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

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Bells and Babies

I was at the dentist the other day and it struck me that his gentle talk was designed to conceal the torture he was about to inflict. I needed a replacement filling because the one he put in a fortnight ago came out with the muesli the next morning. Full of apologies, he injected my gum with a ‘Just a little scratch’ and sent me off to wait five minutes for the big freeze. Suitably benumbed, I returned to the big chair where he settled me back and said, ‘Just a little water then.’ Just a little water? He was hovering over me with a mini pneumatic drill and he thought he should warn me that the dental nurse would be squirting a jet of cold water into my mouth! Of course, that’s what I want when I’m in the dentist’s chair – reassurance, lies even, if it makes the whole experience more bearable.

We pretend all the time, making believe that things are not quite what they seem because the truth is too terrible. We’re in the throes of a very busy time: two weddings and a baby over the next few months and if another person says it sounds like a film, I shall scream. Wedding #1 is in less than a fortnight. Our darling baby girl is going to leave us and go to live with a boy and the man and I are pretending it’s all ok.

At the hen weekend we dressed her up in a big fat wedding dress and the trashy guests paraded her on the Lisburn Road. For some reason I had been instructed by the bridesmaids to come dressed as the father of the bride so I wore the man’s tux, got mistaken for a lesbian and made a speech which concluded:

It’s hard for me as her father
To lose her to another man
I hope he takes care of her as I have done
My pain no one understands

For I have loved having her at home
To brighten up my days
And I am going to miss her
In oh so many ways

For she has been my sunshine
Every day and every hour
Please raise your glasses to the bride
My beautiful sunflower!

We love her fiance (although I’m not sure about the animal print babygro he wore on his stag this weekend) and so does she, but do we really have to let her go without a struggle? We will all dress up, that’s if I can walk in the shoes I bought online, and smile for the cameras and dance till dawn but what we’re really doing is giving her away! Just like that! In one short ceremony, she will become someone else’s responsibility, for life! I’m not sure that I can bear it. I gathered all the photos of her together before the hen do and I cried for the years that have gone and can never be recovered. She is my precious girl and now she’s getting married. She can’t wait; I can.

Once it’s over the whole shebang begins again for another wedding next June. This time we’re giving our daughter away to a foreigner – a South African, no less. His mother came to stay this week to meet her future daughter-in-law and check out our mad family. She is lovely and we had a good time together but she and I both acknowledged that in the future one of is going to be apart from our children and grandchildren. We actually smiled and pretended that that’s ok too. What’s wrong with us? 
And then there were the cupcakes. Our eldest daughter and her husband invited us over for dinner and served us delicious homemade cupcakes for dessert. Each one was decorated with our names in honour of the occasion. What occasion? I could not see my name but the cake labelled ‘Gogo’ was clearly for me. Gogo? Gogo is a term used in Africa for an old grandmother!  The man’s cake said ‘Papa’. Naturally we are delighted that they’re pregnant but it’s a massive change in our roles and relationships. Their cakes said ‘Mummy’ and ‘Daddy’, but I’m the mummy, aren’t I?

In a time of such massive fluctuation, is anything staying the same? No! Our children are children no longer and their lives and loves are blossoming and bearing fruit. We cannot hold back the tide of change but sometimes it feels like our time is over and all we can do now is cheer from the stands. How’s that for a mixed metaphor? Have I done enough to prepare her for married life? Have I been a good enough role model?

I love Stanley Kunitz’s poem The Layers where he asks,

How shall the heart be reconciled to its feast of losses?

He hears a voice which instructs him to live in the layers, not the litter. The only way forward is to step over the debris of the past, embrace the changes and welcome the new people, married, in-laws and as yet unborn and allow them to enrich who I am so that I can become who they need for the future.  I don’t have to pretend it’s all easy but I can choose to say bring on the bells and babies and whatever adventures lie ahead.

I turn
exulting somewhat,
with my will intact to go,
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me…

No doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Pick Jesus

It amazes me that two people can part for five weeks and each travel thousands of miles in opposite directions on various safe and not-so-safe means of transport by road, air and rail and arrange to meet up at exactly 9.15am at the Meeting Point at the International Airport on a particular date and both actually arrive there! My father often used to pray for ‘journeying mercies’ and the man and I are thankful for those.

The wandering minstrel has returned intact. While on tour the band members were given all sorts of gifts and mementos, including a plectrum which says, ‘Pick Jesus’! At one gig in Portland an enthusiastic fan bounded up to him and asked, ‘Could you please sign my coconut?’ ‘How exactly,’ I asked, ‘does one sign a hairy coconut?’ With a sharpie, apparently.

When you go away for a long time you miss things. I missed my son’s graduation – LLB (Hons) from the University of Reading. We are very proud and the man flew over for the ceremony and attendant liquid celebrations at the School of Law. Our son is our baby and it’s scary to think that he’s the last to finish his primary degree. More thankfulness.

I wasn’t there to gush and coo and cry but I did write him a card quoting from an ancient prophet who attempted to define what God wants from a young man. ‘He has shown you what is good. And what does the LORD require of you but to do justice and love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.’  As our warrior son heads out into the world of ethics and judgement, I am hoping that he will aim high and identify with those who need someone to speak out for justice and mercy on their behalf.

