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

Sunday, December 19, 2010

If you believe...

We had a party last night and thirty guests struggled through the snow, thunder and lightning to enjoy a sup of mulled wine with us. Ladies were wearing little black dresses and colourful wellies! My husband kept the drinks cold in the outdoor fridge.

It’s the Sunday before Christmas so in church we had the usual mixture of children dressed as shepherds, special readings and video presentations about how no one knows who Jesus is any more. Our roving reporter talked to children and asked them if they could give a gift to Jesus, what would it be?

In my lifetime I have received some absolutely amazing gifts from a husband whose language of love is wonderful surprises. There was the time he presented me with a tiny toy red helicopter and announced that we were flying over the Grand Canyon for my 50th birthday, and the time I opened the door to a smartly dressed gentleman carrying a bouquet to which were attached the keys of a mini convertible – also red. One Christmas I opened a box on which was scrawled ‘Just like the song’ and inside was a dress – yes, you guessed it, red again! People often say he looks like Chris de Burgh – so that made sense at the time.

But my favourite present was two Christmases ago when he told me to close my eyes and led me through a door into my own room. My own room! I have always wanted my very own space since watching an episode of the Cosby Show. Mrs Cosby got her own room containing nothing but a phone and she chatted to her friends behind a locked door without interruption. As a busy mother of four, I often longed for a room where I could disappear, preferably without a phone, where I could read and have some me time. Well it happened! I love my room and on the wall there hangs a painting by one of our favourite artists, Paul Horten. In it a wizard dressed in a blue robe walks through deep snow towards a small two-storey house with a curved wooden door. You can’t see if it is occupied but there is a plume of blue smoke which promises a warm fire and a welcome. It’s called The Hideway and that’s what I call my room – the place where I weep, think and pray, remonstrate with myself for mistakes made and resolve to do better.

I’ll probably make my New Year’s resolutions here – no doubt the same one I made and broke last year – not to run in the corridors. I'm always in a hurry and even when I’m quiet, inside the corridors of my mind I’m still running. Today in church, our friends Nick Koch and Peter Wilson (aka Duke Special) sang Duke’s version of Silent Night. To the traditional words he added:

Here comes the noise that fills up the silence
Here come the voices who steal my peace…

It’s about to be busy – I’m going to need a hideaway when everyone gets home. That’s if they ever do. Big son, who hasn’t had great travel success this year, has given up on flying and has taken the train to Liverpool where he will board a ferry to Dublin. Long lost daughter and son-in-law are in the air between Jo’burg and Dubai and are about to discover that coming home after 18 months in Africa may not be as easy as it seems.

Snow is a theme in Horten’s work. On our 30th wedding anniversary when my husband was on tour in the US he left me another special painting. This time two children, a boy and girl hand-in-hand, trudge through a white landscape. They are passing a house and from the window the wizard is watching. The painting is called If you Believe. A very young friend told me today that it’s six sleeps till Santa. Christmas is a time to believe and hope that the adventure in the snow is not over. I love its thick silence. Perhaps it will slow us all down so that we can feel the peace.
'Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?'
By the way, guess what colour the girl in the picture is wearing?

Saturday, December 11, 2010

First Times

I commanded a Year 11 boy to stand looking out of the classroom window for an entire period last week. He has recently come to the school from Australia and it was snowing! I thought it would do his heart good to watch snowflakes fall for the first time. We have been reading nature poetry from the new GCSE syllabus. It’s horrific! Gone are the Binsey Poplars and the ‘host of golden daffodils’ and in their place we have living lambs with their tongues torn out by foxes and badger baiting!

We all needed our souls restored so I read them Hopkins’ Pied Beauty – an explosion of wonder for all things ‘counter, original, spare, strange’. Like GM, we used to see nature as an expression of the Creator:

Whatever is fickle, freckled…
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him.

Now it’s like reality TV in verse: nature in all her raw cruelty.

A year ago this month my mother fell and broke her hip leading to six weeks in hospital. She died as the old year tipped into the new. This is my first Christmas without either of my parents. I think of them often. Yesterday I travelled up north through the slush to visit my father’s elderly brother and sister. I drove past the original family farm where my grandparents raised seven sons and three daughters. It sits just shy of the majestic north coast above Whiterocks. I scrambled down the hill and walked along the beach – the sand so hard that my footprints were barely visible.

I love the sea. There’s nothing like the Atlantic for rugged beauty. During years living in a landlocked country I longed for the taste of salt on my lips and the thunder of its roar. As I walked the amazing rock structures towered above me, very like the cliffs at Dover. The tide was coming in and the eager waves licked the sand, leaving blobs of white spittle bubbling at my feet. The sea breeze on my face was icy cold – invigorating.

I pictured the young Chestnutt boys playing on the beach and digging in the sand before some went off to war to fight and the others dug for victory. I thought how the waves pounded the shoreline when my father was alive and will continue to do so when I am dead. My parents are gone and I felt small and sad. I was glad of the salt spray on my face; it mingled with the tears. Thank God for poetry.

Break, break, break,
On thy cold gray stones, O Sea!
And I would that my tongue could utter
The thoughts that arise in me.

O well for the fisherman's boy,
That he shouts for his sister at play!
O well for the sailor lad,
That he sings in his boat on the bay!

And the stately ships go on
To their haven under the hill;
But O for the touch of a vanished hand,
And the sound of a voice that is still!

Break, break, break
At the foot of thy crags, O Sea!
But the tender grace of a day that is dead
Will never come back to me.

Alfred Lord Tennyson

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Not Ashamed

Get the advent calendar out – the countdown to Christmas has begun! And so has the annual battle about its significance.

In the red corner we have George Carey, former Archbishop of Canterbury, speaking on behalf of Christian Concern for our Nation (CCFON) who has declared that 1st December is Not Ashamed Day and has encouraged Christians to ‘Wear their Faith with Pride this Christmas’. He says that Christians are feeling beleaguered in an increasingly secular society and need to come out and declare loudly what they believe – citing the positive influence Christianity has had in our schools, laws, hospitals and history.

In the blue corner is Christopher Hitchens, journalist, writer and polemicist who made the news this week when he met Tony Blair, a late convert to Catholicism, in a debate in Toronto. The motion was that ‘Religion is a force for good in the world’. Hitchens is a devout atheist who dared to criticise even Mother Theresa for failing to empower the very women she purported to save by denying them the means ie abortion and contraception to take control of their lives and escape poverty. In opposition, he cited the negative influence religion has had in our laws, history…

He was also interviewed for this week’s Newsnight by Jeremy Paxman where he lambasted organised religion and the notion that life has meaning or purpose, saying that the Bible, Torah and Koran are ‘depraved works of man-made fiction’.

So who cares what he thinks? I do. I was fascinated by one phrase he used: ‘We are created sick yet commanded to be well.’ This was his summary of the gospel and as someone who was a season ticket holder for gospel rallies up and down the country, I thought this was pretty accurate.

