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

Saturday, August 4, 2012

You're welcome!

I’ve been in the Sunshine State where we were holidaying along the Florida Keys. We were thankful for the daily electric storms and heavy downpours to relieve the high temperatures and blazing sun. I enjoy relaxing as well as the next person but it was also an opportunity to do some research and extend my education.
Sunset off Key West

We spent a day in Key West, the furthest point of the great United States of America. The sunset from Mallory Square was spectacular. We gazed out at the ocean as it turned a vermillion red. Next stop Cuba. For several years Key West was the home of the author Ernest Hemingway and his second wife, Pauline. We went on a guided tour of the house which still contains Pauline's ridiculous chandeliers imported from Europe. We stood in the upstairs loft of the annexe where he penned many of his greatest works. Hemingway was a man's man who loved to fish and hunt and watch bullfighting when he lived in Spain. He spent hours on the seas between Florida and Cuba. This week I read To Have and Have Not, which relates episodes of derring do as boat owner Harry Morgan sells his services to the highest bidders needing a charter from Cuba to Florida and then kills them in cold blood on the high seas. In one memorable scene, Hemingway describes the fish circling the boat to enjoy an unexpected feast of 'ropey carmine clots and threads' leaking into the water after a frenzy of shooting on board.
Truth is often stranger than fiction and on a beach in Islamorada I met a man who lived through a Hemingway-like nightmare when his family fled from Cuba in 1980. Following an economic downturn and a run on the Peruvian embassy by people eager to leave the country, Castro announced that anyone who wanted to leave could go as long as they could arrange their own passage. Cubans who had relatives in the US hurriedly begged them to charter boats and send them to Meriel Bay where thousands of desperate men, women and children waited in tents and other makeshift accommodation to make their escape before Castro changed his mind. Among them was three-year-old Dennis Fernandez (the age his son is now) who remembers being bundled onto a craft which was not the one his aunt in Miami had paid for and sent, but who cared! In the melee it only mattered that you got a place on board a boat - any boat.

The craft designed to hold about 50 people was dangerously overloaded. Dennis remembers that it was very dark and cold. They were on a shrimping vessel. The women and children were inside and the men were on the outside clutching on to the long arms which reached down into the water. Dennis recalls that at first there were many men sitting there and then after each huge wave there were a few less and then even fewer. He could see five men, then he could see three men, and then one... A terrifying experience for a little boy. The boat in front started to take on water and was sinking. Struggling passengers scrambled aboard the boat containing Dennis, his parents and his baby sister. In order to cope with the influx of more passengers everyone was instructed to throw luggage overboard. Dennis's mother arrived in Key West with both of her children safe but without the address of the relatives who were to vouch for them. They ended up in a refugee centre outside New York until her sister was able to claim them.

The next day Dennis introduced me to his mother who came to the US with nothing at the age of 30 and who has just retired as a medical officer at a cancer hospital and managed to put her daughter through law school and help her son to get started in the real estate business. She told me that when she arrived in Miami in 1980 she shaved off her long black hair and offered it as a thank offering to the life-size statue of Santa Barbara which still stands in her sister's garden.

It is estimated that between April and the end of October 1980 125,000 Cubans fled from Castro.  The 'Merielitos' as they became known were initially welcomed with open arms by Jimmy Carter's government but tensions were heightened when it was discovered that Castro had opened the prisons and mental institutions and basically transported all his undesirables, along with the genuine refugees, to the US.  In October of 1980 the flow of desperate Cubans was brought to an end.

From Key Largo to Key West, in every restaurant and shop there rings out the cry, 'You're welcome!' In this country which prides itself on freedom, for many this welcome was a matter of life and death. For millions of people from every nation in the world this has been the land of opportunity - the place to live out the American Dream. Coming from a part of the world where being miserable is our national sport, it was fun to soak up the US welcoming spirit as well as the sun.

We still couldn’t work out, however, when it's such a multi-cultural society, how everybody's granny was Irish!

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Arise...and come with me

Well it’s done and dusted.  Another daughter is married and our nest is again empty.  It’s been a very busy time with an invasion of South Africans, a hen do, a stag day, the wedding and a grand tour all in the same week.

The ceremony took place on June 21 in Trinity Chapel, Dublin.  In the morning I woke to the sound of cars sloshing through the rain.  As we waited to leave the hotel I overheard a man in the foyer telling his friend that if someone gets splashed with rain on the longest day of the year, their life will be long and their beauty preserved.  My man incorporated this gem of wisdom into his Father of the Bride’s speech.

During the service a friend read from the lovely Song of Songs: ‘the rains are over and gone. Flowers appear on the earth; the season of singing has come’. As we emerged from the chapel the rain stopped and the gorgeous bride and groom were able to step over the puddles to have photographs taken at the bell tower in College Square.