So Congratulations, my boy, and best wishes for the next stage in this legal adventure! Congrats too to his girlfriend, Connie, who is about to embark on a Master’s in International Relations. May you both make a difference.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Letting India In

It’s a couple of weeks since I returned from India and as the days go by it isn’t getting any easier to process the dirt, the smells, the colour, the industry, the poverty, the squalor, the vibrancy and the sheer press of people. The traffic is amazing and after spending two or three days thinking that I and my charges were going to perish on the roads, I began to admire the swerve and dodge of the skilled Indian drivers. It’s the cattle on the roads that take the biscuit. There they loll or lie while cars, buses, auto rickshaws and motorbikes roar round them blasting dirty fumes into their weary eyes.  I know they’re considered sacred because of their status but it doesn’t seem to me that they’re cherished at all. Surely that can’t be better for them than the lush green fields of confinement endured by our own dear fresians?

Anyway, eighteen pupils from three NI schools, Catholic and Protestant, taught in three Indian schools. We arrived in Delhi where we visited the Taj Mahal. We then travelled eight hours north by train to Dehradun and from there further north again to Mussoorie where we taught for four days in a school in Kaplani – fabulous mountain scenery shrouded in mist. On the Friday we trekked two and a half hours in torrential monsoon rain to visit a tiny two roomed school in the mountains. When we arrived soaked through we tried to teach by shouting over the rain pounding on, and in several places through, the tin roof. Our materials were sodden but we persisted with basic colouring and counting until we were forced out back into the rain to clamber up the mountainside again, accompanied by tiny tots walking home from school without coats, parents or even proper shoes. That has since been remedied because now those same children have new brollies and will also have lunch in school, thanks to Saphara.

In the second week we returned to Dehradun where we taught in a much larger school with 1100 children, the vision of Dr Reeta who gave up her work in a mission hospital to start a school for the ‘untouchables’ from the slums. It was amazing to meet the teachers and pupils. I taught some songs and rhymes to a class of seventy toddlers. The enthusiastic teacher echoed my words in her very own version of ‘The elephant goes like this and that…’ Her concluding line was, ‘But goodness of creation, what a nose!’ and why not?

I was saddened and fascinated by India – I was a teacher in charge of seventeen-year-olds and so could not wander at will and take time to explore and reflect. However, I did spend half an hour watching the world waken one morning and penned these thoughts:

I am sitting here at the window with India out and me in. Apparently it is too dangerous for me to venture out alone. Who is going to harm me – the frail frame of a woman of indeterminate age who is awakening from her sleep on the hard pavement opposite? She stirs, sits up watches the dogs scavenging in the road and then lies down again, drawing her faded sari around her tousled head.

Beside her on the narrow walkway brown and dirty white sheets are draped from the railing to the road in a kind of half tent. I wonder who lives under there. The woman sits again and turns her back to the road. No one disturbs her; no one walks on the pavement – people live on the pavement. The road is the place: motor bikes, auto rickshaws, buses, bicycles, cars, pedestrians and always, always horns blazing ‘Coming through.’

We are caught in this moment of time together, she and I. We will share this day in Dehradun; we may even breathe the same air as it blusters across the junction, swirled by the build-up of morning rush hour traffic. Now she sits lotus-like rubbing her aching bones. She lights a cigarette and waits.

Who is she and what is her name?
Who am I and what is my name?

I catch sight of mine written on a water bottle so that no one can steal it. What a privilege to have a bottle of fresh, clean water of my very own. But what is my life if I cannot even share this water with my nameless, hopeless friend?  I open the door and let India in. I take my water and my name and I cross the road to give it to my sister.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Journey with Purpose

 I have returned from my trip with Saphara to India. The charity takes teachers and teams of sixth formers from schools in both sectors here to teach in schools for the poorest of the poor there. Fifty-four young people are going this summer to bring interactive learning and love to gorgeous little lives in the slums of Dehradun and the remote areas in Kaplani. Sitting on a train for eight hours as we travelled north I learned how to make friendship bracelets and penned a poem – all to avoid using the squat toilet!

India arrives, an assault to my senses.

She plays with my mind and my defences.

Splashes of colour and ‘rainy’ and wet,

People who smile and survive and hurt.

Literally sleeping on the job,

Driving in the care of a monkey god.

Beggars and hawkers along the way

‘Please mam sahib’ There’ll be hell to pay!

The sun rising, an Indian dawn

Waking to the orchestra of horns.

What is it to us, this India we see?

Is it nothing to you, nothing to me?

Or is it possible, one child at a time

To make of this chaos some reason, some rhyme?

Is the God of creation watching the pain

Of the child who pleads again and again,

‘Please come and help us, give us rupees’?

What can I give him? I can give me.

From a child of plenty to a child deprived

The gift of today, to change her life and mine.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Balls on the Falls

My daughter and her husband are returning soon from Africa. They have been working and travelling for the best part of two years and as we speak are tidying up loose ends and saying final farewells to the sun and space. In their journey through South Africa, the DRC, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Malawi they have encountered all sorts in a region that has known division and prejudice as black, white, coloured and Indian vie with one another for territory and the right to belong.

Now they’re coming home to a more familiar war. Norn Iron has been in the news again, and for all the wrong reasons. The marching season madness has begun and rioters have been back on the streets, hurling stones and abuse. The Short Strand is a Catholic enclave in the predominantly Protestant East Belfast where violence has erupted in recent weeks. A ‘peace line’ separates those living at the interface but no wall is high enough to keep out hatred and bigotry.

