'What I do is me: for that I came.' G M Hopkins

Monday, October 16, 2017

Birds and Babies

Back in my little heron house after another overseas trip, I am minded of the changing seasons. I can now see Scrabo Tower clearly as Ophelia dances across the fields tossing her hair, leaving trees reaching after her with their bare arms. The roads are awash with mud as tractors trudge their weary way home with the remains of the harvest. The mornings struggle to get out of bed and the sun seldom makes an appearance at all.
The weather was similar in Cape Town last week.  There it is the end of winter and the wet is welcome in a time of severe drought. My grandson bathes in a few inches of water and it lies in the bath all the next day so that they can use it to flush the toilets.  A long dry summer lies ahead for my daughter and her family, but it is impossible to feel sorry for them living in Cape Town, sitting as it does in spectacular scenery dominated by the beautiful Table Mountain.  Their home is in Bellville and they overlook the Door de Kraal recreational dam which is teeming with life.  Across the road is the Majik Forest where the pathway is bordered by young trees with magical names, planted by woodland lovers or in memoriam: milk wood, stink wood, ironwood, the sausage tree and my favourite, the boer-bean bastard saffron. There I encountered my heron, or one very similar, preening himself on the riverbank.
We walked round the dam most days and I was enchanted by the profusion of arum lilies growing wild, each one a milky white bowl upturned like a chalice.  

Spectacular red-eyed Egyptian geese and their babies waddled in the shallows and fussing along under our feet were hundreds of guinea fowl, with their comical mottled square bodies and blue heads, as stupid as their farmyard cousins. Most wonderful of all, however, were the weavers, abundant in their fluorescent colours which flashed through the rushes.  I was excited when one paused for a few seconds swaying on a reed nearby. It was a southern red bishop, brilliant in its orange and black feathers and busy, busy, busy. 

A much larger bird is the hadeda ibis which foraged in groups in the grass. An ugly grey bird in the distance, his plumage has an iridescent sheen, almost like purple scales which reflect the light close up.  The problem with this bird is its call, extremely loud and distinctive and much too like the cry of a baby. I know because I was lying awake listening and in the early morning it was impossible to distinguish which was which.
I was in Cape Town to mark the arrival of our seventh grandchild, a second son for Willem and Maria.  Little Edward Richard was born six weeks ago and I flew out to meet him and reconnect with his big boetie, Sebastian.  A new baby brings joy mixed with sleep deprivation so that the joy is temporarily diluted in exhaustion.  Willem is also studying in the wee hours and in the evenings so the pressure is on.  I was reminded while there of the gift that a new baby is. I knitted a sleeveless pullover for Teddy and left him a little card with God’s promise that he was knitted together in his mother’s womb. He is a gorgeous tiny boy, thriving on his mother’s milk and starting now to settle into something like a routine. It has been a rough few weeks for them, separated as they are from both families, but they are strong and the blessing of the God who made and gave them Teddy bear is on them.  Sebastian’s favourite phrase is, ‘It’s so huge, Granny’ and it is: God’s love for them is so huge.

On my return journey, I was delayed in Cape Town airport for five hours.  There was some consolation to be had from the array of blue and silver Christmas trees which lined the concourse. ‘Tis nearly the season, and we’ll be back!

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Symbols of Change #410

Sunrise on Anna Maria Island
'Where morning dawns and evening fades, you call forth songs of joy.'
I have a reputation for running. It's inherited. My mother often complained that when my father got out of the car he just took off. In Africa the sellers who laid out their wares in the car park of the shopping precinct used to call after me, 'Always running!'  Every year I resolved not to run in the corridors, but failed.  I thought I walked quickly, but I can barely keep up with my daughter who when she was studying in Edinburgh skipped up and down those hills like a gazelle.
Years ago when I was at university a well-meaning person took me aside and advised me to take it easy. She even gave me a copy of Chuck Girard's record (vinyl the first time round) called Slow Down and for ages I was haunted by the tune, the long drawn-out notes and the injunction to, 'Be still, my child.'
We all intend to slow down - when we finish uni, when the kids get older, when we have more money, more time.  It's difficult because just as the children are starting to leave the nest, our parents need parenting and then the grandchildren arrive.

