Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Unpredictable - a poem revisited.

I've finally got round to some revising - a poem I wrote in Vietnam, in the heat and humidity of our first days there, before I'd settled into accepting it all. I was put off by the comments of someone I'd considered a sympathetic critic - made the mistake of letting him see the raw first draft. However, re-reading it and changing the structure more than the content, I find it recreates the moment, the strangeness, the otherness. So here it is, more than I year after I first wrote it.


The lawns of rice deceive the eye
until one sees unwillingly
the ditches and the depth
and something strange and out of place
like graves or shrines in centre-field
and recognises foreign-ness
as tangled in this alien world
as mats of green inexorably
drifting on the muddy tide, which
people eat, like snakes in wine
and scorpions, and spiders piled
in glistening heaps to tempt the eye.
And flowing round the air’s embrace
is heavy with the drifting smoke
of stubble burning in the fields
beyond the river’s parapet where
sunset comes before its hour.
A song comes from a hidden bank
and cattle, golden in the light
descend to drink and all is strange
and lushly vibrant in the dusk.

C.M.M. Vietnam 03/15

Monday, March 14, 2016

Fair buzzing in Oban

Victorious table at dinner
I've mulled it over for the past five days, but now I realise that Synod reports are being demanded - not, happily, from me - right left and centre and it's time I put down my take on the Argyll and The Isles Diocesan Synod. The main impetus, to be honest, came from two online sources: the Primus' blog, in which he said his synod had 'a buzz', and the commiserations of friends on Facebook that I should be enduring this thing.

I'll deal with the latter first. The only commiserations I might have deserved lay in the fact that the Synod itself was held in (yet another) windowless room on a gloriously sunny day in a location next to a sea loch and an attractively wooded shore line: I did get stir crazy, and spent the lunch break picking my way down to a beach and over dub and mire as the birds sang round me. The rest of the time I was really enjoying myself, both on the pre-Synod day (it's hardly worth it to bring people from such a far-flung area unless they get a decent shot at socialising) and during Synod itself.

And that brings me to the former stimulus: I don't know what caused the buzz at the St Andrew's Synod, but I have a good idea of what contributed to our buzz. (I'd really like to know, by the way, what manner of buzzing goes on elsewhere ...) First of all, of course, we have an extraordinary bishop who could cause a buzz in a morgue. He delivered an ode, for Heaven's sake. But actually it was more than this. I am convinced that the excitement arose from the fact that instead of sitting in stupor listening to presentation after presentation we were allowed to talk to each other, about everything from the balance sheets to the first time we'd encountered the Holy Spirit.

This was achieved by a variety of methods, but primarily by the fact that on the Pre-Synod day, reviewing our progress with Building the Vision, we had two facilitators making us mix - moving people from one table to another after the manner of a Snowball waltz, for instance. At Synod, each table had a facilitator (I was one) to get people talking, as at General Synod a couple of years ago. And yes, we talked about the accounts and as a result made demands for more detail, clarification, amplification ... Before anyone asks, I had a plant at my table, an accountant who could make more sense of a balance sheet than I care to, so that I could merely render into words the data he fed me.

By the end of the two days, I came to this conclusion: people are excited by what brings them together in a situation like this. They become animated by the chance to share it with others whom they don't really know - because this unlocks the kind of honesty you sometimes find in a hospital ward, the honesty of strangers, when inhibition and fear of something you say coming back to bite you can be cast aside. So that is what lay behind the astonishment of the imported facilitator when she remarked on the alacrity with which pairs and groups got to grips with the Big Questions - she couldn't believe how little fencing she met as she moved round.

I have to confess that I enjoy facilitating a group. I love being able to make people feel at ease with one another and with the topics they've been asked to consider. I love realising I've managed to break the ice without losing anyone under it.  It feeds all sorts of my own needs for interaction - and that's before we get on to the subject matter under discussion.

I haven't mentioned the other aspects of this meeting, that had me and others in Oban from late on Monday afternoon till late afternoon on Wednesday. I've not talked about a riotous dinner after the Synod Eucharist, nor about the quiz that my table won and the Bishop's Easter Egg (our prize) that I suspect may have vanished to Cumbrae. I've not mentioned the Monday night, the dinner on the pier with old and new friends, nor the delight of watching a first-time visitor grow in confidence as the days went on. I can't tell you how much I laughed, nor how much I was laughed at. It was all part of the whole.