In recent years we’ve been processing peace. Kerbstones painted in patterns of red, white and blue or green, white and gold have been neutralised and cultural images in praise of sports personalities and epic events, such as the building of Titanic (‘She was all right when she left us’) have replaced ugly paramilitary pictures on gable walls. But something sinister is happening. A recently revamped mural in East Belfast depicts a post apocalyptic background with a single masked gunman clasping a weapon. This in response to a West Belfast mural unveiled in May to mark the 30th anniversary of hunger striker, Bobby Sands’ death, with three masked IRA gunmen firing over a coffin. At that time emblazoned across a wall on a Protestant street, in a horrible attempt at humour, were the words, ‘We will never forget you Billy Sands.’

Slogans and symbols are so significant. Another new edifice will greet the happy campers on their return. Sam will be working at the Royal on Belfast’s Broadway where a 37.5 metre construction now towers on the horizon visible from both sides of the community. ‘RISE’ is the creation of Nottingham artist, Wolfgang Butress, and consists of an enormous globe crafted in silver and white steel with another suspended inside, symbolising the sun rising on a new era of peace and harmony. The sculpture has already been affectionately dubbed ‘The Balls on the Falls’ and will rest on a bed of reeds which speak of our natural heritage. Perhaps it’s too soon and we’re really just bog men all, incapable of moving forward and making peace with our neighbour. The murals and the sculpture have been completed just in time for the Twelfth. I wonder how long it will be before some hooded idiot will scale the sphere and hang a flag there to claim it as their own?

I’m off to India tomorrow, where whole people groups are deemed ‘untouchable’. I’m taking six pupils from the school where I teach to join with pupils from two other schools: Catholic and Protestant young people working together to prepare and teach English lessons in three schools. We will wear Indian clothes and attempt to absorb a new culture. We will talk about the privilege of education, the pain of poverty and the challenge of making a difference.

Gandhi said: ‘Be the change you want to see in the world’ and in response to the question: ‘What can you do to promote world peace?’ Mother Teresa replied: ‘Go home and love your family.’

Loving the person next to us is something we can all do. Welcome home, Beth and Sam. See you when I get back!

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Once upon a time...

Once upon a time there was a beautiful princess who was locked in a tower at Trinity College, Dublin. There she was forced to draw blood from the others imprisoned there with her to store in vials and mingle with nameless orange liquids. She wore a white coat and slid her slender fingers into long gloves under a wide hood. There she sat for hours, longing for love and rescue.

Her sister was far away, crafting words and clay under a rainbow sky. She had begun to climb to new heights and often scaled cliff sides in the care of a handsome guide. He was swift as a mountain goat and as secure as he skipped from rock to rock. His feet were sure and his heart was strong, strong as the Drakensberg which he loved.

One day he saw an image of loveliness – a likeness of the sister locked in the tower far away in a land of wet and green. She too saw an image of a torso rippling under the African sky. ‘Mmm’ she drooled. Across thousands of miles a message flew to the lovely Irish colleen from the bronzed god. ‘Since we’re going to be married, maybe I should introduce myself.’

Weeks later he donned a woolly jumper and flew to the cold north where he galloped across the cobble stones at Trinity and rescued the beautiful maiden from a lifetime staring into a long, dark tunnel of graphs and data. They darted to Howth where they began to dream dreams together.

Off to the mountains of Milan, leaving a precious circle of diamonds and gold concealed in a dark corner until the day when he could ask for blessing and dare to declare his eternal love. Six months exactly to the day when they met, he knelt by the sea in that secret place of tears and hopes to promise to be ever true.

They have said goodbye for the last time. He is now far away, on a motorbike in the desert, but soon he will return to woo the lady he has won and prepare for the day when they will dance in the Morrison Room and watch the summer solstice sun set across the green as they begin a new life together.

Congratulations, Maria and Willem! We couldn’t be happier and we can’t wait for the big day.
 ‘From a far off land I summon a man to fulfil my purpose.’

Two daughters getting married! We had a quick whip round one night and collected 7p. Brian Houston has promised to double it.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Attitude and Apostrophes

I have an unhealthy fascination with signs. I always want to photograph the more amusing ones and especially those with faulty punctuation. I have been known to lick my finger and correct signs scribbled on blackboards outside shops, restaurants or market stalls.

Opposite the hospital in Dundonald, Belfast there is a large hoarding advertising a chip shop. In foot high neon letters of yellow and blue it declares that the Golden Chip promises ‘Frying at it’s best’. Already on my computer screen the little green line has appeared under the errant apostrophe. Why would someone not check this before commissioning the sign maker?

I used this in an English lesson once and my class challenged me to go in and tell them that there was a mistake on their advertising sign. I did, and was sorry. The young girl behind the counter looked as if she didn’t care about punctuation – she didn’t. To make matters worse, she had the same logo with the same mistake emblazoned on her tee-shirt. I asked her whether anyone had ever mentioned the mistake on the sign to her and she looked at me blankly. Bravely I persisted and carefully explained that the word ‘its’ only has an apostrophe when it means ‘it is’. Again, nothing. I had started so I had to finish. With less and less conviction I muttered that I knew it wasn’t her fault and that whoever had ordered the sign in the first place was to blame. By this time she was looking at me as if I was speaking in Swahili. I might as well have been. Grammar is another language which, like Maths, pupils nowadays are convinced they will never need. Yet what right had I to make her feel bad? I was finally silenced by her icy, unforgiving stare and I mumbled sheepishly, ‘Fish supper, please’. She spoke only once: ‘Salt and vinegar with them chips, love?’

I am sorry to say that I have not learnt my lesson. I attended a church conference recently where the arty and creative had the opportunity to present their efforts in the foyer. In the corner a string quartet was playing softly. One lady had displayed a vast array of vegetables in symmetrical formation, like a child’s nature table at harvest time. Upstairs the same lady had constructed what looked like a wedding cake entirely from fresh flowers. Someone else was making pink smoothies and serving them in miniature communion glasses!