They left in their much-loved red Micra and as we drove towards Carton House the skies cleared and the afternoon was dry and bright.  The photographer took the newlyweds off into the woodland in a golf buggy.  It broke down and they were stranded until the hotel staff were alerted and came to rescue them.  The rest of us were happily imbibing pink champagne, unaware that the bride and groom had gone AWOL. 

The meal was delicious, the lamb ‘better than we have in the Karoo’ and the speeches were replete with climbing puns.  The wonderful Brian Houston sang Elton John’s ‘Your Song’ as Maria and Willem led the dancing.  A magic moment and I would quite happily have died and gone to heaven it was so beautiful.  More dancing and cake and then it was nearly over.  The South Africans regaled us with their country’s anthem with tears in eyes and hands on hearts and then the bouquet was thrown and caught by my son’s girlfriend!  Not another wedding just yet, please!

The honeymooners have had a week on a Greek island and are now en route to Spain where they will be joined by the best man, bridesmaids and little nephew for climbing and fun and all without us. What to do now with my empty nest, empty heart and empty soul?  An elderly neighbour told the man and me that we’d have to learn to talk to each other again.  Can we find a new place to live – on the edge of our children’s lives, rather than in the middle?  Who am I now, if not the mother of the bride? 
I realised this week that as I lay down one title there are others: mother-in-law and grandmother.  Parenting and grandparenting will never stop but for now I need to find a space where I can rediscover me and grow into my new season.  Perhaps the words of Solomon apply:
‘Arise, come, my darling; my beautiful one, come with me.’

Monday, April 16, 2012

Doctor in Philosophia

We did Latin in school. In fact I did O level Latin and managed to pass. Very few schools still offer the classics, and there will be fewer still with the current teacher redundancies and cut-backs, but that’s another story.

My smattering of the ancient language was not enough to allow me to follow all of the proceedings at Friday’s graduation ceremony at Trinity College Dublin. It was a very special and wonderful experience, nonetheless, as we watched our daughter being kitted out in a bright red and yellow gold gown – the symbolic crowning of her academic achievement. She and her fellow PhD graduands went outside into the sunshine and mingled like canaries among crows with the other postgraduates on College Square.

We were surrounded by tourists, many of whom may have been on their way to see Ireland’s finest treasure, the famous Book of Kells, housed in the Trinity library. There are four vellum volumes in all which are gospel accounts, also in Latin, taken from the Vulgate. They were exquisitely crafted by hand, a work of artistic and spiritual devotion by Irish monks somewhere from the late 8th to the early 9th centuries. These combine Western calligraphy with ornate swirling motifs typical of Insular art, also in gold and vermillion. Many of the decorative elements are imbued with Christian symbolism. It’s a few years since I saw the exhibit, but I recall being deeply moved by the image of the snake struggling free from its scales. It spoke to me then of the process of being constantly renewed. I thought of it again as I watched the students donning robes like a new skin representing a transition from one stage and status to the next.

The bell tolled as we took our seats and then we heard the applause of the tourists outside who witnessed the brightly coloured procession led by the Provost across the cobblestones and into the 200 year old Great Hall. When her name was called, Maria stepped onto the raised dais and her doctorate was conferred in Latin. Then the Pro-Chancellor shook her hand and said, ‘Congratulations, Dr Morrison, very well done.’ Talk about proud parents!

Traditionally, the award of a degree signified a step from one level of responsibility to another in the art of disputation. The recipient commenced a higher role in the search for knowledge and understanding, so the degree ceremony is known as Commencements. The shocking thing is that only girls are capped because it is believed that men will continue to learn, discover and be amazing; the women, however, are presumed to have reached the ceiling of their learning and are expected to be satisfied and return to the kitchen sink.

My daughter’s thesis examined A Role for Type III Interferons in the Natural Killer Cell Immune Response to Virus. Me neither. Kitchen sink, I don’t think. Congratulations, Maria!

The Pro-Chancellor presents ‘meos filios’ (my sons and daughters) to the Chancellor as worthy not only because of ability, but also because of character. There will always be room for growth and becoming.

The Pro-Chancellor conferred the honours ‘ominis vero fausti felicisque in futurum’ (as an earnest of future success and happiness). This was an echo of the words of Psalm 20 which I have been praying for Maria since her childhood: 'May he give you the desire of your heart and make all your plans succeed.'

The Commencements were adjourned ‘in nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti’.
To him be the glory!

Monday, April 9, 2012

Good Day

Friday was good. Good Friday. Very good. Strange name for a day which commemorates a good man dying a criminal’s death stretched across a cross – a cruel execution. Of course, if Jesus wasn’t good then he was bad or mad.