So yes: there was an enormous buzz at the Argyll Synod. There was laughter, there were tears, there was pastoral work being done over lunch breaks, there was kindness, there were friendships rekindled. For me, there was also the knowledge that it was my last: I've served on General Synod for the past 10 years as alternate or elected representative, and it's time to step down. I'm not a committee person, and I hate being trapped indoors. But even with all that, I'm sure of one thing. I'll miss it.

Monday, February 01, 2016

Of urban open spaces and a post-war childhood

I was reading the other day about a dispute over an area of land in the West of Glasgow which is currently used as a (relatively) wild place for children to play, for people to grow things, to be free, and which is threatened by proposed housing development. The writer went on to enlarge on the features that make it so important to retain its use for recreation, particularly the benefits to children's health and wellbeing of such unstructured play in a traffic-free area in a city.

It had me thinking of my own childhood freedoms, also in the West End of Glasgow - freedoms positively enhanced by the relatively recent World War 2. I'm sure I've mentioned much of this before - the place where the land-mine demolished a bit of Polwarth Gardens' tenements, and the huge blocks of red sandstone that still littered the site sticks in my mind, although as a Novar Drive kid I didn't stray there often; we were very territorial in these days. My usual companions lived in the next close and we barely tolerated strangers ...

My usual playground was an open space in Novar Drive where the end of Lauderdale Gardens didn't reach as far as the Novar and was linked to it by a muddy track over empty, hilly ground. On the lower side, which has now been built on, there was a rubbish dump, an infill site, I suppose, where building debris (a result of bombing?) shared the space with more mundane litter like soot left by chimney sweeps (great face-paint) and at the top of which was the underground air-raid shelter in which we sometimes lit illicit fires. To the far side of the dump were two brick-built shelters with thick concrete roofs; we rarely went inside (too smelly) but played Kingball, precariously, on the roof of one.

When it snowed, I borrowed a sledge from a neighbour whose daughter was a good 6 years older than me - she would be at school and I'd be hurtling down the sloping field, often alone, for hours. I have a feeling that the winter I'm recalling was my first at school, when Hillhead Primary had an intake in January; some primary teacher must have doubled up and taken my class in the afternoon after her morning class had gone home. My mother, already having to attend to my 2 year old sister, would despair at converting my wet, grubby morning self into a schoolgirl in time for the 1pm start. (Crazy idea, now I think of it again.)

When the days grew longer,  we spent hours climbing the stunted hawthorn trees on the hillier side of this area; swinging from branches and making dens under - or on top - of them. And then there were the marathons, when we ran round and round a small path that cut through the long grass until we were gasping and scarlet in the face ... and the hiding places in the grass where we used sticks for rifles ... to say nothing of playing chase the arrows all over Hyndland, all the way to Clarence Drive ...

I was always grubby, always scratched, always exhausted by the time our parents summoned us all from the windows of our flats. When we left Hyndland for a "low door" in Broomhill I was devastated. At the age of 10, my life outwith school had been changed for ever. Shades of the prison house ...

I looked up my old haunts on Google Earth. They're barely recognisable, though "my" tenements haven't changed. This first picture is of the play area I've described in such tedious detail. The whole tenement block on the right is new - that's where the rubbish and the overground air raid shelters were. The trees are new - though clearly they've been growing for a while. The play-park just visible on the left is new, and I would have scorned it as tame and at the same time treacherous (I always got sick on swings).

 The second picture looks from the same place as the first, down Novar Drive. New tenements on the left - but you can make out where the old ones begin, with a lane in between which was always there. The top flat we lived in has the bay window just before that tall chimney head on the right of the road. It all looks very crowded, with the cars on either side. We played in the street and in our wilderness, and no-one worried. (Actually, children don't know the secret worries of the mother marooned with a baby in a top flat who suddenly can't see her firstborn and wonders where it might be ...).

What I'd actually like to know is how my own offspring would have fared in this environment, instead of the seaside town we brought them up in - and even how their children would cope with a top flat. What I do know for myself is that I couldn't return.

It was good, though, back then ...

Sunday, January 17, 2016

A cold collation ...