A man who works in the music industry had lovingly traced the history of musical influences through the years and his title was emblazoned across the top and repeated several times below: ‘The evolution of contemporary music and it’s impact on Western thought and culture.’ Oh dear! There it was again – that intrusive apostrophe. Did I walk away, commending my friend for his effort, dedication and commitment to inform and educate? No, I didn’t. I stepped forward and gently and arrogantly covered the apostrophe with my thumb. He saw. I’ll know that there is a God who can change my wretched human heart when I resist the urge to fix things and people.

Today on a notice board outside a church I read: ‘Have you got an attitude? Try a beatitude!’ How about: 'Blessed are the peacemakers, for they know when to shut up'?
Speaking of being quiet, here’s a photo my husband took in the little boys’ room in a US church. Only in America!

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Approaching God (a review)

How does one do that? Approach God, that is. There are as many ways to worship as there are gods. You can take your pick: in silent contemplation, swinging a censor, on your knees, with hands in the air, singing, chanting, speaking in tongues, wearing a hat or fancy dress. When I was a little girl it was ‘every head bowed and every eye closed’. Reverence and awe for a distant deity.

I first met Lisa Borden when singer and prophetic poet, Brian Houston, asked us to host friends and fans of his – American missionaries, no less. Lisa and Byron were delightful company – we had Africa in common and they inspired me with their passion and zest for life. We saw them again when they were living in Portugal, preparing to return to their beloved East Africa. We were on holiday and the two families met up for food, wine and lots of thought-provoking conversation. The Bordens are blessed people who are heaven-bent on blessing others.

I follow Lisa’s blog: Let’s put the kettle on, with a photo of cooking African-style over an open fire with the kettle, and the tea, blackened by the smoke. That’s how Lisa does God too – out in the open, chatting beside the fire, her hands cupped round a hot mug.

Hers is not just any god. He is Jehovah Jesus - the Creator of the universe who delivered himself to us wrapped in swaddling clothes as an ‘act of pursuit’. The thing that pervades every phrase of her book Approaching God is that Lisa believes. She expects that when she goes to meet God he is actually there and listening – that he knows her name and her needs. Her God doesn’t insist that she dress up and sit up.

Lisa considers the attributes of her God: He is Father who protects and provides and he is a Guide who wakens her in the middle of the night or at dawn to whisper words of wisdom and direction. He is a Healer who invites her to be vulnerable in his presence and with other people, so that she can share the load of life’s stresses and lay bare her wounds, physical and emotional to the balm of divine healing.

More surprisingly, God is an Artist who has given colour to the world as well as texture, shape and design. She says that, ‘Creation speaks of her Creator’ - a God who is ‘seriously into art’ and whose creativity flows into and through his created beings to make a difference. I’ve always believed that part of the purpose of flowers is to demonstrate God’s bright yellowness or delicate pinkness, or his velvety texture and his exquisite scent. It’s all about God screaming his beauty and awakening our soul to sing.

Screaming and singing are all very well, but what about the silence? God’s there too, apparently. He’s in that moment when we are still and satisfied, like a weaned child. Lisa knows God as Mother, as well as Father – a life-giving source who nourishes and sustains. Neither Lisa nor William Paul Young invented the idea of God as a big black mama – it was actually Jesus who first compared his parent to a mother hen gathering her chicks. Mother God settles us on her lap – a safe and comforting place from which to view the world and its harsh challenges.

Approaching God is for anyone who is tired of religion and meaningless ritual. Don’t give up till you’ve read this gentle and personal aid to meditation. Lisa’s honesty is refreshingly real and she encourages rather than cajoles us into a revision of who God is and how he connects with his perfectly formed but flawed creation. Apart from anything else this book is physically beautiful, like its author, and peppered with fabulous photos. At the end of each chapter, the reader is invited to pause and reflect, to take time to grasp and embrace the full extent of God’s ‘outrageous promises’.

Perhaps our God has been consigned to the pages of a dusty Bible or to some minster’s mouldy interior. If so, this book suggests a new place to begin – with God as a Friend to be enjoyed – one who is always there, never judges and loves unconditionally.

I, for one, long for a friend like that so I now know what to do – slow down, sit down, open up and, without fear, approach.

We don’t need religion, but we could use the love of God. Brian Houston

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Arise and Go

I saw a woman this week whose very stance moved me. We were driving through Rosses Point in Sligo when I caught sight of her standing on the shore. She had little regard for the traffic which surged past her – holiday makers on the way to the beach on a rare hot sunny day in April – because her focus was out at sea. Her dress and hair are blown back against the gentle contours of her body as she waits, summer and winter, mindless of the elements. Her arms are stretched out in anguish, fingers grasping the air and eyes closed in longing and prayer. The sculptor has called her ‘Waiting on Shore’ and I could feel the pain of her aching heart, encased in bronze. She stands in memoriam for men and boys missing at sea and wives and mothers who await their return.

