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

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Heart's Skin

I have been a parent for thirty-four years and I am the grandmother of seven darlings but this week, for the first time, I had a little one in bed with me all night.

When the man and I were getting engaged someone gave us a piece of advice: 'Never allow your children to sleep between you in the bed.' That seemed ok to us and was consistent with the good parenting practices of our peers. In fact, we didn't even have our babies in the room with us.  They slept next door in a cosy smaller room where I went to feed. I breastfed them all for a year and so have no regrets about bonding, but the received wisdom now is that babies need to be close - all the time. This looks as exhausting as it sounds. My daughters carry their babies next to their bodies and sacrifice their sleep to reassure them during the night.

The man is away in Pakistan, Bethany was camping with her two eldest in a pod at Castlewellan lake so I agreed to have her eighteen-month-old baby overnight.  Jasper Nathanael is grandchild #5. In the daylight hours he is the cutest, sweetest little boy, trotting along behind his big brother and sister, joining in their mischief: climbing trees, exploring woodlands and wetlands, jumping in puddles, jumping in the sea and happily playing in all kinds of muck. He is joyful child with a sunny disposition and an inscrutable smile. When he turns his brown eyes on me, my heart melts.

Come the midnight hour, however, he turns into a werewolf.  When you put him down to sleep he goes from nought to distraught in seconds, howling to the moon like one of the abandoned infants of Shakespeare and so many fairy tales. His heart-rending wail is impossible to ignore. I tried sitting in the dark patting his back until the sobs settled and the breathing was steady, but as soon as I stood up to sneak out of the room he lifted his strawberry blonde curls and fixed me with a look that said, 'Don't you dare!'

So I brought little Jasper into bed with me, where he slept soundly till morning. I did not! He is a wriggler. He stays still for a few minutes and then lifts his whole body and hurls himself through ninety degrees to lie at right angles, his head hanging dangerously close to the edge of the bed. I dozed fitfully, my hand clutching his sleep suit to save him from falling.  The sleep deprivation was worth it, however; for one night only, I might add! It was a joy to cuddle my beautiful boy because he is in my heart.

In the car the next day I listened to Poetry Please on Radio 4. Viral poet, Hollie McNish, had selected her favourite poems and I wept as I listened to this one by Hull great grandmother, Norah Hanson:
They come into your life, naked,
vulnerable, a mighty force you
have no defence against. They
cry you to attention, graft their
desires on your heart, take sleep
and reason from you and cast
a spell on you which you can't
or won't break.
They strengthen their hold with
every passing year, grafting their
joys and sorrows onto the throbbing
pulse of your life, and their children,
and their children, graft on the grafts
of generations until your heart's skin
is patched and stretched and aching
with the love and hurt they bring you.

This week I also heard the fabulous Aslan singing, Crazy World, and I cried some more:

'How can I protect you in this crazy world?
It's all right, it's all right.'