The weather wasn't promising. Snow yesterday and a cold night - a typical recipe for a stressful cold coming to church in the morning, with the added complication of visitors driving over from Rothesay and the Bishop and Mrs Bishop making the journey from Oban. Verily a recipe for an anticlimax, if not a disaster. But the county gritters had seen to the roads and our heroic Priest-in-charge-now-our-Rector had cleared the drive so that even the most timid could get to church for the service that would collate Andrew as our Rector. (This was a new word for me, in this context: given the weather and the temperature inside the building I could only think of a cold collation that might be served if one turned up late at Downton Abbey - but I wander).

It was joyful to hear +Kevin tell us that we were a sign of the promise that we could be the instruments of our own change, that we had achieved what had seemed impossible and were a shining example, etc, etc ... and as I sat there I did think back to the days of doom and gloom and no money and doors that would shut forever after seven years, though mostly I thought that if we'd been less fortunate in getting this curate who used to design battleships then we might well have sunk without a trace. (That seems a suitable collocation of ideas, as opposed to a collation ...)

And there was another joyful thing. Yesterday - and on Friday, when the leak first escaped that the Episcopal Church in the USA was to be rapped on the knuckles for its acceptance of same-sex marriage, when the less well-informed press were announcing that they'd been kicked out for being naughty - yesterday I wasn't looking forward to today, much - didn't feel happy in my Anglican shoes, as it were. But then I arrived in the church, already pretty full of our own flock and the intrepid Rothesay people with whom we share our Rector - and found that all around I could see people were wearing badges. Not little, discreet lapel pins, but big, bright protest-style badges, courtesy of Kelvin, like the one I was wearing, like the one I'd given to Mr B to pin on his scarf (leather jackets and pins don't go well together). Badges like the ones in the photo. And I felt at one with the world - or at least the world in our part of it.

Because that's the point. There is no way a community can rejoice and congratulate itself and share fellowship if it is silently complicit in an injustice to not only many of its members but also countless other human beings who only want equality and justice. But I'd say enough of us are in this together to make rejoicing a possibility. 

It was a good day in this part of the diocese. A good day.

Thursday, January 07, 2016

The meeting


This the night when under the dark dome
the hard stars shine and that one
shines brighter than them all, the night
when power and pomp and wisdom and wealth
come seeking a king and find instead
love in ordinary, human love, vulnerable
to all that wounds beneath the sky -
This is that night. It comes again.

For earthly power was melted then
in tears of joy, of journey done,
of understanding what lay there
in poverty of place and rank
and all they knew, these visitors,
collapsed in shards of sudden loss
and left them free to live again -
This is that night.

©C.M.M. 6/01/16

Saturday, January 02, 2016

Sere or sage?

No, it's not a typo. In fact, I'm rather pleased with the title of this post, which came to me with the delightful inconsequence that sometimes surprises me. The punning possibilities are wonderfully appropriate too ... look it up yourself (if you need to, erudite reader) and see for yourself. But not, perhaps, before you've read this, my little New Year's ramble through my head ...

Like my friend Mother Ruth, I've been thinking I ought to get back to blogging more - the thought coinciding this time with the reflective season. As my memories of Christmas tend these days to be trotted out on Blipfoto, I'm reflecting this new year on what comes with the passing years. Is it honour, love, obedience, troops of friends (there's a theme here) and nothing more? Is it in fact none of these? (obedience? I ask you!) Is it something more ... inward?

Well, yes, actually. Inward, with outward manifestations. And it's to do with confidence. Not, I hasten to add, the confidence that had the 10 year old me scooshing along a slide in the ice, sure of my balance and the supple joints that kept me upright; not the confidence that takes you down a rocky path even faster than you clambered up it. No. There are endless nibblings that erode physical confidence by the time you get into that seventh decade. But I've recently realised that I no longer fear being somehow "found out", and that's a big compensation.

So what kind of fraudery was I scared of being discovered in? Perhaps the easiest to pin down was one I've mentioned before. When I moved to Dunoon with my five-week old baby I discovered that everyone I met regarded me as a fully-fledged, adult mother who also happened to be a fully-fledged member of the Scottish Episcopal Church. In fact, my membership of that body was almost as young as my son, and I no more felt like an adult that I did a Klingon. (Why did that comparison slide in there?) I was playing a part, and surely it was only a matter of time before I was found out.