Coming and going are part of the natural rhythm of life. Sligo is Yeats’ country and, before we left its rugged beauty, the man and I trod the narrow road which leads down to a tiny jetty and gazed through the misty rain in wonder at the tuft of land which inspired his best-loved verse. The little isle of Innisfree in Lough Gill is covered with trees and it’s hard to imagine a glade there, 'bee-loud' or otherwise. Yet it’s not difficult to understand how a genius mind, charged with thoughts of politics and theatre and the occult might long for a place of quiet rest.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

Peace is a rare commodity, especially when you’re far away or people you love are far from home. We’re on our own this weekend. Daughter and son-in-law are back in South Africa embarking on their grand tour. We enjoyed having them here with us for a few months – they are an inspirational couple whose dedication to life, health, fairness, creativity and excellence are infectious. They push boundaries in each other and unwary companions and we love having these amazing people in our lives. But they’re away again, leaving us waiting on shore. The others are in Milan, London and Reading – living life without us and growing up and away.

Moses knew the feeling. He stood on a mountainside gazing into the valley below where his adopted son was fighting a battle. And yet the patriarch was not entirely useless – while he held up his hands the young man was winning and when he grew weary and gave up, the youth was overwhelmed. Sometimes I think that the waiting with outstretched arms is harder – but it’s mine to do and like the lady on the shore I want to remain steadfast.

In the ancient churchyard of St Columba’s in Drumcliffe stands Yeats’ grave. I cast a cold eye on life and death and laid a bluebell on the headstone in gratitude for the beauty of his poetry and then, although not on horseback, I passed by. For as long as he lived, Yeats heard the call of Ireland. My children travel with my blessing. May none of them forget who they belong to and where home is, no matter how far they roam.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.
(WB Yeats)

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Jesus and Chocolate

It’s the end at last. With Easter falling so late, this has been the longest term ever. Who moves these feasts? Last week, pupils and teachers alike were overwhelmed with coursework, essays and deadlines and now it’s the holidays!

I spent the weekend in beautiful Donegal with friends. The views were wonderful and I strode out in the early morning along one of the many paths crossing the peat bogs around Carrigart. It was a grey dawn with the kiss of a crisp breeze but it was so good to get out into the real world and away from the press. Ahead of me lay a small, glassy reservoir into which the bracken-covered hills peered to see their reflection. Errigal’s head was poking above the horizon.

I was thinking about valleys. In the last few weeks we’ve finished all the stories begun with such enthusiasm in January. No happy endings: we left the gorgeous Gatsby (the image of Robert Redford in a pink suit is engraved forever on my mind) floating lifeless on a lilo with his arm tracing a red swirl in the autumn leaves, Holden Caulfield is holed up in a sanatorium and Meursault and Francie Brady are facing the consequences of the murders they committed – one in cold, and the other in very hot smeared-all-over-the-wall, blood. It’s Francie who sums up the sense of complete desolation, ‘How can your solitary finish?’

We were discussing symbolism in the Great Gatsby and wondering about the tragic Valley of Ashes. I mentioned the ‘valley of the shadow of death’ and only one pupil recognised it as a biblical allusion. Does no one go to Sunday school any more? The valley is a metaphor for the low place, the place without light or hope. It’s the place inhabited by most of the characters we met this term. My sixth form told me they were suicidal after reading these bleak texts. I also felt like I needed my soul restored, hence the walking alone in Donegal.

Psalm 23 talks about still waters. As I gazed at the surface of the water rippling ever so gently in the morning’s breath, I meditated on who does what. The shepherd leads, restores, comforts, prepares, anoints and blesses and all that is required of the sheep is to recognise his master’s voice and follow. Sounds like a great deal to me!

My feet were wet as the black bog juice seeped into my walking shoes but my jarred nerves began to settle and some sense of peace returned. Perhaps we appreciate nature more when we’ve been cooped up with books for too long. Perhaps we appreciate life when it comes after death.

It’s Easter this week. Jesus and chocolate – what more could anyone want? Good Friday is all about death and horror and sacrifice – I’ve promised myself that I will watch The Passion. But on Sunday it’s about life and hope and morning…if you believe. My solitary can finish.

Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Time's Discipline

I visited one of heaven’s waiting rooms the other day. Old people’s homes all smell the same and it’s hard to fight against the swamping sensation that they’re soulless holding centres from which the inmates will finally be deported back whence they came. Dust to dust.

My elderly friend still has all her marbles and talks avidly about her years living in India as a young woman. At home she enjoyed the company of a bird which occasionally flew round the living room and finally came to a sad end concertinaed against the wall. The lady misses her feathered friend so her son-in-law painted an excellent likeness of the bird which now hangs above her bed: a songless imitation of the original, but the next best thing.

Will there be birds in heaven?

I went to see the wonderful Derek Jacobi playing King Lear in the Grand Opera House this week. He’s seventy-two years old and he can still produce a compelling stage performance. I don’t know whether the actor has ever considered the merits of sheltered dwelling, but as poor Lear he is cast out to face the elements, having been duped by the two ugly sisters who previously protested love to their father. The youngest daughter, Cordelia, refuses to play the ‘Which of you shall we say doth love us most?’ game and, Cinderella-like, she is excluded and banished to France.

Lear’s descent into madness is distressing and the examination of the relationship between an ageing parent and his daughters is relentless. Old age leads to a gradual loss of identity as the balance of care shifts and the elderly person begins to feel useless and unvalued. Lear asks, ‘Who is it that can tell me who I am?’ And the reply comes, ‘Lear’s shadow.’ Only death awaits those who feel such loss of substance.

In many a sermon I heard a warning that I could be run over by a No 39 bus outside the church and where would I spend eternity? Can eternity be spent? I think that there is actually a very slim chance of being hit by an omnibus, but there is a 100% chance that I will be dead. In King Lear, Edgar says,

‘Men must endure/Their going hence, even as their coming hither:/Ripeness is all.’