Friday was very good for me because it came after Thursday. On Thursday I wasn’t sure if I’d see Friday dawn. Thursday was nearly my last day on earth. The man and I were involved in a horrible road traffic accident. Apart from seat belt aches and pains, we were miraculously uninjured, as was the other driver who crawled from the mangled wreckage after crossing the road upon impact, felling a wall and ending up facing the direction from which he’d come.

As I knelt on the grass verge in humble gratitude for the deep, if painful, breaths I was breathing, I allowed myself to momentarily imagine my children receiving phone calls to say that their parents had both been tragically killed. Not wise, imagining the worst, especially when the good has just happened. We were saved to live and laugh another day. A good day. Good Friday.

So now we can enjoy the new arrival in our family with even greater joy and celebration. I became a grandmother three weeks ago. Finlay George swam his way out of the birthing pool just before breakfast on 15 March to the delight of proud parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles all. People keep asking me how I feel about being a granny. What exercises me much more is that my baby girl is a mother. She whom I nestled and nursed is now nursing herself and making decisions about the care and welfare of another totally dependent human being. It’s as if there is a queue moving forward and someone has joined the line at the back and we’re now closer to the front. The front of what, I’m not sure.

Whoever is watching over us hasn’t finished with us yet. There are things to do that we have not yet done; there are people to be that we have not yet become.

Thank you for Finlay George and thank you for a good day to be parents and grandparents. Thank you that Finn will know me and that I will know him and watch him grow into the fair-haired warrior that his name promises.

'From life's first cry to final breath
Jesus commands my destiny.'

A Happy Easter!

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Not so Famous

Spring at Milecross

Spring has sprung, the grass has ris;
I wonder where the birdies is?

I can hear my father’s up-north accent intoning these lines across the decades as I contemplate the bursting forth of spring. On St David’s Day I took a bunch of gorgeous daffs into school and gave my Year 11 class copies of Wordsworth’s ‘The Daffodils’ as an unseen poem. Most of them got into the romantic spirit of the verse - one boy summed it up with, ‘He goes for a walk, sees lots of daffodils and falls in love with them.’ Quite. Another wrote sincerely about Wordsworth’s confusion regarding his sexuality - ‘a poet could not but be gay in such a jocund company’!

Yet on that lovely afternoon in 1802 when William went for a ramble, it wasn’t he who waxed lyrical about nature’s beauty. It was his sister, Dorothy, who wrote in her journal about ‘a long belt’ of flowers that they had happened upon in the woods beyond Gowbarrow Park, near Ellsmere in the Lake District.

I never saw daffodils so beautiful that grew among the mossy stones about and about them. Some rested their heads upon these stones as on a pillow for weariness and the rest tossed and reeled and danced and seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind that blew upon them over the lake. They looked so gay ever dancing, ever changing.

Apparently it was only after the death of their brother that William felt in need of comfort ‘in vacant or in pensive mood’ and two years after that famous walk he turned to Dorothy’s scribbles as inspiration for an expression of the consolation to be found in nature. So why then did Dorothy, who clearly had her own way with words, not write the poem herself?  Perhaps she was too busy. This idea appealed to Lynn Peters whose poem below I heard on the radio this week. So here’s a chuckle to celebrate the end of winter!

Why Dorothy Wordsworth is not as famous as her brother
"I wandered lonely as a...
They're in the top drawer, William,
Under your socks -
I wandered lonely as a -
No not that drawer, the top one.
I wandered by myself -
Well wear the ones you can find.
No, don't get overwrought my dear, I'm coming.

"I wandered lonely as a -
Lonely as a cloud when -
Soft-boiled egg, yes my dear,
As usual, three minutes -
As a cloud which floats -
Look, I said I'll cook it,
Just hold on will you -
All right, I'm coming.

"One day I was out for a walk
When I saw this flock -
It can't be too hard, it had three minutes.
Well put some butter in it. -
This host of golden daffodils
As I was out for a stroll one -
"Oh you fancy a stroll, do you?
Yes all right, William, I'm coming.

It's on the peg. Under your hat.
I'll bring my pad, shall I, in case
You want to jot something down?"

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Walking and Waiting

Just after Christmas I went on a Soul Space Retreat – my first. About thirty ladies gathered at Drumalis in Larne – a beautiful oasis run by the Sisters of the Cross and Passion. It was organised by Roz Stirling of Cleopas. The initiative is founded on a desire to see women find wholeness in a spiritual walk and the name comes from the story of the man who walked along the road to Emmaus with the risen Jesus without even knowing it!

That story formed the basis of a scriptural meditation, or Lecto Divina. This requires listening, really listening, being attentive and fully engaged with the passage until its meaning soaks into our very bones and we are yielded, renewed, challenged and changed. This is one of the spiritual disciplines practised by the ancients, which is finding favour again in a world of clash and crash and noise and doing. It means taking time out and away and apart, amidst the busyness and stress.