The thing is, though, Christopher Hitchens is sick – really sick. He is suffering from cancer of the oesophagus, which has already spread to the lymph nodes and the lungs. He has described life as a ‘losing struggle’ and he is almost certainly losing his. It’s always important to listen to the words of a dying man, whether you agree with him or not. He does have regrets - living a ‘bohemian and rackety life’ for one and, surprisingly, being too soft on Robert Mugabe. He said that he feels a sense of waste because he’s ‘not ready’. Paxman asked him about Pascal’s Wager – that even if you cannot prove the existence of God by reason you should live as if you have faith because if you lose, you’ll never know. To his credit, Hitchens resisted the temptation to ‘bet’ on God. He does, however, have a speech prepared for the eventuality that he will have to face a tribunal in which he appeals to the judge on the basis that he was at least honest and true to what he believed, or rather didn’t believe.

I’m with Scrooge on this. Last week we had our school play: A Christmas Carol in-the-round with angelic choristers, Victorian costumes and the young fiddler plunging his face into a bowl of porter to the amusement of everyone at Fezziwig’s Ball. Children screamed at the ghost of Jacob Marley, resplendent in chains which represent his past sins, the weight of which he is condemned to carry eternally. But why did he come back?

Hitchens feels that his untimely death will somehow betray his family and friends. Marley obviously felt the same and that he could atone for his by warning his former business partner about the fate to come. After much, ‘Bah humbug!’ Scrooge sees the light, literally coming under the door, which finally leads to his repentance, ‘reclamation’ and transformation. It’s great for teaching similes – he’s as light as a feather, as happy as an angel, as merry as a schoolboy, as giddy as a drunken man. Interestingly he also says, ‘I’m quite a baby.’ All the soul-destroying, life-sucking cynicism has left him and he is delighted to be different.

He promises to keep Christmas ‘in his heart’. Hitchens refuses to accept the words of mere mortals, as did Scrooge who could not be persuaded by his nephew. He needed a visitation. We all do. In the face of real revelation we become like children again – like a baby, because Jesus did.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Pimp my Poppy

I heard on the news this week that a student from Reading was arrested for hurling a fire extinguisher at the police during the demonstrations in London protesting against the hiking of university tuition fees. I have to admit that my son is at least in part to blame. He is a student in Reading, although thankfully not among those arrested. He was responsible, however, for inciting other students to join the protests via the university’s campus radio station. He has a slot on Monday evenings from 5.30-7.00 pm. You can catch it online at junction11.rusuhost.co.uk and go to Listen Live. The week before last I distinctly heard him issue a rallying call to his fellow students to march on the capital and exercise their democratic right (he’s doing Law) to make their voices heard. You may have seen it on TV – hundreds of young people pushing forward in a cause.

Just like at the front in WW1, on the battlefields and in the skies in WW2 and, as we speak, in Afghanistan. Young men who take up arms to defend that very freedom to speak out in protest. It’s armistice weekend and I always feel very sad when I remember those who fought and died in the war which was not so great. I am deeply moved by the sacrifice of so many local young men at the Somme in WW1 but fifty years closer to home I think of my father.

On Thursday morning, I attended a short remembrance service at the school in which I teach and watched the head boy lead a squad of young ATC cadets in a march through the assembly hall to lay a wreath. The names of past pupils who died in WW2 were read out and the Last Post sounded eerily though the corridors. I could see my father in those boys in blue and I wept as I realised that he was only fifteen when war was declared. He was working on the family farm in the townland of Ballymagarry near Whiterocks and he desperately hoped that the war wouldn’t be over before he could ‘get out there and fight’. For him the nearest ‘big smoke’ was Portrush; he’d never even been to Belfast! There was no conscription in N Ireland so young Robert volunteered in the fight against facism and went to England to train as a wireless operator. Finally, still a teenager he got his wish and flew in many bombing raids over Germany in Lancasters.

On a night-time training mission the plane in which he was flying caught fire and the command came to bale out. This young farmer’s boy sat on the edge of the black hole and made a pact with God: he promised that if he ‘got out of this’ he would become a Christian and serve God for the rest of his life. And God was listening! Dad’s boots were whipped off by the rushing air but he landed safely in his stocking soles in a ploughed field in the middle of the night. He walked to a nearby farmhouse where the people took him in and made contact with his base. After demob, that young man ‘got saved’ in a tiny meeting house and became a City Missionary in Belfast and then a lay-pastor in Newtownards, devoting his life to visiting the sick, serving the needy and rescuing ‘down and outs’. We didn't have a 'devil's silver screen' until I was in my teens and then my father was adamantly against watching TV on a Sunday. However, I do recall him making a single exception when wanted to see The Dambusters. He died on the job on November 12 1984 - the anniversary always falls on this armistice weekend. I salute his courage and conviction and the bravery of all those who didn’t come home.

Sadly, not all young men are heroes. A group of accountants and experts in things financial made the headlines this week. They work for the distinguished firm Price Waterhouse Cooper in Dublin and were described as ‘pricks with calculators’ for sending out an email which invited colleagues to ‘rate’ the new batch of female interns for ‘personal attractiveness’. They exchanged head shots of these girls which made the rounds of banks and law firms in Dublin then into the tabloids and, of course, onto the internet. The men in question have been suspended and the company has apologised. The beautiful, smart women are mostly mildly amused. I know because my daughter’s flatmate is one of them and she is staying here this weekend to escape the paparazzi. She has just started as a trainee accountant with PWC and can’t believe that her photograph has been splashed all over the newspapers just because she’s ‘hot’! She and my daughters went out in Belfast last night and people were introducing her as 'one of the top ten'. She is blonde and beautiful but she is also a clever, kind, sensitive young woman who devotes her spare time to working with underprivileged children in the inner city. How dare these ‘ejiits’ give her marks out of ten! There are some who believe that what guys like that need is a good war to make men of them!

I had an absolutely fabulous night this week at the Grand Opera House in Belfast. We were given tickets (thanks Big John) to see the Waterboys presenting An Appointment with Mr Yeats - a musical tribute to one of Ireland’s greatest poets. I had never heard the band before and I was transfixed! Mike Scott looks a bit like Bob Geldof and is a mesmerisingly theatrical performer who sang Yeats with passion, infusing old words with new life. I thought that I might be offended by this sacrilegious treatment of literary treasures but a song is simply poetry put to a tune and Mr Scott’s melodies are as haunting as the lines he lilts. I suppose it’s hard to imagine a Blues version of 'The Lake Isle of Innisfree' but it was so right and I can’t wait for the album in September 2011.

The musicians were equally magnificent and I particularly enjoyed the oboe player Ruby Ashley from the Irish Symphony and the RTE orchestras and the flamingo flautist, Sarah Allen, who stands on one leg when overcome by the power and beauty of the music. They performed a rendition of 'An Irish Airman Foresees his Death'. Like my father, the young man in the poem has left his village of Kiltartan Cross and his countrymen to meet his fate ‘somewhere in the clouds above’. He acknowledges that he is fighting those he does not hate and guarding those he does not love. It’s not duty that bids him fight, but the love of adventure – the desire to live a life of purpose, even if that leads to a premature demise. His greatest fear is not death, but the ‘waste of breath’.