By ripeness he means readiness - a preparation that is mature in its acceptance that we have lived long enough and it’s time. Death is a fact of life and as we get older we will attend more and more funerals of our peers. How then do we live? In celebration of life! – filling each waking moment with words and people and nature and song.

‘It is the time’s discipline to think
of the death of all living, and yet live.’ (Wendell Berry)

Dwelling too much on death is a waste of the very time whose passing we mourn. Flowers set us an example in their glorious, if short-lived, explosion of colourful praise to the Creator. As I write my husband is pruning the roses so that when their moment comes they will bloom well.

If I had another life,
I would spend it on some
unstinting happiness.

I would be a fox, or a tree
full of waving branches.
I wouldn’t mind being a rose
In a field full of roses.

Fear has not occurred to them, nor ambition.
Reason they have not yet thought of.
Neither do they ask how long they must be roses, and then what.
Or any other foolish question.
(from Roses, Late Summer by Mary Oliver)

Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Wind Blows

When I was a little girl I asked Jesus into my heart. ‘Come in today, come in to stay, come into my heart, Lord Jesus.’ What was that all about? How could a grown Jewish rabbi enter the cardiovascular system of a ten-year-old?

Religious belief is a funny thing. You embrace it long before you understand it and when you’re old enough to subject faith to reason you can never quite escape the feeling of safety and certainty that comes with childlike conviction. Nor should you want to. In a world of horror and mayhem and chaos and collapse, physical and political, it’s important to have a refuge.

I now understand that it’s not Jesus who visits the believer but it is the other one, his invisible self or spirit, known as the Holy Ghost who indwells. He’s harder to tie down and Christians have been arguing about when and where and how and to whom he comes for years.

What would life be like without metaphor? The Holy Spirit is at once dove, fire, water and wind and like all of these will not be tamed. He is who he is and cannot be constrained or contained by denominations or creeds. I love his mystery and his invitation to come and join him in the great romance of the Trinity.

I was out walking this morning, hood up against the breeze blowing briskly on the cusp of spring. I decided to try not to think and just listen. The wind picked up as I strode to higher ground and it ‘druthered’ through the trees – mostly the evergreen pines where there is enough foliage to offer some resistance and produce the swirl and swish of air fighting to be free. When I turned the corner onto the Ballyrogan Road it blew fiercer and harder, licking my chin with its sharp tongue. In one place the trunk of a palm tree had been snapped in two leaving the top upended on the road like an ice cream cone. It was good to get the winter cobwebs cleared.

I have a friend who is into things spiritual and she told me about a funny incident that took place this week. She is a teacher in a local primary school and one day after school Harry, the caretaker, stopped at the door of her room and asked her if she’d been burning incense. She said no and he described a smell he’d noticed as he passed her room – an aroma, a perfume, a scent… My friend could think of nothing and wondered if it might perhaps be the Holy Spirit so she proceeded to expound some biblical truths to the janitor about how God’s presence can manifest itself in surprising ways. Harry was content, if a little bemused.

It was as she was packing up her bag to leave that my friend caught sight of some wooden sticks poking out of her pencil pot. She had brought them from home to use in her craft lesson but they had been sitting in a sweet-smelling oil diffuser all over Christmas and were still impregnated with the perfume. Not the Holy Spirit after all then! She giggled all the way home and was still laughing at herself hours later.

No harm came to Harry because faith is ridiculous and often the believer looks foolish, but joy and passion are infectious. As for my friend – she has learned that the ‘fragrance of life’ is not in her room, but in her.

‘The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going.’

Sunday, February 20, 2011

This is my Song (an extract)

Joy hated Sundays. She knew it was supposed to be a day of rest because God took a break after six days creating the world. But with her father being a professional Christian he was busier than God and there was no rest for him or the family. They were always up early, despite protestations that it wasn’t a school day. Her father was usually boiling eggs – a Sunday treat, and the only one at that. Throughout the day there were to be no ball games, riding bikes, listening to the radio (they didn’t have a television) or practising the piano. If they wanted to read it was Sunday books only.

No sooner had the soldiers of white toast been scoffed, than Joy and her two sisters were shoehorned into stiff Sunday clothes and marched to morning Sunday school at Oldpark Parish church. There they sat in circular classes according to age, with a teacher in charge of each group. They sang songs about Jesus owning the cattle on a thousand hills and then they had the lesson. They heard a Bible story, often illustrated by flannelgraphs – felt figures which stuck, or more often didn’t stick, onto a green baize cloth draped over a square piece of hardwood.

Joy's favourite was a picture of a chasm in which prowled a hungry-looking tiger. There was no bridge to get across until Jesus came and made a way to escape the clutching claws of the wild beast. There was homework too – passages of Scripture to learn and recite. Joy was good at this, because she went to elocution lessons, but some of the other children squirmed uncomfortably when it came to their turn. They stuttered though the first verse and then tailed off, looking at their shiny patent feet. It was worse than school and although no punishment was meted out for failure, the sense of shame and embarrassment was chastisement enough.

Joy always wondered why they weren’t allowed to ask questions. She had loads: If Jews didn’t eat pork, why was there a herd of pigs nearby for Jesus to send the demons into? On the Sunday before Christmas, when they sang, ‘Away in a manger’ one bold, bad girl asked the Sunday school superintendent how Mary and Joseph got pregnant when they weren’t married. Mr Burch shuffled on the platform and fiddled with the Church Army badge in the lapel of his second best jacket. The best was kept for weddings and funerals. He muttered something about an angel and a dream but Joy knew in her heart that there was mystery here and it was probably rude.