Five years later I became a member of the General Synod of this church I had only recently joined. I was the youngest lay member, for sure, and may even have been younger than the most juvenile clergyman present (remember - they were all men, in these far-off days. There were only 13 women on the whole body in this, its final manifestation; we had voted ourselves into extinction by the time my stint was over). I looked in awe at practically everyone present, and was sure they thought me a child. The only person who seemed on the same planet as me was Richard Holloway; one day, at lunch, he offered me "some barbecued peas" and we laughed.  Did he realise how I felt?

But to the present. The joy of being the age I am now is that I know who I am, what I can do. I am less likely to take on something that I don't feel comfortable doing, so the things I do undertake I undertake confidently. I care less, much less, what people think of me - whether it's the colour of my hair (currently a sort of Pentecostal red) or my political opinions. The people I love may disagree with me about issues large or small, but it won't stop me loving them. I have fewer bosom buddies than in my teens, but have learned the importance of knowing who can be relied on in a corner.

I could, I realise, go on and on ... Bishops are all younger than me; clergy have to earn my respect like anyone else; I don't worry about fashion (did I ever, much?); I don't mind people knowing I watch East Enders (hasn't it been black over Christmas?); I no longer read books because I should. I find myself able to speak to all sorts of people on all sorts of topics, from bereavement to equal marriage, and find them listening as if I actually have something to say.  I will no longer be patronised.

Perhaps all this is what lies behind the wearing of purple, the living in a van, being Lady Violet Crawley ... all these impossible old women of popular culture. Purple doesn't go with the hair right now, and I'd find a van chilly, but I can see a future here ...

Thursday, December 24, 2015

The ghosts of Christmas Past

It's a strange phenomenon, the power of Christmas Eve to resurrect memories so strongly and yet so randomly. As I listened to the first of the closing voluntaries from the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols from King's, there came into my mind a memory of myself, in my late teens, stricken with some inconvenient malady on Christmas Eve and spending that short afternoon in bed with the radio on, drifting in and out of sleep. I can't remember what ailed me, and cannot think it lasted, but at the time it felt unreal and solitary as the day darkened.

The small me in the photo (I think I was two) lived in blue dungarees and had to be coaxed out of them for family Christmas tea. (The yellow duck didn't join us - his red felt beak was too chewed for respectable company). We ate Christmas lunch, I remember clearly, in our top flat in Novar Drive, Hyndland, and went for tea to my grandparents' house in Hyndland Road. The whole extended family - the Stewarts, that is - would turn up there at some point in the day, though as I was the first of my generation I was the sole child for the first few post-war years. Families tended to live close, and there was public transport for those who were beyond walking distance.

I was remembering this morning how in my early married life I didn't do any Christmas food: my parents' house was ten minutes' walk from our flat (still in Hyndland) and we went there for lunch and stayed, stupefied, until it was time for bed. My first ever Christmas cake was made just before I had my first child - I'm sure I've recounted how, having slipped on ice in Clarence Drive, I had such a sore behind that I couldn't sit down, and dispelled my fears by baking. But the Glasgow Christmasses didn't end with our emigration to Dunoon; Cal Mac ferries seem to me to have run on Christmas Day and we headed back to Glasgow with our baby son. I do recall, however, that on the first year in Dunoon I iced the cake just before heading out to Midnight Mass: for the first time in my life I was attached to a church and had singing to do.

The long years of running Christmas myself occupied the greatest part of my life, having ended only five or six years ago. It still seems odd not to be making stuffing on Christmas Eve, and ramming it into a recalcitrant bird before church, odd not to waken to the smell of cooking and worry that the overnight temperature had been too high - or too low if the smell wasn't making it as far as the bedroom. There are no small children for whom stockings will have to be filled. I no longer have the restless wait for all the grown-up family to be safely here, nor the unholy rush between the end of term and the 25th. There is, theoretically, all the time in the world.

Time, in fact, to miss family; to look forward to seeing some and regret not seeing others; to have a suitcase packed and worry about taking the right things or forgetting presents or cooking brandy. Time to think about having dinner so that we can have a proper rest before our midnight sing/play/pray (have I got the intercessions? the music?) Time to wonder how we ever had the energy to drag sleeping choristers from their beds to come with us (really).

Now these choristers are cooking turkeys, looking after young children, preparing for visitors, in different parts of the country, and we are here, with the dark firth calm at last and the rain peppering the windows. Everything changes but the message of that distant birth. Even the carols - tonight our introit will be Advent Song, which is only four years old. And then Advent will be over, the waiting over.

And it will be Christmas.