So perhaps this is the time for a change of pace.  I have been encouraged by the kind responses to my previous blog but my dear friend DD added his words of wisdom on the whole heron theme. His advice was, 'Fight the glide.'  I love that and I certainly don't want to slow down so much that I stagnate and lose any sense of purpose.
Wood Stork
So what I want to do is to slow just long enough to notice. My not-so-secret crush is the comedian Peter Kay. I love his observational style of humour - putting into words what everyone saw but no one noticed. That's what writing is. I have just read Doris Lessing's autobiography Under my Skin and I was fascinated by her account of growing up in the bush in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe).  She says that writing,
'takes the raw, the individual, the uncriticised, the unexamined, into the realm of the general.'
I think that this amounts to asking questions.  So here's today's question: Do squirrels eat mangoes?
I pondered this as I noticed two squirrels squabbling on the high wire, neither of whom was willing to give way. Then one of them hurled himself into the mango tree that abutted the path and dislodged one of the fruit onto the grass. Nearby were several half-chewed mangoes with their juicy, orange insides hanging out. A mystery.
Bird of Paradise
What else did I notice today?  Two wild green parrots with one nestling her head against the other's neck. Pillow talk, I'm sure.  An osprey waiting above me to pounce on prey for his chicks that I could hear calling from their nest on the spire of the Gloria Dei church. Lots of wonderful birds on the roof of #410 71st Street, especially the great egret, stepping out like a beautiful bride, coy and demure.  And in the Gulf, the huge brown pelican plunging into the ocean and the black skimmer slurping in the shallows for her young nestled in the white sands nearby.  I can only say that I wouldn't have noticed them, the sunrise and sunset, the gorgeous bird of paradise or the ugly wood stork had I stayed indoors. 
Great Egret
DD says he is not interested in crosswords, 'Why would words want to be  boxed in like that?'
Here's to the outdoors, slowing down and noticing. This week I saw a guy wearing a t-shirt that said:
Think outside. There is no box.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Symbols of Change

I’m back on the lovely Anna Maria Island in Florida for two weeks.  It’s July and it’s hot. Too hot. But in the early mornings, as the sun rises, there is a white light that envelops those who run and walk while there is still air to breathe.

Against one side of the island laps the Gulf of Mexico, warm and weedy after storms.  On the other side, there are the marinas housing the many crafts that swarm in these waters. ‘The sound of money,’ remarked one man to me as yet another vessel sped past churning up the sea, its engine drowning out the laugher of the beautiful people hanging off the sides.  Somehow I thought of Daisy Buchanan and her voice that sounded like money.

I thought of her again when I found one of my ‘boys.’ I was walking along Marina Drive just as the sun was rising. I stopped to watch an Ibis poking his curved red bill into the soil in search of breakfast when ‘he’ swooped towards me and settled on one of the marina’s posts nearby. I was transfixed.  A gorgeous tall blue heron, distant cousin to the local variety that have come to mean so much to me in recent months.  I could almost have reached out and touched him and I felt a frisson of joy when he looked straight at me and held my gaze.
They’re all different. Birds. On a nearby rooftop, lured by a pond, rested a collection of other Florida familiars: several snowy egrets tossed their punk-like hair while two wood storks, a ‘threatened’ species, hunched over in a sulk, looking down their long beaks at their unlikely pink feet. They struck me as ugly: two veterans, old before their time.  At almost 60, I don't want that to be me.

The heron, in contrast, is elegant and poised.  He elongates his neck and balances like a ballerina en pointe. It is his stillness that delights and draws me, however, as I come to the end of a busy term and, moreover, my teaching career.  All through the difficult winter of decision making, the heron stood as a symbol of waiting and watching, of quiet and content amidst the other voices.

I remember the day in Victoria Park when my grandson Finlay and I came across seven or more herons lazing on a mud bank. It was a rare warm and sunny spring day and I amused Finlay by inviting him to lie down on the grass with me.  We lay together like snow angels without the snow, making shapes in the grass and ignoring the stares of strangers.  Why do we sometimes need the excuse of small children to do something spontaneous and silly?  Little did he know, but Finlay was sharing a moment, an epiphany. It’s ok to not know what’s ahead. It’s good to take time out to reflect, to think, to imagine and dream. Teachers have all the answers, but at present I have none. It’s back to nature: to the birds and the trees and the sky and the stars for me. Back to noticing and wondering and hoping.