On the whole, Joy liked Jesus. Her parents were addicts and scoured the Belfast Telegraph for more and more meetings to attend, especially special missions for children. No matter what the denomination or venue, the formula was the same: lots of community singing followed by a rousing talk and an appeal. One such event was held in the local Free Methodist hall and hosted by Child Evangelism Fellowship. It was mid week and Joy was tired from learning spellings in preparation for Miss McIlroy’s Friday test. If you did well, you got to sit near the back of the room. The seating arrangement was changed after the test every week and the dunces who scored the lowest marks were moved nearer to the front. The goal was to get to the very back of the room next to the radiator and near the door. A crate containing tiny glass bottles of milk was plonked down there every day and if you were clever and quick you could snatch one before it curdled in the heat.

Joy didn’t want to go to the meeting – it was always a battle with her, and the family usually ended up hot and bothered with their eldest daughter pouting selfishly. Although she stood dutifully for the singing, in her heart she was still sitting down with arms firmly folded. Her uncooperative moods didn’t last long though because even at the tender age of ten she was a devotee of the well-constructed sermon. She could see it was an art form and one which she practised herself at every opportunity. This time it was the gospel in a nutshell. Plastered onto a board was a huge picture of a nutshell large enough to contain several kernels of truth. These poked out from the shell and the speaker extracted them one at a time and expounded their meaning. When displayed together the phrases made up a verse from the Bible which declared that God loved the world so much he sent his son down from heaven, where he’d been perfectly happy, to be crucified on a hill far away and if you could just believe that this was a good thing for a loving father to kill his son then you could live forever, not like Jesus because he died hammered onto a wooden cross with blood on his head from the crown made of thorns and the hole in his side where the soldiers stabbed him. Simple!

Joy's parents smiled down at her beatifically, apparently oblivious to the irony that their offspring weren’t allowed television because it might damage them and yet they were subjected to this horrific story of injustice, suffering, pain and torture on a weekly basis. It was too horrible to be believed and yet Joy did believe – every word of it. This Jesus didn’t die for long. It was all right in the end because when his friends came looking for the body it wasn’t there. He was standing in the garden with holes in his hands wearing a white dress and gazing up to heaven where the angels had a special seat for him and a hero’s welcome. The pianist was playing softly in the background as the speaker asked if anyone wanted to go to heaven and meet Jesus.

Joy wanted to very much. She knew she was a sinner because she heard that she was every week. Sin was second nature to her – first nature according to the preacher – and she wanted to wear a white dress and feel clean. She was always being naughty. Once she and Eleanor were playing boyfriends and girlfriends and Eleanor kissed her on the lips. Joy had also kissed a boy on the lips when he promised to buy her a bag of butter balls from the corner shop near the school back gates. Then there was that time when Eleanor made her take off all her clothes in her neighbour’s garage and the two of them marched round while the big boys in their street stared at them. They promised to give her loads of comics but her parents arrived and took her home where her father smacked her on the bottom. She never did get the comics. She really wanted to be good but it was too hard. She started to cry. Maybe Jesus could help. She made up her mind and gingerly raised her hand. The singer sang, ‘I have decided to follow Jesus, no turning back, no turning back.’

One of this week’s spellings was hallelujah – H A L L E L U J A H.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011


At the beginning of a lesson with Year 12 a boy greeted me with, “Can I ask you a rhetorical question, Miss?” I replied that he could but said that naturally he wouldn’t expect an answer. He nodded and looked at me. I looked back at him, waiting for the question. It didn’t come. Finally, with a smirk he said, “That was it. That was the question.”

Questions are funny things. This week my son-in-law, working as a locum in the A&E department of a Belfast hospital, tended a patient who had a nasty cut on his chin. He was rather the worse for wear (the patient, not the doctor) and Sam was trying to engage him in conversation as he carefully stitched the wound. After giving a few grunted replies the patient felt he should at least try to enter into the dialogue and asked Sam, “So, what do you do yourself then?”

In church on Sunday, our pastor told a story about the actor, Kirk Douglas, who apparently enjoyed giving lifts to hitchhikers. One such traveller, recognising the driver as someone famous blurted out, “Do you know who you are?”

Often we know the answer to our questions, but we’re making conversation and exploring our own and other people’s thoughts and opinions. Like the inner child we haven’t quite outgrown, we are always asking “Why?” I have lots of questions - most of them, it has to be said, for God. As I get older there are more and more imponderables and fewer easy answers. When I was a university student I knew a lot more, or thought I did, than I do now. I was a passionate evangelist and loved the certainty of religious conviction. Nowadays, God seems inscrutable and mysterious. Less sure, I still love the adventure of faith, the listening and the hoping and the wondering and the waiting.

Jesus liked to ask questions. Picture the scene: a blind beggar sits by the side of the road, desperate and needy and Jesus says, "What do you want me to do?" Wasn’t it obvious? Isn’t it still? I know there are times when I’m looking for direction and God says, "What do you want?" The will to choose and decide is a precious gift which is ours to exercise every day.

I may have mentioned GM Hopkins before. I love how the poetic agonies over his faith are infused with an irrepressible joy in God’s creation. He asks the big questions but doesn’t lose heart when he cannot arrive at a definitive answer. Hopkins believed in ‘inscape’ - that everything has an essential ‘isness’ - a self which screams out a singular aspect of its Creator.

