

There's a fire and a cat and Christmas colours - all will be well...

There’s a fire and a cat and Christmas colours – all will be well…

Well, just so we’re clear, judging from the things that are making my Christmas merry so far, this is how you can be more precise when wishing me a happy time next year (so we both know where we are) and there’s semantic integrity: –

1. May your mother-in-law, who’s had a stroke, say as clear as anything “I really should be helping!”

2. May you find brioche in the shape of a Christmas tree.

wpid-20141226_101326.jpg

3. Hope there’s great festive listening on Radio 4 for you while cooking.

4. Hope someone buys your minister husband a musical tie for his Christmas preach.

5. Hope no one gets ill or vomits.

wpid-20141226_191340.jpg

 

wpid-20141227_151749.jpg

6. Wishing your cat joyful hiding in bags.

7. When unearthing Christmas decs, may you find something pretty a friend made.

8. Hope your advent lights work.

wpid-20141225_122449.jpg

9. Hoping you get fun labels (A family thing due to the boredom of writing labels. E.g. You are Matthew, We are your parents, It is Christmas, Be Happy… Love Mum and Dad)

10. May there be sunshine.

wpid-20141225_123419.jpg

Every year we remind ourselves it won’t be perfect. People will get sick, there’ll be blocked drains or arguments or duplicate presents. But a tiny part of us, buried deep down like a vein, still hopes it will be. And God, who does Christmas every year and knows what works, just smiles and gives us a baby, hidden small between festive ties and brioche. But he’s there and sometimes, when you say the word s-l-o-w-l-y you can hear him. In the ancient magic of that word which is maybe more than just festive sibilance – C-h-r-i-s-t-m-a-s.

And, in fact, there’s been semantic integrity all along. I just forget to notice it.

Thanks a lot to those who regularly read this blog.

Hope you’ve had a good Christmas and wishing you a Happy New Year, whatever these things may mean, for you…

wpid-20141226_181311.jpg

What’s making yours merry?

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

Hunting for Small and other Sacred Pathways


I hate closing doors – on the house, the classroom, the car – there’s always a tiny stab of panic just before the lip of the door hits the jamb. Sometimes I have to go back and check things – the oven, heater, brake. I don’t quite know why. Call me O.C.D. but I suppose it’s the finality of it, the end or beginning, or the potential forgetting. Like the time we lived in Turkey and I went out leaving figs on to boil, then locked my keys in the car, rushing back when I realised. But that’s years ago now (and a blog post in itself).

20140223_171408

20140223_171419

I feel it when we leave the hotel. Not because I particularly like it – the windows are too small and there are illuminated colour changing banisters (unnecessary). But at least my husband enjoys arranging the refreshments. He gets bored easily.

20140220_232211

novotel-exterior

When I close our hotel room door, there’s the familiar lurch – what have I left, where is my phone charger, Kindle charger, camera charger? – but there’s also another closing. We came up north to visit our son and his lovely fiancée which was excitement enough for me. The day out in the Peaks was a bonus. It was like opening a door and instantly forgetting everything behind you, like Narnia without the snow.

What is it about English moorland – wet, brown – that’s so deeply soothing? After our crowded cities, is it the space and the sky? Is it the pastel colours layered fatly in quiet light? Is it glimpses of things? Water? Trees? Is it because I live in London and the dizzying sight of a green field and a cow, is enough to make my day? But in the Peak District there no cows, or fields. Just the dun coloured moor and trees in sepia.

20140221_123852

20140221_125402

20140221_150315

20140221_124409

20140221_124537

We walk, drifting together and apart, as families do when they’re not together much. And somehow, the wideness of the sky and the ringing water makes us laugh more, and share secrets, as if tranquility seeps from the earth into our very bones.

20140221_134708

1796712_10201604469778449_1779663909_o

20140221_131615

And all the while the water plunges on – determined, carefree – flinging itself with abandon at anything in its wake – stones, trees, the bank – bouncing into obstacles, then immediately flowing round them, carrying on. Not worrying, readjusting its path when it needs to. Trusting that, in time, it will reach the sea.

And God, who whispers small in quiet places, begins to work his magic.

20140221_131737

20140221_132459

20140221_133244

20140221_133908

I’m reading a book called “Sacred Pathways” in which Gary Thomas refers to creation as God’s cathedral. The book outlines different ways in which people relax, re-energise, feel close to God. I am apparently a naturalist. Fortunately for the world, this has nothing to do with removing my clothes but is being filled with energy by nature. Other pathways, according to Thomas include the sensate, the ascetic, the activist and the intellectual. Obviously most people are more than one, but what I love about his writing is the idea of spiritual nutrition – we are all fed in different ways. So it kind of matters to find which is yours.

I’m thinking about this later, at home, crashing around all moody at being back in the suburbs with concrete and cars and the faint screech of sirens. And the cat appears and taps on the French doors. I yell, “Use the flap!” He taps again and that little black and white face, all pert and hopeful makes me weaken, as usual. A clutch of miniature daffs on the patio catches my eye and I feel the familiar stirring. And it occurs to me quite suddenly, that in reality cathedrals are not in the country, but in cities…

20140223_163256

The light is fading and I have work to do, but I grab my phone and go.

So here we are again, I think. The park, the houses, the roads. It’s February so it’s mostly daffodils and blossom but there is a different kind of pleasure in hunting them out. They’re not just there, embracing you, like in the Peaks when it’s all vast beauty and you’re almost drunk with it. You have to search.

Behind houses and in front gardens. But the same things are there – just smaller – pastels and trees and glimpses of windows. And there’s that smoky, winter-Sunday smell that’s kind of city-comfort, as if God, who shouts loud in noisy places, is beginning to work magic again. I’m still here – don’t you see me?

20140223_170217

20140223_164738

20140223_165138

20140223_165552

20140223_165908

It’s dusk so people put lights on. I try to take a photo cos I love other people’s lives, but a front door opens so I have to pretend to be waving around for a mobile signal. (Note to self – You can get sued for this kind of thing.)

So I get home, all flushed and cathedral-quiet. The key clicks in the lock and I realise with a jolt that when I left, I slammed the door and strode off to hunt for small, without a single backward glance.

In time, perhaps even I will reach the sea.

SONY DSC