It’s fashionable this year to wear a pimped poppy like the Swarovski limited edition brooch designed by Kleshna – a snip at £84.99 and sported by Dani Minogue et al on The X Factor. Celebrities are in danger of drawing attention to those doing the remembering rather than what they’re supposed to be remembering. I’m wearing the machine cut paper version with the plastic stem today, not simply to remind me not to forget but in celebration of life – my life and my children’s lives because young Robert lived, and also in hope of a future because of the peace he fought to achieve. Many young people have wasted time and talents. But not my dad.

I balanced all, brought all to mind
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.
(WB Yeats)

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Seedtime and harvest

The garden is soggy with wet leaves. It’s official; it’s autumn. I have been exploring Keats’ Ode to Autumn with Year 12. The pupils think he wrote the poem just to torture them, so I assured them that he was not compiling the syllabus for GCSE English Lit but simply screaming out in praise to the ‘season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’. I asked them to learn the first stanza because, whether you’re a banker or a builder, everyone should know these lines of soft consonants and long vowels.

A few weeks ago the man and I took a walk up the field beside the house to watch the huge yellow Holland harvester gobble up swathes of barley, remove the stalks from its teeth and spit the precious, golden seeds into a tall trailer. I climbed up the ladder and sifted the gentle grains through my fingers. I wanted to touch the natural process of seedtime and harvest that goes on around us, largely unheeded.

I love the rhythms of the land. Already those rejected stalks have been curled into bales which rolled slowly down the hill and were carted off. This week the field was ploughed up – long rivulets of warm soil dotted with greedy birds. The earth waiting and resting like the goddess in Keats’ poem ‘sitting careless on a granary floor’ or sound asleep on a half-reaped furrow ‘drowsed with the fume of poppies’. She is the personification of the season, conspiring with the ‘maturing sun’ and waiting patiently by the cider press ‘watching the last oozings hours by hours’.

A friend of mine went to New England in the fall. She and her husband were eager to witness the spectacular display of vibrant reds, ochres and oranges on the undressing trees. However, the seasons were reticent to change and they missed the show. They met an American woman and expressed their disappointment to her. A few weeks later, on a cold Irish morning when my friend’s husband was ill and the future looked bleak, she received a box in the post. It was from their brief acquaintance in the States and it was filled to the brim with colourful autumn leaves!

Autumn is in no hurry. She knows that although she has been stripped bare – of sheaves and leaves, life will return if she can only watch and wait. It’s the resting in the glow of fruit-bearing satisfaction, a hiatus before the time for seeds to bury themselves in the cold ground, invisible but germinating nonetheless. There is a hint of winter in the final lines of the poem when the ‘gathering swallows twitter in the skies’. However, as the sun sets over the ‘stubble-plains’ and the birds prepare to fly south, autumn sings her own songs.

It’s hard to keep singing when the summer’s over and winter looms. In this world of rush, it’s important to take time to do autumn – to give thanks and store up a harvest of praise which will see us through the dearth of winter. As the wise man said there is, ‘A time to plant and a time to uproot.’ And in between there is a time to wait.

I don’t enjoy waiting. I always join the queue that seems to be moving quicker to avoid the misery of standing still. I want to get to the front quickly to find the answers I need and move on. Ghandi said, ‘There is more to life than increasing its speed.’ Stillness is essential as a seedbed of creativity and growth. Sometimes life’s experiences need time to incubate before they can birth something new.

In my nostalgic longing for warmer days and my fear of winter chills, I don’t want to miss out on autumn’s silence.

‘Watching and waiting, looking above
Filled with his goodness, lost in his love.’

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Facing Out

Yesterday, my colleague and I headed off to Dublin in a bus with fourteen A level pupils. We visited the WB Yeats exhibition at the National Library and then went to see Wayne Jordan’s production of The Plough and the Stars by Sean O’Casey in the Abbey Theatre.

As we sat in the auditorium I tried to imagine the scenes at the Abbey in February 1926 when the first production of the play was greeted by riots of a similar kind to those which had greeted Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World in 1907. Then it was the use of the word ‘shift’ on stage that did it but with O’Casey the objection was not moral but political.

The problem started in the second act. Incidentally, did you know that this was originally written as a one act play called The Cooing of Doves? It slotted right into the middle of the story of ‘little red-lipped Nora’ and her husband Jack Clitheroe, who in Act One is sulking because he ‘wasn’t made a captain of’. Act Two opens with the prostitute, Rosie Redmond, setting the scene in the public house. This was shocking enough but provoked nothing like the reaction caused when three men in uniform, Clitheroe (now promoted and in the thick of revolt), Langon and Brennan entered carrying the two flags of the combatant Irish forces: the tricolour of the National Volunteers and the plough-and-stars of the Irish Citizen Army. On the fourth night of the 1926 run there was present a large number of women closely associated with the men who had fought, died or been imprisoned in the 1916 rising. The sight of the flags sparked off massive resistance to what was perceived as an insult to the patriot dead. Women screamed and hurled shoes, they invaded the stage and were thrown into the orchestra, blows were exchanged and one young man swung on the curtain which was being hurriedly lowered. The pandemonium caused a panic among the audience, who dashed for the exits and added to the confusion.

In the days that followed, Yeats gave a public lecture at which he said that the rioters had ‘rocked the cradle of genius’. Just ten years after the Easter Rising, people believed that O’Casey had failed to honour the sacrifice of the Irish heroes. In the current run of the play the bar in Act Two cleverly doubles as the platform for the speaker addressing the crowds gathered on the streets of Dublin in the days leading up to the rising, usually presented as a silhouetted figure in the window. It is he who declares: ‘War is a terrible thing, but war is not an evil thing’ and that Ireland should welcome war as the ‘Angel of God’. Echoing the words of Pádriac Pearse, he justifies rebellion against the British: Ireland, unfree, shall never be at peace.’

The play focuses not on the events in and around the GPO, but on the suffering of a group of people living in poverty in a dirty Dublin tenement. Jack rises to the call and dies an ignominious death, leaving his pregnant wife to grieve the loss of her husband and stillborn baby. In this, as in every conflict, it is the working-class poor who hope for the most and suffer the most. It is the socialist, Young Covey, who closely reflects O’Casey’s own views: ‘If they were fightin’ for anything worthwhile, I wouldn’t mind.’ For exposing the futility of the politicians’ pursuit of lofty ideals in indifference to the plight of the poor, O’Casey was lambasted as bringing a slur on the names of the martyrs. The Easter Rising was over before it had hardly begun and the quick executions of its leaders sowed the seeds of years of bloody conflict in Ireland.

I cannot think of the Easter Rising without remembering a chapter in my own life. I was the ghost writer for a church leader’s memoirs, Paul Reid of Christian Fellowship Church, Belfast. In 1993, the publisher gave it the title A New Easter Rising, rather pretentious I thought, given that the 1916 one didn’t go too well. Portentous, even, because although Paul’s story is a truthful account of his journey into faith and church leadership, CFC also failed to produce what it promised.