Even trees, or especially trees. In Binsey Poplars, He laments the wanton felling of a row of aspens and lambasts those who ‘hack and rack the growing green’. Their loss is described as a death and a travesty for generations to come. There is an implied suffering as the destructive strokes ‘unselve’ the beautiful scene. By destroying nature we attack its very essence, and with it impoverish our own selves. Could it be that like the flowers and birds our only purpose is to reflect the glory of I AM? Every petal and feather, like every person, is a tiny piece of God. That’s who he is or at least that’s how we can catch glimpses of a little bit of who he is. He is so vast and we are so small that we can only understand if he draws us pictures, like a parent with a palette. In As Kingfishers Catch Fire Hopkins can hear creation cry “What I do is me: for that I came.” The Forestry Commission would do well to think on that as they rush through the sale of tracts of woodland without any safeguards.

It’s not as we worry or question or debate things to death that we understand, but as we are quiet and soak in the beauty of the Creator as reflected in created things that we know, find a self and are known. And that has to be answer enough, for now.

"Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet."

Friday, January 21, 2011

Softly, softly

January – the time of new beginnings! One of the things I love about teaching English is opening a brand new book and reading from chapter one. It’s an exciting moment as I and the eager (and not so eager) pupils embark together on an adventure of discovery. And such variety! From Digory and Polly bursting into the attic where Uncle Andrew rises like a demon from the chair to Scout, Dill and Jem daring each other to touch Boo Radley’s house and, with sixth form, wondering about the mysterious Gatsby reaching out towards the green light across the bay and meeting the troubled Meursault walking behind his mother’s coffin in the raining sun. From Narnia to Maycomb, to the American Dream and Existentialism, it’s entering new worlds and knowing we will never be the same again.

I was handing back a homework essay yesterday to a Year 13 boy when I informed him that I was going to tell him something which he would never forget – something that would live on in his memory after I was dead. He was intrigued; the whole class was intrigued. I wrote the word ‘full’ on the board and explained that this is the only time that the double consonant ‘ll’ occurs at the end of a word; all other words ending in ‘ful’ have only one ‘l’ – beautiful, joyful, thankful, hopeful… By the way, did you know that there are only four words in the English language which end in ‘dous’? I’ll let you think about that.

Speaking of new worlds, TV offers the same opportunity. This week I watched the documentary on RTE 1 about Ulster songstress of the 50s and 60s, Ruby Murray, who wowed crowds with her husky tones until her crooning career was cut short by the advent of filthy Rock n Roll and she descended into alcoholism. Her name may live on as rhyming slang for an Indian meal but she still holds the record for having five hits in the charts in a single week in March 1955.

The programme was called Ruby and the Duke and Peter Wilson (aka Duke Special) interviewed Ruby’s son and daughter and others who knew her in her heyday. Her story has been repeated so many times in the show biz/music industry: a meteoric rise to fame and success followed by a collapse into self-destruction and obscurity as the next new thing deposes the old. The highlight of the programme for me was the magical moment when Brian Kennedy sang one of Ruby’s hits, Softly, Softly accompanied by Duke on the piano. Absolutely gorgeous!

People may come and go; we will come and go, but some things are eternal – like good literature and good tunes. This is supposed to be the bleakest and darkest week of the year. Read a book or sing a song and live long.

Softly, softly come to me
Touch my lips so tenderly
Softly, softly turn the key
And open up my heart

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Ever After

It’s the first day. Whatever wasn’t achieved or accomplished last year won’t be. Not now. Scary isn’t it?

It’s been great to have the family home over the holiday. Christmas for me is about key moments: my son-in-law making parsnip soup with veggies gleaned from the field beside us now scattered with the yellow trumpets which were abandoned by the farmer hurrying to keep ahead of the encroaching snow; my daughter suggesting that we pause to recount memories of granny who died this time last year; me standing in the dining room with my arms raised in worship as James Taylor sang his hauntingly beautiful version of In the Bleak Midwinter:

Heaven cannot hold him
Nor can earth sustain
Heaven and earth shall fall away
When he comes to reign

The best Christmas moment was when my youngest daughter’s boyfriend arrived on Christmas Eve with a big present for her – a pair of Hunter wellington boots. In them she strode with him up virgin white Scrabo Hill where they had their first date five and a half years ago. At the exact spot where they sat then he drew her attention to a hamper containing a champagne picnic hidden behind a rock. When she turned back in surprise he was on his knees in the snow with the perfect ring. Romantic! She is our precious ray of sunshine. We’re delighted and wish them a lifetime of love and laughter.

Getting engaged is an act of hope and optimism – like gardening. After a frozen Christmas the thaw has turned everything to mud, but at least you can dig. My husband planted a beautiful Acer Tree this week and lots of bulbs. It’s a statement that there’s life after winter.

One of my favourite presents was a copy of Seamus Heaney’s latest collection Human Chain. Through his poems he explores the natural links between husband and wife, life and death, the past and the present, then and now. We are all part of this great chain as we spill over into another year.

Sometimes when I’m really busy I disappear into a soporific state when I do what has to be done without much feeling or enjoyment. I hate that. Life is for living and loving and noticing the people and the wonder around you. I’ve just been for a jog and watched swans in flight and the Brent geese standing guard by the roadside. If we don’t pay attention we miss things. My New Year’s resolution? To keep awake.

Had I not been awake I would have missed it,
A wind that rose and whirled until the roof
Pattered with quick leaves off the sycamore

And got me up, the whole of me a-patter,
Alive and ticking like an electric fence:
Had I not been awake I would have missed it,

It came and went so unexpectedly
And almost it seemed dangerously,
Returning like an animal to the house,

A courier blast that there and then
Lasped ordinary. But not ever
After. And not now.

(Seamus Heaney)