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

Friday, July 17, 2015

Mademoiselle Marron

I have said au revoir to the gorgeous French village of Labastide Esparbaïrenque.  This week away on my own was a wonderful gift from the man who loves me so well.  I stayed for a week at a creative retreat where writers write and painters daub inside the studio or en plein air.  Of ‘plein air’ there was plenty.  Every day I walked through the forests and mountains enjoying the peace ‘dropping low’ to borrow from Yeats. 
I have been borrowing many words this week – from my parents, my teachers, authors, poets, my family and friends, all of whose voices are in my head: hymns, sayings, quotations platitudes, colloquialisms.  They’re all there spilling onto the page and I am wondering which voice is mine.  Wondering but not worrying, because this time has not been about producing something but becoming something: me.
When my mother was in her seventies, she revealed a latent talent for watercolours.  I bought her all the gear: the brushes, the paints and the paper but although she dabbled a bit she was singularly stubborn about it.  She just stopped bothering and I stopped asking.  I knew what was amiss.  Painting was not useful, productive, spiritual, as far as she was concerned.  She could not give herself permission to do something just for the fun of it.  Methodists did not do fun.  I feel sad when I think of it.

A wise woman asked me earlier this year what I would do with a day off to myself.  Initially I couldn’t think of anything I would like to do. For most women it’s the same:  a day off means a day to catch up with washing, ironing, cleaning, serving.  We have become an army of homemakers, wives and mothers - always doing for others and seldom taking time to develop our own creativity.  I finally said, ‘Writing. I’d like to write,’ and thus began a journey that has led to Labastide.  For many years I have been writing and editing others people’s stuff and now it is time for me.  The greatest gift I can give my children and grandchildren is not a body of work, written or otherwise, but a model of more and more becoming. 

On my last day I walked down into the next village of Roquefère.  No shops, just a cluster of houses and an auberge. The river winds its way through picturesque jardins ouvriers overshadowed by the mountain terraces.  I sat in at La Fenial, gîte and saladerie, and ate a delicious crêpe filled with crème de marrons. Sweet chestnuts to you and me.  Delicious cloying brown puree with soft pieces of nut that get in your teeth and linger on the tongue.  The proprietor was Anne-Marie and we managed a conversation in broken English and even more broken French.  ‘J’étais Mademoiselle Chestnutt,’ I said proudly and bought a jar to take home.

The walk down had taken only fifteen minutes but it took me an hour and a half to get back.  I tried to go off road and navigate my way up the hill by the river and the sound of the bell, but although I walked through beautiful fruit groves: apples, apricots and figs, I got lost.  It was hot and not for the first time I was caught in the dilemma of needing to drink and needing to pee.  Finally, I found my way back up to the road where I met famous Dutch soprano and author, Judith Mok, walking along singing at the top of her lungs. 
My room was called Calliope which means ‘beautiful-voiced.’ She was the daughter of Zeus and she taught Orpheus how to sing and charm the rivers and stubborn mountain rocks with his lyre.  She is usually pictured with a writing tablet or roll of paper in her hand.  Whether inspired by the mountains or the muse, I felt that last week I heard the whisper of a voice that may be mine. 

Montagne Noir is dotted with crosses, mostly wrought iron set in stone.  Shrines by the side of the path where people have set pebbles – requests, longings, prayers.  I chose a piece of beautiful brittle amber slate and set it beside the others. A thank you for the gift.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Book of Dad

I was amused to hear a report on Radio 4 this week about three men who travelled from London to Glasgow to leave 3,000 blank postcards in railway stations, shopping centres, restaurants and bars.  They were from the company 'Book of Everyone' and the postcards they left behind were stamped and addressed to their office.  The stunt was part of a project to allow children of all ages to send anonymous messages, 'What I never told my dad' to their fathers in order to create a personalised Father’s Day book.

Responses ranged from shocking secrets to poignant tributes:   'I fancied the woman you had an affair with'; 'I’m pregnant and, yes, Dave is the dad'; 'The weird smell in your office wasn’t mice – it was me peeing behind the desk'; 'Dad, I know you are on Tinder'; 'Dad, I voted Conservative'; 'I’ve tried to find a husband to match up to you and failed.'

It got me thinking.  I know someone who might want to confess to peeing behind the curtains in the assembly hall of a certain Holywood Grammar School; someone who snuck out and went to a night club when her parents thought she was in bed; someone who sat in the cinema every afternoon instead of going to Tech; someone who was not allowed to go to the pictures so said he was visiting a friend called 'Bugsy Malone.'

But that would be telling tales.  My own confession? 

'I took off all my clothes for the boy across the road for comics.'

You see we couldn’t afford comics and it seemed a fair exchange to my eight-year-old self at the time.  Looking back, I was fortunate that my naughtiness didn’t end in tears. Well, actually it did.  I never got the comics!  What amazes me to this day is how my father knew to come over the road just after the event and why he told me never to play there again. I thought he was totally ignorant of the bad influence.

Experience teaches that parents know rightly, although I am still uncovering secrets from my own offsprings' pasts.  I found out years later that when my eldest daughter burnt her hand on the way to her first A level exam, it was not in fact her sister’s fault.  An accident with a box of matches was blamed when the minx was actually smoking in the car and caught a falling cigarette in her palm

I am in possession of a Book of Dad – my dad.  A few years before he died he wrote down all of his war memories and I typed them up into a treasured volume which we called 'One Man’s War.'   He was a wireless operator flying in Lancaster bombers and his account includes details of no fewer than thirty-two bombing missions over enemy territory.  