On the Saturday morning we were meditating on Psalm 23 and I took a wander through the beautiful grounds. I was thinking about how the Bible is awash with metaphor. Jesus is at once the light, the gate, the way and of course, the shepherd. Down a lane and round a corner I came unexpectedly upon a flock of sheep. Sheep are really stupid – they stare gormless into the middle distance waiting for something to happen or someone to tell them what to do. However, they do apparently have an acute sense of hearing and the ability to recognise the farmer’s voice. I wasn’t the farmer or the shepherd, so they ignored me.

The moment left me wondering whose voice I am hearing. Jesus made the amazing statement that he knows his sheep by name.

He knows my name?

In the beautiful, still (and chilly) chapel where we had our early morning reflection, there was a painting which intrigued me. In the centre Mary holds out her newborn son in adoration and delight. She rests him against the wooden side of a crib. I looked more closely and realised that the wood was not a crib but a cross, shouldered at the bottom of the painting by Joseph of Arimathea. The baby on a cross is a shocking image but one which reminds me of a poem by Steve Turner called Christmas is Really for the Children which says that people who are offended by ‘whips, blood, nails, a spear and allegations of body snatching’ would do better...

‘to wait for a re-run of Christmas without asking
too many questions about
what Jesus did when he grew up
or whether there’s any connection.’

I too feel caught between birth and death. A close friend is chronically ill. We’re in the waiting. My grandchild is also waiting to be born as we all wait with barely suppressed excitement to welcome him/her. Is it possible to walk through the valley of the shadow of death at the same time as rejoicing in the gift of new life? How does the heart cope with the pain and the pleasure when suspended between Christmas and Easter?

In her blog a friend recently wrote that she’s learned to recognise the difference between life and God. Stuff happens but God is always there – in the walking and the waiting.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

You'll never walk alone

To love and to cherish
They’ve arrived – the official wedding photos taken by the multi-talented Ken Haddock! Looking at them brings back all the happy memories filled with joy, celebration and thankfulness. To the groom’s great surprise, as the wedding party turned at the front of the church Craig Skene began to sing Liverpool FC’s anthem and Bryony and Stephen walked down the aisle to the congregation singing, You’ll never walk alone (apart, that is, from the ardent Man U fans).

We wish them many happy years walking together and with God.

Veneration of the brother
Beautiful bride

To us!
Mr and Mrs Bradley

Mulled Time

Nothing symbolises the end of the Christmas festivities better than the sorry sight of the large stainless steel saucepan (a relic from school plays past) which we use for mulling wine with sugar and spices waiting, forlorn, beside the back door. Soon it will be consigned to a dark corner of the garage, where it will gather dust until required again later this year.

To mull is to think over, to ponder, muse on, weigh and reflect. In this the first few days of the year, I throw all the memories and experiences of the last twelve months into the melting pot and see what rises to the surface.

The scum floating on the top smells of regret: missed opportunities, things said which I wish unsaid, disappointments with myself and my failed endeavours to do better this year. At times I am haunted by the verse in the Bible which says that if a woman knows what is right to do and fails to do it, for her it is sin. So for sins of commission and omission, sorrow.

Swirling in there are also the orange slices of bitter sweet times: great opportunities which were also really challenging, like going to India with Saphara. I am also thinking of friendships which have brought pain because of serious illness and loss.

But mostly there is the aroma of joy. It has been a year of rejoicing and celebration and we are deeply thankful, especially for a wonderful wedding, double degree success and a baby conceived in Mozambique.

And so what of the future? In January we are facilitating a course on Parenting Teenagers. They say that you don’t know how well you have done as parents until you see your own children parenting. As our eldest daughter is pregnant, we thought we’d better get in quickly.  A friend wrote on our Christmas card that becoming a grandparent is one thing in life that is better than they said it would be. I am so excited.

Being a grandmother will confirm me as middle-aged. I like to believe that I have at least one more big adventure in me so I am definitely open to fresh challenges. As I face the blank page of a new year I am hoping to find my voice, whatever lies ahead.

At this time of the year I often think about the story of George VI’s broadcast to the empire on 25 December 1939. The year ahead looked bleak, both personally and nationally. The king was suffering from lung cancer and the world was on the brink of war:

A new year is at hand. We cannot tell what it will bring. If it brings peace, how thankful we shall all be. If it brings continued struggle, we shall remain undaunted.

He then went on to quote from Minnie Haskins’ poem, The Gate of the Year:

I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year, ‘Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.’

And he replied, ‘Go out into the darkness, and put your hand into the hand of God.
That shall be better than light, and safer than a known way.’