The book's origin was in an Easter gathering of churches north and south, Protestant and Catholic, at Mosney called 'Together for the Kingdom'. Great crowds, great worship, great preaching, great everything, apart that is from the amusements which were a health and safety nightmare! In his forward to Paul’s book Roger Forster called this cross-border, cross-community congregation an ‘historic conference’. The declared vision was to see ‘new churches springing up through the length and breadth of Ireland’. In that spirit of hope, Paul predicted that CFC would plant 400 churches in Ireland by 2010, not to mention one in Europe. Paul stuck his neck out in print and I was party to it and we were soon sorry. Paul has had an amazing ministry in Belfast and beyond but to date we have only one church plant in its infancy. Sadly, 'Together for the Kingdom' was also short-lived. In just a few years the event was cancelled amidst murmurings about 'pushy northerners' and cultural differences.

And the lesson? Don’t put your trust in the rallying calls of princes, politicians, or pastors! They cannot, in fact, see into the future and they are often wrong. The Church is not about what we can achieve or build but about facing out towards a hurting world. There has only been one successful Easter rising. On my desk sits a smoothly weathered granite stone from the majestic Matopos Hills in Zimbabwe. On it a friend has written:

He has risen! He is not here.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Into Narnia

It’s been a wet weekend – the kind of rain that’s ‘on for the day’ and makes gardening impossible. There was nothing for it but to tackle some of those inside jobs that have needed doing all summer. Fourteen years ago we packed much of our lives into boxes and headed off to Africa with what we could carry in our car encased inside a forty foot container. What remained was stored in our very own Narnia and some of the boxes haven't been opened since.

At the back of the closet set into the eaves in my son’s bedroom is a door leading into another small room above the front return of the house. It is a perfect place to put the stuff we don’t want anyone to see. It was wet weather that forced the Pevensie children to play hide and seek and led to Lucy’s first adventure through the wardrobe where she met Mr Tumnus and time stood still. As the rain drummed on the roof we ventured at last into the dark recesses to clear away the ‘pruck’.

It’s amazing what memories are released by forgotten treasures: old university files (I’m teaching The Tempest and thought I’d never read it until I found notes on it in my own fair hand!); a copy of Sex in the Real World which I wrote for the Presbyterian youth department; precious drawings penned by our own four at primary school; an entire community of Sylvanian families; a bedraggled owl which fell out of a tree, was resurrected by a taxidermist and then mauled by our puppy; books and books and books and a menagerie of stuffed toys.

I found a tiny pair of red Dunlop wellington boots which I know Joshua wore as a toddler but which didn’t originally belong to him. I can remember it so well. It was 1975. I had gone to a university pre-term weekend in Portrush and the day I was due to leave was also the first anniversary of my romance with ‘little blue Richard’. I looked out of the first floor window of the boarding house where we were staying and there he was leaning out of the car window holding aloft a life size model of Paddington bear wearing a yellow hat, blue duffel coat and, yes, red wellies! In a big box at the back I found poor Paddington, rather the worse for wear and neglect, and he was reunited with his boots.

As for letters and photos and papers and cards! I came across a shoebox containing faded pieces of paper. Among them was the only surviving copy of the constitution of the Spinsters’ Union, convened in the library of Regent House School during a sixth form ‘study period’ when a group of us had no boyfriends. It is hilarious, advocates moderation in all things and eschewing the ‘gross moral turpitude of marital relations’. Club members were not allowed to be seen conversing with the opposite sex without a chaperone and we pledged to wear only skirts that ‘rendered the knees invisible’. I was the president and there were three named members. The document details the misdemeanours of one Pearl Clarke (Miss) whose membership had been withdrawn for yielding to temptation. Of course, in the years that followed, we all embraced marriage as soon as we were asked – one member twice!

Another card that raised a smile contained a poem written by a friend which chronicled an incident that took place a few years into my own marriage. We were holidaying in a caravan in Donegal with two infants and to while away an evening we resorted to playing cards. What happened next went down in history, as the boy who managed to fail A level Geography because he was honing his poker skills at the back of the classroom faced total humiliation.

There was a young couple from Ards
Who fancied a quick game of cards
‘Oh honey,’ she cried,
‘Let’s play some rummy,
And we’ll have a bet on the side.

He said, ‘I’m no choker – let’s play some poker
Where the loser takes off his clothes.
He was so smug, ’cause he thought, ‘She’s a mug,’
So they dealt the first hand fully clothed.

He first lost his shoes, his socks and his sweater,
Next came his shirt and it didn’t get better,
She lost not a hand to the guy from the band,
As her clubs and diamonds they blended
Till he sat there naked as God intended.

If there’s a moral to this saucy tale
Due to desires between male and female,
Don’t play cards with one who’s a prude,
Cause it’ll be a waste of time if you end up in the nude!

I always find that newspapers are much more interesting when they’re spread out on the floor about to be scrunched to set the fire. So it is with the past. It’s been slow going in Narnia as time has stood still and the debris of my life has been strewn at my feet. I have laughed and wept at the years that are gone and wondered what the young woman I was would make of the person I have become. The past probably wasn't as much fun as I remember and the future will look different from what I expect when I get there. Now is all I have. Sue Monk Kidd says that, 'Time isn't a straight line along which we travel, but a deep dot in which we dwell.' Like the children who first discovered Narnia I too want to go ‘further up and further in’.

‘This is your life. Are you who you wanna be?’ Switchfoot

Sunday, September 12, 2010

'Plate of Eyes'

On Friday, I got up just after dawn and emerged bleary-eyed into the misty morning. The air was heavy with damp and auguries of autumn. I donned my daughter’s wellies and plunged into the hedgerows, plastic container in hand, in search of blackberries, my only company a wary driver on the early shift and insomniac insects.

I wasn’t preparing for a crumble with Braeburn apples and cinnamon but collecting a visual aid for a Year 11 poetry class. Good old Seamus Heaney! His own boyhood experiences gathering wild berries have been captured for posterity in his poem Blackberry Picking. He describes the childish enthusiasm of trekking through cornfields and potato drills and collecting blackberries in jam-pots and pea tins. His imagery is alive with colour: ‘a glossy purple clot’; ‘thickened like wine’; ‘summer’s blood was in it’ and ‘the red ones inked up’. By the time I had finished allowing the pupils to taste the pulpy fruit and had squeezed a few berries between my fingers, my palms too were ‘sticky as Bluebeard’s’.

As I reached up and plucked the fruit from the bush I was thinking about what it means to be ripe for picking. The days are shortening and there are red and green berries still on the bush which will never fill up with wine-red colour – it’s too late. The summer is over and they will wither where they hang, some already wrapped in webs and moulding leaves. If we go at life’s experience too hard we can end up with a handful of shrivelled moments which never actually come to anything. Life’s best things take time. Other berries are too ripe with a faintly alcoholic whiff and these bleed onto your fingertips before you can eat them. Like the ‘What ifs?’ and ‘If onlys’ of life their time has passed and they will never be jam.

