'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