My heron stood absolutely still. They can do this for hours. Wasting time – being the herons they were born to be, without rush or regret. At the base of his beautiful neck hangs a flapper-like fringe, silky and delicate. Daisy Buchanan again, except that she was never still and cried out in frustration:

“What’ll we do with ourselves this afternoon…and the day after that, and the next thirty years?” (The Great Gatsby)
I don’t know the answer to that, but I’m with Wendell Berry on this one:

When despair for the world grows in me
And I wake in the night, at the least sound 
In fear at what my life, and my children’s lives may be
I go and lie down where the wood drake 
Rests in his beauty on the water 
And the great heron feeds. 
I come into the peace of wild things, 
Who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief.
I come into the presence of still water. 
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
Waiting with their light. For a time 
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
(The Peace of Wild Things)

Friday, July 17, 2015

Mademoiselle Marron

I have said au revoir to the gorgeous French village of Labastide Esparbaïrenque.  This week away on my own was a wonderful gift from the man who loves me so well.  I stayed for a week at a creative retreat where writers write and painters daub inside the studio or en plein air.  Of ‘plein air’ there was plenty.  Every day I walked through the forests and mountains enjoying the peace ‘dropping low’ to borrow from Yeats. 
I have been borrowing many words this week – from my parents, my teachers, authors, poets, my family and friends, all of whose voices are in my head: hymns, sayings, quotations platitudes, colloquialisms.  They’re all there spilling onto the page and I am wondering which voice is mine.  Wondering but not worrying, because this time has not been about producing something but becoming something: me.
When my mother was in her seventies, she revealed a latent talent for watercolours.  I bought her all the gear: the brushes, the paints and the paper but although she dabbled a bit she was singularly stubborn about it.  She just stopped bothering and I stopped asking.  I knew what was amiss.  Painting was not useful, productive, spiritual, as far as she was concerned.  She could not give herself permission to do something just for the fun of it.  Methodists did not do fun.  I feel sad when I think of it.

A wise woman asked me earlier this year what I would do with a day off to myself.  Initially I couldn’t think of anything I would like to do. For most women it’s the same:  a day off means a day to catch up with washing, ironing, cleaning, serving.  We have become an army of homemakers, wives and mothers - always doing for others and seldom taking time to develop our own creativity.  I finally said, ‘Writing. I’d like to write,’ and thus began a journey that has led to Labastide.  For many years I have been writing and editing others people’s stuff and now it is time for me.  The greatest gift I can give my children and grandchildren is not a body of work, written or otherwise, but a model of more and more becoming. 

On my last day I walked down into the next village of Roquefère.  No shops, just a cluster of houses and an auberge. The river winds its way through picturesque jardins ouvriers overshadowed by the mountain terraces.  I sat in at La Fenial, gîte and saladerie, and ate a delicious crêpe filled with crème de marrons. Sweet chestnuts to you and me.  Delicious cloying brown puree with soft pieces of nut that get in your teeth and linger on the tongue.  The proprietor was Anne-Marie and we managed a conversation in broken English and even more broken French.  ‘J’étais Mademoiselle Chestnutt,’ I said proudly and bought a jar to take home.

The walk down had taken only fifteen minutes but it took me an hour and a half to get back.  I tried to go off road and navigate my way up the hill by the river and the sound of the bell, but although I walked through beautiful fruit groves: apples, apricots and figs, I got lost.  It was hot and not for the first time I was caught in the dilemma of needing to drink and needing to pee.  Finally, I found my way back up to the road where I met famous Dutch soprano and author, Judith Mok, walking along singing at the top of her lungs. 
My room was called Calliope which means ‘beautiful-voiced.’ She was the daughter of Zeus and she taught Orpheus how to sing and charm the rivers and stubborn mountain rocks with his lyre.  She is usually pictured with a writing tablet or roll of paper in her hand.  Whether inspired by the mountains or the muse, I felt that last week I heard the whisper of a voice that may be mine. 