The blackberry whose time has come is dark and full-bodied and leaves the twig with just a tiny pull of resistance before tumbling gladly into the receptacle - open mouth or pyrex pie dish. It’s ready for anything and will fulfil the purpose for which it was created.

Would that I could do the same! I often feel that I’m green and cowardly or ready too late. Yet I neither want to wither nor go to waste. Seamus and the boys carried their hoard of blackberries to the byre and emptied them into the bath, rushing off for more and more until discovering to their dismay that the fruit was rotting – the feast had decayed before it had even been enjoyed. Heaney recalls his bitter frustration, ‘I always felt like crying.’

At the end of my class, the not-yet-ripe berries lay untouched on the desks, ‘hard as a knot’, or were kicked along the floor, and the rest have been left festering together in the dark on the shelf at the back of the room. Next Friday I will hand the container round again and the pupils will gag at the sour smell of fermenting fruit, gazing in horror at the ‘rat-grey fungus’ which will inevitably form.

I asked the class what they thought the poem was about and one child suggested, ‘Disappointment’. Can life’s disappointments be avoided? Probably not. However, we can try to be alert to all possibilities and say yes more than we say no. If Shrek were a blackberry he would be jumping up and down shouting, ‘Pick me!’

I can’t remember who said how sad it would be if we reached the point of death only to realise that we had never really lived. Let’s seize the day as it comes. Oswald Chambers talks about us being broken bread and poured out wine for other people if we speak and act at the right moment. I suppose that means an alertness to really listen and a willingness to be harvested and crushed so that the juice of kindness flows. Let’s not allow pessimism and fear to rob us of belief. We cannot put our talents in store – now is the accepted time.

‘Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.’

Friday, August 27, 2010

Courage to Contradict

I have a very clever daughter. Well, I actually have three clever daughters but the one I’m thinking of is working in medical research towards her PhD at Trinity College, Dublin.

It’s really interesting. Did you know that there is a group of women known as the Dublin Cohort who were given contaminated Anti D treatment during childbirth which infected them with Hepatitis C for life? Many developed chronic liver disease but others were discovered to be clear of infection years later. The question is how did their immune systems overcome what is an incurable disease? Can the body’s natural killer cells be boosted to counteract infections such as Hep C and HIV? One hundred and seventy million people worldwide currently have Hep C and every one of them would be please to know that there are people like my daughter working long hours in lonely labs looking for new pathways to minimise the side-effects of treatments.

However, smart or not, this aforementioned daughter has gaping holes in her education. I stood with her recently in a well known supermarket as she deliberated in the cleaning products aisle. She gazed in consternation at the colourful bottles on display. She was having difficulty differentiating between detergent, with which to cleanse clothes, and fabric conditioner, with which to separate the tangled weave and leave garments smelling of 'summer breeze infusions with pure oxygen freshness'. Much to my amusement she was genuinely bewildered and admitted that she has never really known which was which. I blame her mother! When she had her head in Chemistry and Maths books I should have been teaching her to hand wash delicates and iron collars and cuffs first. Had I not neglected instruction in the essential art of homemaking she might have been better prepared for important life choices.

The Sunday Times ran a feature in their Style magazine this week detailing advice mothers give to their daughters on how to achieve success and happiness. Apparently formal education cannot teach the life lessons our offspring need to know. Among the ‘Pearls of Wisdom’ imparted by loving mothers to their daughters was the warning to beware of a boyfriend who fits your skinny jeans (because his legs should be bigger than yours) and the injunction to snog at least one man with really long hair!

I was clearing out some of my parents’ papers this week when I came upon their marriage certificate. I was amazed to find my mother’s occupation listed as a ‘domestic’. I had never heard this word used as a noun until we went to live in Zimbabwe where maids were officially known as domestic workers or ‘domestics’ for short. Ours was called Veronicah, or at least we thought that was her name until several months into our relationship she confessed that her name was actually Ronicah but a white woman had mistakenly added the prefix and she had not had the courage to contradict her. We settled on Vero.

My mother was not just domesticated ie a woman with finely tuned skills in polishing, sweeping, cooking, scrubbing and baking but she was a domestic ie a woman who was defined by this homely role. Like many in her generation she never had a paid job outside the home, in spite of a latent longing to be a teacher.

Being a domestic was certainly not bliss in the days before automatic washing machines, microwaves, dishwashers and dysons. Women had few choices and for those like my mum who grew up during the war, there were even fewer as the men went to fight and the women took over jobs on the farm. However, without any ‘ologies’ to her name her spirit was strong enough to break the mould, date a German prisoner of war and be the first in her village to go off to college in Scotland, no less.

Anyway, according to Style magazine I’m going to turn into my mother and my girls are going to turn into me:

‘The daughter of the mother is a total clone, a carbon copy from the elasticated waistband down and the doughy chest up.’

How did they know about my doughy chest? Heaven help them if this is true. I had more opportunities than my mother and I want my girls to climb higher than I. It’s character and courage that count for women. I don’t want to pass on beauty tips to my daughters like ‘a tan fades but wrinkles don’t’ or teach them how to make a fancy cocktail - they can discover those things for themselves. I want them to be strong on the inside, to remember who they belong to and to love people. I want them to have the strength to go for it, to say what their real name is, to stand up for what is right and good, to have the courage of their convictions and to keep on becoming till the end.

In final frustration I explained to my daughter that washing her clothes in Lenor would be like washing her hair with conditioner. Like Archimedes, another nerdy scholar who probably didn’t have detergent or conditioner in his famous bath, Eureka! She got it.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Love thy Neighbour

I stood in the butcher’s the other day and watched him crack pork ribs apart with a meat cleaver. Not unlike a machete, I thought. As he shook the powdered barbeque sauce into the bag my eyes wandered round the market square outside. The place was crowded with Saturday morning shoppers: families with young children by the hand or in buggies; elderly men and women out and about for a few ‘messages’; teenagers lounging on walls in the late summer sunshine watching the world go by. People were eating Cafolla’s ice cream and gazing into shop windows at the ‘Final reductions’ and new school shoes.

Fleetingly, because that’s all I could bear, I allowed my mind to imagine the carnage if suddenly neighbour turned on neighbour to torture and kill – right there in the street while the sun beamed down, with kitchen knives. How long does it actually take to kill a struggling, screaming man with a blade? Where does the killer cut first, and second? How much blood is in one person? A whole family?

Stop right there, I told myself. I paid for the ribs and began to plan the salads for the braai. I stepped back into the square and breathed a sigh of thanks for the normality of it all.

In the week when elections were held in Rwanda, I’ve been reading about the 1994 massacre when possibly one million people were slaughtered in just one hundred days. Some of the horror of it was captured in the film Hotel Rwanda which told the true story of Paul Rusesabagina who sheltered refugees at the Hotel des Mille Collines. He managed to rally all his connections to keep people and his conscience alive.

He and his convoy were among the lucky ones who escaped. From whom? Who was the enemy? The answer is bleak in its simplicity: the man next door. The government had adopted a new policy according to which everyone in the country’s Hutu majority group was called upon to murder everyone in the Tutsi minority (known affectionately as ‘cockroaches’). They imagined that by exterminating the Tutsi people they could make the world a better place and the mass killing followed. Sound familiar?

