Tea and Other Transforming Things


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

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

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

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

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

Morning mug

Morning mug

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

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

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

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

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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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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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…

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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?

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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.

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