Friday, January 26, 2018

A Different Kind of Psalty

It was Christmas morning in Nature’s Valley in the Eastern Cape, South Africa. The rain poured down as we walked to the community hall nestling in the trees. It was 7 am and we wanted to make it to the early church service delivered in both English and Afrikaans. We sang alternate verses of carols and I did my best using A level German pronunciation – not quite right, but as close as I could manage: ‘Ons buig in blye aanbidding’ (O come let us adore him) ‘Verlosser en Heer!’ I held my newest grandson, four-month-old Teddy, in my arms and sang praise for new birth and hope. Alternate verses in different languages is just about right for him, with an Irish mother and an Afrikaans father. Big boetie, Sebastian (3), is fluent in both and, recognising the sense of worship and thankfulness, he asked if this was 'a different kind of Psalty'.
Willem, Maria and Sebastian
The American singing songbook accompanied us and our four children when we lived in Zimbabwe and travelled to South Africa in the school holidays. On one occasion we drove the twenty-four hour journey from Bulawayo to Cape Town, where my daughter now lives, and it is wonderful to hear the old songs again and see the same calming effect on my grandchildren.
Nature’s Valley is an absolutely beautiful place. A steep road descends through the mountain into lush forest floor dotted with holiday homes surrounded by indigenous plants. It is a conservation area on the edge of the Tsitsikamma National Park housing bush buck and leopard in bountiful Fynbos undergrowth. Tsitsikamma is a Khoisan word meaning 'place of much water' and although it was not safe to dip in the churning ocean, I loved swimming in the brackish waters of the lagoon, like bathing in cold tea - the amber colour drawn from the roots and minerals in the surrounding hills. We stayed there for two weeks with my son-in-law’s family – a generous, warm-hearted house party with at least 16 people staying and many more stopping by on their way through. The heart of the house is the stoep, where people gather for coffee and rusks in the early morning, collapse after a swim or a sup (stand-up paddle board) and congregate in the evening for G&Ts, good conversation and the inevitable braai or potjie. There we stood breathless and watched as a pair of magnificent green loeries swooped down and perched on the wooden rail with a surprising flash of vermillion.
South African loerie
The stoep is the place of stories: how many dolphins, how strong the current or how long the cycle ride. Everyone brings their own flavour to the feast: the surgeon who told of how no one is allowed so much as a whisper while the heart patient is under the knife; the farmer’s brother who described a bush fire which destroyed acres of Knysna; the Polish girl who raved about boiled cabbage and the accountant who caught someone fiddling the books. We laughed together and shared each other’s lives, but the most special moments were when we stood together holding hands and gave thanks before we ate: for holidays, for friends, for food and for family.
Teddy bear
It behoves travellers to educate themselves about the places they visit. While the man took himself on The Great Trek Uncut, I have been on A Passage to Africa with George Alagiah, in a personal intimate portrait of the continent during his time as a foreign correspondent with the BBC. He traces its wars and sorrows in the countries where he worked, from the new dawn when Ghana first achieved independence to the more recent hopes for a rainbow nation in South Africa. He is unwavering in his harsh judgement of both the black leaders who disappointed their people and the white rulers who failed to accept personal responsibility for their blindness and greed. He describes Africa as a blighted continent but also imagines how the knarled and twisted baobab trees of Zimbabwe have seen it all and do not despair because no condition is permanent and Africa is stronger than she looks. Nkosi sikele Africa.
Before leaving Africa, we returned for a few days to the windy city. We traversed the southern tip of the continent along the Voortrekker Road through the mountains with their haunches bent together like huge giants huddled in a rugby scrum. We visited a wine farm at Boschendal where I found this amazing metal wire sculpture of Ouma Sarah, sitting on the vertebrae of a whale and musing on the lives of her offspring yet unborn. The book lying beside her is open at the following poem:

It's 3.23 in the morning
and I'm awake
because my great great grandchildren won't let me sleep
my great great grandchildren
ask me in dreams
what did you do when the planet was plundered
what did you do when the earth was unravelling
surely you did something when the seasons started falling?
as the mammals, reptiles, birds were all dying?
did you fill the streets with protest
when democracy was stolen?
what did you do
once you knew?
(Drew Dellinger)
Ouma Sarah
Cape Town sits cradled where the mountains sweep down to the sea like our own beloved Mournes. The stark difference is that in Northern Ireland water is in plentiful supply. The Western Cape is in the grip of severe drought. My son-in-law is digging a dry toilet in his back garden because there is now no question of showers or flushing the loo. It is reckoned that Cape Town will finally run out of water by 12 April, already declared 'day zero' and will make history as the first modern metropolis to exhaust its clean water reserves. Very soon there will be one tap per five thousand people and my daughter will have to queue for her allocated 25 litres. ‘How will I carry it?’ she wailed on the phone. ‘On your head, of course,’ I replied. She is dreading the moment when nothing at all comes out of the taps. I am preparing the guest room!
Like Ouma Sarah, I am concerned about what we are doing with the world. These are, indeed, troubled times. Apparently Yeats’ poem The Second Coming has been quoted more in newspapers in the past twelve months than in the previous thirty years: ‘Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.’ The only antidote I know to the fear that this engenders is another wise man’s assertion that: ‘Jesus is before all things, and in him all things hold together.’ Or as Psalty sings,
‘Anytime I don’t know what to do, I will cast all my cares upon you.’

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.