For the first time in its history, the United Nations used the word ‘genocide’ to describe what happened in Rwanda. Philip Gourevitch, author of We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families: Stories from Rwanda, reckons that the dead of Rwanda accumulated at nearly three times the rate of Jewish dead during the Holocaust. When I was growing up I often asked my parents who had lived during WW2 why they and their generation didn’t intervene to stop the Holocaust. Now I know why. They didn’t know until it was too late and anyway they were busy getting on with their own lives. Just like me in 1994. I was preparing to go and live in Africa with my young family when I saw live TV footage of a roadside machete attack in Rwanda. It chills me still to recall it. I was teaching in a school at the time where the caretaker was horrified that I would even consider taking children to the ‘dark continent’. I pointed out to him that our own history in Northern Ireland is bloody and violent to which he replied, ‘Ah, but here they only shoot you.’

Most people in Rwanda were not shot. No quick and clean executions but door to door hacking with machetes and ‘masus’ – clubs studded with nails – neighbour betraying and murdering neighbour. Tutsis accepted death as inevitable – warnings were sounded in regular radio bulletins. There was no escape. Some killers cut Achilles tendons so that they could stop to eat or sleep, leaving their victims in agony till morning and certain death. As in any conflict there are too many unanswerable questions: How did so many Tutsis allow themselves to be killed? How did so many Hutus allow themselves to kill? People used to obeying orders obeyed one too many, leaving the nameless and numberless dead.

Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland are neighbours. We have more in common with each other than with people anywhere else in the world. One newspaper headline last week declared that Republican dissidents are on the rise. We must stand together to resist violence because when the blind lead the blind, both fall into the ditch.

It happened, therefore it can happen again: this is the core of what we have to say. It can happen, and it can happen everywhere.

Primo Levi, 1986, The Drowned and the Saved

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Old Photographs

I’m back in the wet after three weeks sunning in Florida and Indiana. I took a pile of old photographs over to my uncle’s – small sepia and black and white images of days long gone: a young couple, she bow legged and he in an ill-fitting suit with his hair slicked down posing outside a thatched cottage – my grandparents during their courtship.

I enjoyed listening to Ray reminisce about his days growing up on the farm. My favourite photos are of the horses, Dick and Captain, straining against the plough as they drew clean furrows in the resistant soil. I was thrilled to see the Amish people still ploughing in this way in Shipshewana. There is one beautiful picture of Granddad Harrison tending the huge carthorse while his tiny son grips the reins. The child is smiling and probably thought he was actually holding the horse when in fact his father was in control. A truth in black and white.

I spent my last week in Florida with Robin Mark and the band. People love to worship with them and I was moved by listening to stories of lives touched by his songs and music. He also tells a good tale and one of his favourites is about how his wife pleaded with him not to throw her a party for her 50th. Of course, he ignored her and we celebrated in style with an Abba tribute band, no less! He talks about how he dug out some old photographs for the occasion and discovered a young man staring back at him with hope, confidence and expectation – his younger self. He wonders whether a photograph taken today would show the same hope and optimism and sings a memorable little song:

Old photographs, I’m looking at scenes from history
Who are those people, where is that place?
Is that really me?

I’m older but no wiser; you’ve lost a little weight
Are those angelic faces the ones who stare across my breakfast table?

Old photographs, sweet memories
Happy days gone by
I love them and I hate them
For the camera does not lie

It’s my birthday today. I’ve also been looking at old images of me as a little girl. The scary thing is that I’m still wearing my hair like that! I have a cheeky smile because all is right with the world – I’m loved and happy and the future looks bright.

And what about now, half a century later? Well, I'm loved and happy and on most days the future still looks bright. As Robin sings, I don’t always feel wiser but I want to live what’s left in faith, not fear. I am thankful for the days. The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places and I have a delightful inheritance.

One of my most treasured companions along the way has been Oswald Chambers who died in 1917 but whose writings continue to inspire. Today I read his challenge to keep reaching for the highest:

‘There is more than we have got at as yet.’

Thursday, July 22, 2010

My Hero

We’ve been stuck in Fort Wayne airport without coffee for hours so what else is there to do but blog?

As the vuvuzela screech in B flat subsides and the adoration and adulation of the World Cup evaporates, I’ve been thinking about how we choose our heroes. We cheer and get excited about eleven men chasing a ball round a pitch but are less enthusiastic about welcoming disfigured and damaged soldiers home from the war in Afghanistan.

This week I’ve been staying with one of my personal heroes. Uncle Ray is my late mother’s younger brother. As a teenager he left the farm and decided to go off to study at London Bible College. Before graduating, he and his fellow students had to pull a cart round the roads of rural England, stopping in the evenings to hold meetings and sleeping on the floor in churches. They vied with each other to get the space in the pulpit which was carpeted. Like the first disciples, they weren’t allowed to carry any money and they lived off the goodwill of farmers and local people. Six young handsome men stare joyfully from old photographs. They were trained and ready to take on the world for God. My uncle admits he thought he knew it all then. His enthusiasm and confidence knew no bounds.

He went off to teach in Sierra Leone, West Africa, where he met and married an American missionary, Arlene. Together they taught at the Bible College in Freetown and in the years that followed they had four fine sons. For many years they lived in the bush, 120 miles up country in a town called Kabala, accessible only on dirt roads which were impassable when it rained. It was on one of these roads that Ray and his second son Tim, then 10, were travelling on a motorbike when they had a horrible accident which resulted in terrible injuries for both and a long and agonising eight hour journey to get to a hospital. Tim’s leg needed serious medical attention for years afterwards so finally the family returned to the US, where they continued to work in the Missionary Church.

Tim went on to graduate from college and was talking about getting married when at the age of twenty-three he was killed in a car accident. The family had to make the decision to turn off the machine and let their precious son go to God.

Last year, Ray suffered from multiple myeloma, spent many weeks in hospital and went through a stem cell transplant. Over the months, he has slowly regained strength and has returned to work part-time.

Now 73, Uncle Ray should be embittered and angry. Where was his God when he and Tim lay bleeding at the side of an African track; when they pleaded for Tim’s life after the car accident; when he faced cancer treatment? But he’s not bitter; he’s quietly, sorry make that noisily, full of good humour and bad jokes. Here’s his current favourite:

There were three devout men: a Catholic priest, a Baptist pastor and a Jewish rabbi. They were arguing about which of them had the greatest powers of religious persuasion. So they agreed that each of them would go into the woods in turn and attempt to convert a bear to faith.

When the Catholic priest returned he was delighted at his success. He told the others that he had anointed the bear with holy water and that the bear would soon be taking his first communion. It was the pastor’s turn next and he was equally pleased with his efforts. He said that he had preached the word to the bear and that the bear was going to be baptised the next Sunday.

When the rabbi returned from the woods he was badly injured and covered in blood. The others asked what had happened and he said woefully: ‘Perhaps it was a mistake to start with circumcision.’