Montagne Noir is dotted with crosses, mostly wrought iron set in stone.  Shrines by the side of the path where people have set pebbles – requests, longings, prayers.  I chose a piece of beautiful brittle amber slate and set it beside the others. A thank you for the gift.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Book of Dad

I was amused to hear a report on Radio 4 this week about three men who travelled from London to Glasgow to leave 3,000 blank postcards in railway stations, shopping centres, restaurants and bars.  They were from the company 'Book of Everyone' and the postcards they left behind were stamped and addressed to their office.  The stunt was part of a project to allow children of all ages to send anonymous messages, 'What I never told my dad' to their fathers in order to create a personalised Father’s Day book.

Responses ranged from shocking secrets to poignant tributes:   'I fancied the woman you had an affair with'; 'I’m pregnant and, yes, Dave is the dad'; 'The weird smell in your office wasn’t mice – it was me peeing behind the desk'; 'Dad, I know you are on Tinder'; 'Dad, I voted Conservative'; 'I’ve tried to find a husband to match up to you and failed.'

It got me thinking.  I know someone who might want to confess to peeing behind the curtains in the assembly hall of a certain Holywood Grammar School; someone who snuck out and went to a night club when her parents thought she was in bed; someone who sat in the cinema every afternoon instead of going to Tech; someone who was not allowed to go to the pictures so said he was visiting a friend called 'Bugsy Malone.'

But that would be telling tales.  My own confession? 

'I took off all my clothes for the boy across the road for comics.'

You see we couldn’t afford comics and it seemed a fair exchange to my eight-year-old self at the time.  Looking back, I was fortunate that my naughtiness didn’t end in tears. Well, actually it did.  I never got the comics!  What amazes me to this day is how my father knew to come over the road just after the event and why he told me never to play there again. I thought he was totally ignorant of the bad influence.

Experience teaches that parents know rightly, although I am still uncovering secrets from my own offsprings' pasts.  I found out years later that when my eldest daughter burnt her hand on the way to her first A level exam, it was not in fact her sister’s fault.  An accident with a box of matches was blamed when the minx was actually smoking in the car and caught a falling cigarette in her palm

I am in possession of a Book of Dad – my dad.  A few years before he died he wrote down all of his war memories and I typed them up into a treasured volume which we called 'One Man’s War.'   He was a wireless operator flying in Lancaster bombers and his account includes details of no fewer than thirty-two bombing missions over enemy territory.  

Stuttgart, Kiel, Paullae, Stetten, Russelheim, Frankfurt, Leeuwarden, Essen…he records a long list of European towns where he and his crew dropped bombs.  Although their targets were mainly in industrial heartlands, however I think of it I cannot escape the fact that my father was responsible for the deaths of many people.  When you drop bombs on someone’s head you cannot even call it 'indirectly' responsible.  He did it and was proud of it. 

On one occasion he bailed out of a burning plane – thankfully not over enemy territory.  Sitting on the edge of the hole he promised an invisible God that if he got out alive he would become a believer and serve him for the rest of his life.  He survived and became a preacher and a fisher of men.  We didn’t have a TV for most of my growing up and when we finally did get one we were definitely not allowed to watch the silver screen on the Sabbath.  Yet I can recall coming home late one Sunday evening when I was in my teens to discover my father glued to the box.  He was watching the film The Dambusters and reliving his days of terror seated high in the Astra Dome with 100 Squadron.
What strikes me now is that my father was only 18 when he joined up.  He spent the next four years flying both during the war and afterwards in India, Burma and Ceylon (Sri Lanka) with Transport Command.  Most wars are fought by teenagers – they give their best years when others are going to university or starting careers.  When he was demobbed he left with his civvies, a meagre gratuity and memories of comrades lost.
I still meet people who found life through his preaching and his loving pastoral care. He died too young 30 years ago, but he is still my hero.  In the words of poet, Wendell Berry, I am 'the inheritor of what I mourned.' My dad has shaped so much of who I am and he is still here in every moment when I struggle to overcome and to become who I am meant to be. I wish I had half of his courage and determination, but he is always before me as an example of what it means to fight the good fight and finish well.

So what would I say to him now, on Father’s Day?  Thank you for fighting for me, long before you met my mother or knew my name.  Thank you for surviving and for showing me what it means to be wholly dedicated to hope.  Thank you for being such a shining example of godly kindness and generosity of spirit.  Thank you for introducing me to Jesus, in whom you now sleep.  Oh, and I did find a husband to match up to you – another wonderful dad.

'We are what we have lost.' (Wendell Berry)