Stuttgart, Kiel, Paullae, Stetten, Russelheim, Frankfurt, Leeuwarden, Essen…he records a long list of European towns where he and his crew dropped bombs.  Although their targets were mainly in industrial heartlands, however I think of it I cannot escape the fact that my father was responsible for the deaths of many people.  When you drop bombs on someone’s head you cannot even call it 'indirectly' responsible.  He did it and was proud of it. 

On one occasion he bailed out of a burning plane – thankfully not over enemy territory.  Sitting on the edge of the hole he promised an invisible God that if he got out alive he would become a believer and serve him for the rest of his life.  He survived and became a preacher and a fisher of men.  We didn’t have a TV for most of my growing up and when we finally did get one we were definitely not allowed to watch the silver screen on the Sabbath.  Yet I can recall coming home late one Sunday evening when I was in my teens to discover my father glued to the box.  He was watching the film The Dambusters and reliving his days of terror seated high in the Astra Dome with 100 Squadron.
What strikes me now is that my father was only 18 when he joined up.  He spent the next four years flying both during the war and afterwards in India, Burma and Ceylon (Sri Lanka) with Transport Command.  Most wars are fought by teenagers – they give their best years when others are going to university or starting careers.  When he was demobbed he left with his civvies, a meagre gratuity and memories of comrades lost.
I still meet people who found life through his preaching and his loving pastoral care. He died too young 30 years ago, but he is still my hero.  In the words of poet, Wendell Berry, I am 'the inheritor of what I mourned.' My dad has shaped so much of who I am and he is still here in every moment when I struggle to overcome and to become who I am meant to be. I wish I had half of his courage and determination, but he is always before me as an example of what it means to fight the good fight and finish well.

So what would I say to him now, on Father’s Day?  Thank you for fighting for me, long before you met my mother or knew my name.  Thank you for surviving and for showing me what it means to be wholly dedicated to hope.  Thank you for being such a shining example of godly kindness and generosity of spirit.  Thank you for introducing me to Jesus, in whom you now sleep.  Oh, and I did find a husband to match up to you – another wonderful dad.

'We are what we have lost.' (Wendell Berry)

Jesus Sings Swing

Although church bells ring out on the hour (twice) in this remote French village of Lasbastide Esparbairenque on the Montagne Noir there are actually no chapels open for mass on a Sunday, or any other day, and no priests.  I am staying at a creative retreat called La Muse which is an arm’s reach away from a quaint twelfth century church, but the door is bolted and the ancient clay bell is still.  The one we hear ringing through the valley day and night is on a timer.

Imagine, then, my surprise when I saw a notice in the village (no traffic and no shops) for a Gospel Swing concert at the church of St Térèse on the hill.  I walked up in the glorious evening sunshine, through the sweet chestnut grove, the path soft underfoot, its flowers strewn in an inflorescence of catkins.  
It was dark inside, the thick walls providing respite from the heat.  How strange that I a northern Protestant should be cosseted away in a Catholic chapel on the Glorious Twelfth.  The walls were busy, cluttered even with icons and pictures and to one side there was an alcove with a huge stone baptismal font, the water basin covered with one of those white crocheted nets your granny sets over the milk jug.    The ceilings and walls were a riot of colour, as if children had been given free reign with paintbrushes.  A rainbow arched high above me meeting the glass chandeliers which plummeted from the ceiling.  And candles everywhere, standing tall and to attention, like the soldier on the wall in a suit of armour, just back from the crusades.  Why is it that all the statues and figures in the carvings are carrying something? A lamb, a sword, a staff, an infant, a cross. 
These are the symbols stolen from me by the Reformation.  My mission hall mentality is starved of imagery and imagination.  Yet this week I am walking in the ‘forest glades’ and ‘lofty mountain grandeur’ of the old hymn.  The hummingbird hawk moth gathers nectar from the butterfly bush outside my window.  I find solitude by the river; I draw water and solace from La Source.  My soul is restored. I did, however, recognise the hard wooden pews with the brass stamp of ownership.  I wondered if the Famille Pagés minded me sitting in their seat.

The concert was late starting. Behind me I caught a sweet whiff of apéritif from the English tourists. The choir when it emerged was robed – scarlet and gold satin.  A blind pianist felt his way skilfully up and down the keys, and we were off.  The choir mistress was exuberant, as choir mistresses are, parading up and down the stone paved aisle, taking the solo or the descant and encouraging her small band of singers to hearty hallelujahs.  Her rendition of Ave Maria brought me out in goose bumps as the exquisite notes reverberated round the stone walls.  The concert delighted and amused me, especially when the choir mistress and pianist donned huge afro wigs before singing a number from Sister Act. For the most part they sang in English, familiar tunes if unfamiliar pronunciation. 
It was about half way through when I noticed him.  He was standing just behind the sopranos.  As they raised their hands in praise, so did he.  He didn’t seem to know all the words but he was wearing a similar robe and he smiled beatifically when they sang his name.  Life-size and carrying nothing, Jesus stood with arms wide in welcome – for the swingers, for the tourists and for the lone Irish woman in the third row who was happy to see him there.