To me a hero is someone who knows how to handle Plan B – someone who isn’t totally destroyed by life’s tragedies and disappointments but who still chooses to live, love and laugh. In the days following Tim's death, Ray would go into his study and decide whether he believed in God for that day. An act of the will. One day at a time.

Through the sadness and pain he exudes warmth, acceptance and compassion which touch the lives of everyone who knows him. He’s not pretending; he’s living life in its raw reality with a faith in God which is inspirational.

He often says that most of the things we moan and complain about can be fixed. One of Ray’s good friends, Donna Cleven, wrote a poem inspired by his example: (Remember we’re in the US)

(or not)

Here’s something I have learned,
Though at first I thought it funny,
It’s really not a problem at all
If it can be solved with money.

You can’t buy health or strength,
Or the love of a prodigal child.
You can’t buy peace of mind,
Or reason for a friend gone wild.

You lost your theatre tickets?
You burned the dinner rolls?
An ink pen in the load of wash?
Your favourite jeans have holes?

Your dishwasher sprung a leak?
A fender bender at the mall?
Remember: if it can be fixed with money
It’s really not a problem at all.

I feel as if I’ve been staying with a living saint this week. What a privilege! I will be happy to be half as faithful as he. I love and salute you, Uncle Ray. You’re my hero!

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Happy Holidays

What is it with the Americans? We’re in Florida – the sunshine state. The man and I are having a week to ourselves before we fly up to Indiana to see family and then return for the madness that is touring with Robin Mark. I often think I’m way too old to be a groupie but for as long as I’m married to an old rock ‘n’ roller, that’s the way it is.

You see – there it is already. An Americanism: ‘way too old’. They creep in, uninvited. When we touched down in Orlando, we were informed that we would, ‘Be deplaning momentarily’. Surely ‘momentarily’ means for a moment, not in a moment and ‘deplane’?! It’s happening all the time. It’s not just that they can’t spell: ‘center’ ‘theater’ ‘traveling’ and ‘color’ but we’re all starting to say, ‘I’m good’ when we clearly mean well and ‘Can I get?’ when we order in a restaurant.

As a teacher of the mother tongue, I’m offended and I want to hate America. I’ve been watching and listening and I can’t escape the feeling that I’m on a film set. The people I observe appear to be pretending to be Americans – loud and in your face. They seem to be putting on an act which involves articulating absolutely everything they think and feel with the volume turned up. Surely this show can’t be just for me. Is it possible that they actually speak like this all of the time? Even when visitors are not here?

The house we’re renting contains a file with instructions which advised me to ‘Check which day the waste hauler will be servicing you.’ It sounds like more fun than it was. We had to put the ‘garbage’ out at 6am to outwit the racoons. We were promised they would make a mess of the lawn. I got up early to witness this and was disappointed not to catch them at it.

Here we have ‘eateries’ and ‘soft shoulders’ instead of hard. Menus offer ‘housemade’ sauces but nearby there is a ‘Home for sale.’ When something is ‘on sale’ it’s not simply available, it’s cheaper. At the end of this road there is a sign declaring ‘No outlet’ meaning a dead end and we wait in a ‘line’ not a queue.
However, America grows on you. They do service well if you can bear the constant injunction to ‘Have a nice one’. The streets are laid out in grids which make finding somewhere much easier ‘Corner of Cortez Boulevard and 46th’. That is unless the place you want to find is the town centre – there isn’t one. Shopping is done in the ubiquitous ‘malls’. Good word, although it should be spelled ‘maul’ because mauled is how I feel when I’ve spent more than ten minutes in one. I hate shopping at the best of times and all of my senses are assaulted by consumerism US style.

But they have sun here. The beaches of the Florida Keys are magnificent – long narrow stretches of glaring white sand. Too hot to walk on at times we tiptoe into the green tepid waters of the Mexican Gulf where we watch with delight as sandpipers and snowy egrets dance their way along the shoreline. And the sunsets are spectacular as the heat melts into the water and pink diffuses across the sky. The house overlooks a private lake. Herons spread their wings to dry and turtles bask on a nearby rock. There is also a pool ‘out back’. Where more perfect for two wrinklies who haven’t yet outgrown the joys of skinny dipping? Life is good.

My favourite cheesy American sign this week is: ‘A smile is a curve that makes everything straight.’ Happy Holidays!

Friday, July 2, 2010

Musings on Mortality

I went up to my mother’s grave this week expecting to see her name on the headstone, but it isn’t there yet.

Somehow it’s not real until it’s official, like a signature. The absence of her details allows me to believe, fleetingly, that she’s not really gone – not completely. I fancy that she’s here somewhere, waiting in the shadows with a shopping list and toenails that want cutting.

She died in January and I’ve been to four funerals since. All of them the parents of friends or relatives, as it should be – in the right order. Some of the funeral services were light and hopeful with intimations of eternity. One second cousin gave a long, moving and humorous tribute to his mother in which he recalled his father and his two brothers making music at home on the farm – the father on the fiddle or saxophone, his brother on the guitar, him on the piano while the youngest boy played on the linoleum! At least they’ll all be able to manage the harps and trumpets on the other side.

At that same funeral I stood by the graveside with my arm linked with my uncle Willie’s, who is 86 with a mop of pure white hair. As the family walked solemnly past us following the committal, the 90-year-old widower stopped to shake my uncle’s hand. ‘And is this your wife?’ he asked, looking at me. I quickly explained who I was, much to the delight and amusement of the bereaved sons and grandchildren behind him. Even in death, there is laughter. We can’t help it. Our survival instinct is so powerful that it overcomes our deepest grief and urges us to live on.

Other people prefer to leave it to the professionals to say something about the departed. One flew with the RAF in the war and might well have met my own father. Koch and Chestnutt are both unusual names, except we didn’t know each other then and it’s too late now to ask the old airmen.

It’s too late for a lot of things – we all could have been kinder, more patient and loving with our aging parents. We could have spent more lazy hours just listening rather than rushing to visit and then dashing off to do.

Do funerals age you? I think they can trigger an awareness of opportunities missed and a fear of too few days to fulfil our dreams. Several in a row can leave us in a stupor of fatalism and rob us of our own moment to live, laugh and love.

A cousin met a man recently who spoke well of my father and paid tribute to his memory. He said that he had been held in such high regard that people who had never met him felt as if they knew him. I still talk to people, twenty-five years later, who loved him and are grateful to him for being like Jesus to them. What a legacy!

During the vigil before my mother’s death, I hoped that she might have something of import to say. However, she was too tired to pass on anything deep and meaningful. I was reconciled to this with the thought that what my mother, and father, gave to me was me! All that I am and enjoy came through their genes, their influence and their example. She didn’t need to say anything more. All her wise words are already in my head and she lived a life of love and sacrifice which I can never hope to emulate. That’s enough to be going on with.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Bad Company

I've been hanging out with the wrong kind of people recently - the kind of people who deliberately defecate on the carpet. I stood with Francie and Joe as they tried to crack the ice on the puddle, hid with them in their den and watched with grief as their friendship disintegrated into firm denial:
"Is this fellow a friend of yours or not?"
When Joe replied, "No" I was gutted for Francie. He had lost everything and now Joe had abandoned him too.

Francie Brady has to be one of the most disturbed young men one is ever likely to come across. When I read about him shooting the baby pig between the eyes with a pistol bolt I thought of one of my relatives (only by marriage, you understand) who did away with the lovely Priscilla on a small holding near Dromore in exactly the same way. He and Johnny hadn't thought it through. The fat sow was too heavy for them to hoist her up to bleed so they managed to bundle her onto a table and let her drip from there. I'm glad I didn't witness the spectacle, but I did sample the end product with lashings of apple sauce.

Sadly, Francie Brady didn't stop at killing pigs. As the lines between comic book fantasy and reality blurred, the Butcher Boy was out for revenge on Mrs Nugent. It was she who started the whole pig thing. She said that the Bradys lived like pigs so it was like a pig she died. This final act of violence is appallingly brutal and the consequences stick to Francie's clothes like the brock he shovels for the abattoir. It is there that he buries his victim and any prospect of normality.

Ironically, Francie knows where hope is; he just can't touch it. There are splashes of colour in the novel: the white snowdrop and the orange sun, but Francie feels betrayed by them too:

"All the beautiful things in this world are lies. They count for nothing in the end."

Francie can only reach the world's beauty across the bridge of love and relationship. Friendless and alone he ends up in the hell that is the self in isolation: "How can your solitary finish?"

This is a bleak tale of loss and loneliness. It is brilliantly written by Patrick McCabe but unless, like me, you have to introduce it to unsuspecting sixth formers, give it a miss for now. It teeters on the edge of the black hole inside us all.

And me? I can't afford to keep bad company, get bogged down in the brock and forget to reach out to people who can help me to see the sunlight too.

"Whatever is lovely...think about such things."

Saturday, April 24, 2010

The Yoke

Lots of people are in pain. Some of them are my friends who are distressed because of serious illness, loss of love, marriage breakdown, worry about their children and worry about their parents. The thing is - where is God when we're crying? I'm not a theologian or a philosopher but I've come up with one answer: He's on the cross, suffering too. I wrote this poem and recently gave it to a friend facing chemotherapy. I want the last verse to be true.

How do you walk though the corridors of my life?
Are you ahead
Beckoning with an urgent hand
Demanding, impatient
Weary of my indecision and faithlessness?

Or are you behind
Pushing, cajoling
Forcing my feet over uneven ground
Ensuring there is no retreat?

Or are you alongside
Encouraging, teaching
Setting the even pace
Laying a steady arm across my shoulder
Taking the weight?

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

I hate daffodils

I took some daffodils into school this week to inspire my Year 12 class in their revision of nature poetry. They were much more interested in the website I brought up on the screen, www.ihatedaffodils.org.uk, where conservationists are complaining that there are too many of the bright solid yellow variety splashed across the countryside leaving less room for the more delicate golden, white and wild variety narcissus pseudonarcissus. Those are the ones the Bard was thinking of in The Winter's Tale:

'…golden daffodils
That come before the swallow dares, and take
The winds of March with beauty'.

Wasn't Narcissus the guy who fell in love with his own reflection? I was also working on some of Aesop's fables with a Year 9 drama class and they improvised the moment when the greedy dog dropped the piece of meat into the river because he thought he saw another dog with an equally juicy piece reflected there. A moral in the 'tail' reminding us of the importance of enjoying what we have and not coveting what our neighbour has, or appears to have.

Appearances can be deceptive. I went for a long walk yesterday morning to suck Spring into my lungs. Ahead was a verge brilliant with yellow which turned out on closer inspection to be a dash of dandelions!

'Nothing is so beautiful as Spring
When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush.'

Did I mention that I love Hopkins? It all grows together when there's wet and warm.

The only cure for introspection is imagination when we use our minds to think long about what's beautiful and true. It's a must to get outside and wonder at the world. It's good for the soul.

'I shall open my eyes and ears. Once every day I shall simply stare at a tree, a flower, a cloud or a person. I shall not then be concerned at all to ask what they are but simply be glad that they are. I shall joyfully allow them the mystery of what Lewis calls their "divine, magical, terrifying, ecstatic existence."' (Clyde Kilby)

Speaking of CS Lewis, I was reading my favourite part of The Magician's Nephew with Year 8 when Aslan sings a world into existence. Uncle Andrew is out of sorts and talking too much. Creation commands silence. The cabby got it right. Year 8 decided that we like the cockney cabby so we'll leave the last word to him:
'Watchin' and listenin's the thing at present; not talking.'

Thursday, April 15, 2010

How selfhood begins

I've just spent two weeks in South Africa visiting my daughter and her husband. It was our first whole family holiday in a few years. We were flying with our twenty-year-old son. The flight from London to Jo'burg was delayed at Heathrow airport because someone forgot to tell the flight crew that the clocks had gone forward!

We pushed towards the check-in gate with three hundred other frustrated fellow travellers. Most people had boarded and it was our turn next. I knew the minute I saw his facial expression that the man at the desk was unhappy with my son's passport. Although it was valid until the end of this month, he needed an extra 30 days to get into S Africa.

My tears were useless and we had to wait another half hour while they unloaded his bag. We then said our goodbyes and sheepishly entered the cabin trying not to make eye contact with any of the now weary and angry passengers.

As I watched my disappointed child walk away I thought how difficult it is to bear another's hurt, especially when you love them. How many other times there have been when I've watched him facing up to life on his own! It's called growing up and it's hard for mother and son both. C Day Lewis says it much better than I, but before that I have to add that big son managed to get a new passport and join us in the sun two days later. All good! This poem makes me cry.

Walking Away by C Day Lewis

It is eighteen years ago, almost to the day -
A sunny day with leaves just turning,
The touch-lines new-ruled - since I watched you play
Your first game of football, then, like a satellite
Wrenched from its orbit, go drifting away

Behind a scatter of boys. I can see
You walking away from me towards the school
With the pathos of a half-fledged thing set free
Into a wilderness, the gait of one
Who finds no path where the path should be.

That hesitant figure, eddying away
Like a winged seed loosened from its parent stem,
Has something I never quite grasp to convey
About nature's give-and-take - the small, the scorching
Ordeals which fire one's irresolute clay.

I have had worse partings, but none that so
Gnaws at my mind still. Perhaps it is roughly
Saying what God alone could perfectly show -
How selfhood begins with a walking away,
And love is proved in the letting go.

On listening

JD Salinger died this year leaving only his seminal novel on teenage angst. My friend says the reason The Catcher in the Rye is so disturbing is that we're all in there, reflected in at least one of the characters.

Holden Caulfield, the Pency Prep reject, muses, 'If somebody at least listens, it's not too bad.'

I did a course on listening where the difference between sympathy and empathy was explained. If I say, 'My mother died last week' and you reply, 'My mother died last year and she was ill for months and had four operations and it was awful…' that's sympathy. The problem is the conversation is now about you, not me. If you reply, 'I'm so sorry, how do you feel?' that's empathy. Very few people are good at this.