Saturday, March 28, 2015

I'm back ....

Saigon skyline
I've been away. I'm back. And actually I've been home for a fortnight, but so far I've not felt able to write about the most extraordinary journey of my life. It was so different, you see - and though conversation with a friend and reading travellers' tales and watching movies and having my evening meal with the Vietnam war playing on the telly had all done their bit, nothing had quite prepared me for the experience of being in Vietnam and Cambodia. It was, indeed, only after returning home that I read, in the small guide book that was part of our pre-holiday goody-bag, the immortal words "visiting Cambodia is more of an adventure than a holiday".

I must say at this point that what became known as "The Hanoi Cough" didn't leave us unscathed, even though I was absolutely unaffected until the day we left to travel home. (It's amazing, the protective power of belief: I was convinced it was an allergy to the pollution, of which more later). And on a small cruise ship - our home for a whole week of the trip - such maladies spread, despite the  precautions; I can only say that the other great threat to health and happiness was avoided by being scrupulously careful with what we ate and drank, and the neurotic sanitising of hands).

There are moments that I shall want to revisit, but right now I thought to record some impressions before they become part of what I know and therefore less remarkable. The first was the heat. I've never been in the tropics, and the half hour we spent outside the airport in Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon) waiting for a hapless wench who was having visa trouble gave me a chance to notice how soup-like it felt. It wasn't that I was sweating much - in fact, unless I wore a rucksack, there was little outward and visible sign of sweat the whole time I was there. Interestingly, when I look back on the holiday, I realise that at no time did I complain of being too hot, other than in the cabin at night when we started taking the advice of Aussies who said to leave the air-con at 26ºC to avoid drying the air so much that it made coughing worse. The heat beat down when we were in the sun, battered us with its ferocity, but with a decent hat and the right clothes it was fine, as long as we didn't think about it.

The pollution proved a greater problem. A cyclo ride through central HCM City meant sitting in an
oversized bicycle basket being pedalled among hordes of motor-bikes along oceans of traffic while observing that my cyclo-rider and I were the only people I could see without a face mask. I am told that masks don't help with this kind of pollution, but the psychological effect was interesting. Even when we left the city and started to sail up the Mekong River we were affected - the farmers burn everything, so that a pall hung over the countryside every evening, and visits to traditional brickworks and crowded markets (where huge loads arrived on motor-scooters) all presented the same air-quality problem to someone more used to the cold wet sea air of Scotland in February.

All this sounds very negative, but the smells and the hot air were the ground bass to every other experience of the holiday, some of which were absolutely wonderful and require whole posts to themselves. But this introduction, an introduction for me as well as for anyone who reads it, will end now with a couple of generalisations. Vietnam seemed to me to be extraordinarily vibrant and go-ahead; the people seemed energised and forward-looking and the warfare of the 70s sufficiently in the past to be discussed as a proud history, even by people who were involved in it. Cambodia, on the other hand, showed me poverty as I'd never seen it: real, third world type basic living conditions;
terrifying lack of sanitation; acceptance of standards of hygiene that made us quail. We felt unbearably rich as we dropped in from our other world; I felt horribly guilty as the procession of coaches through rural Cambodia showered red dust over every thing and every person we passed. I know that the organisation that took us there makes a big contribution to the economy - as well as supporting an orphanage in Siem Riep - and that by visiting we were assisting in the recovery of a country that had only recently torn itself apart in a particularly brutal civil war, but I'm still thinking about it. I learned a great deal.

A final impression? The people. Unfailingly gracious and smiling whenever we encountered them. And young - at least, young to me. The average life-span in Cambodia is 68; if you live on the river, it's 58. So young, and so slender.

Oh, and that brings a memory that makes me smile: That cyclo ride? Mr B and I were among the last in our group to mount up, so that we were at the back of the train of cyclos weaving out into the traffic. By the time we rendezvoused at the Reunification Palace, we were the first to arrive, and it was clear that my cyclo driver had enjoyed overtaking one by one his colleagues who were burdened by the large white people who filled their baskets.

Me? I felt smug.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Another birthday, more memories ...

Another week, another rush of birthday memories. My second son was born on a bleak February day 37 years ago, exactly 4 years and one week after his brother. Writing that, it seems absurd that it was only four years, for in that time my life had changed so completely. For one thing, it seemed as if I had completed the transition from my Glasgow childhood - including university, work and marriage - to the adult life I've lived ever since. Not only that: I'd moved from the odd transience of our initial 18 months after moving to Dunoon with our 5 week old first child, 18 months when the fact that we were living in a council house used by the education department held out the promise of a possible return to the city - I'd moved from that to the house I still live in, overlooking the Firth, as solid a house as I'd lived in as a child. I'd made new friends, at least one of whom had already moved away to another life; I'd joined the church choir, become a vestry member. It was as if no-one had actually realised that I was a novice mum, a novice church member, a novice adult. From this perspective, 37 years on, I feel that four years are but a blink, but then they were a life-changing lifetime.

Having a baby in Dunoon - and are babies still born here, I wonder? - was very different from my
Glasgow experience. No due-date induction here; this was a GP maternity unit and you waited "until baby is ready". In my case, that meant waiting almost a fortnight past the due date that I at least had calculated with some accuracy: a fortnight of dragging my poor mother for walks up the Bishop's Glen in the hopes of getting something started, of complaining of the heat in our draughty sitting room of an evening when others were huddling round the fire. When I eventually reached the stage of thinking something was happening, it was the middle of the night; I phoned the hospital and was told to go back to sleep and come in after breakfast. Talk about anti-climax.

The morning was grey; there was light snow falling. I waddled carefully up the path to the car, waving goodbye to #1 son and grandma. I was admitted, the only patient on the maternity ward. And then it all stopped again. Another woman came in, I remember, clearly pregnant but convinced she just had a stomach upset. By teatime, she had a baby - she'd mixed up her dates. I was still unmoved. My GP arrived, told me he'd leave it to his colleague the next day if nothing happened before then. Nothing did. And so, two weeks later than I'd anticipated, I was induced after all.

But it was still very different. I was brought my lunch, and ate it between contractions. "You'll need all your strength", the nurse said. My husband arrived, suffering from flu and looking worse than I felt. Four hours later, #2 son was born, delivered by one of my lovely GPs in a pink shirt and a plastic apron. "You've got another great big boy here, Mrs McIntosh," he told me. We were left - husband, baby and I - in the delivery room, to get acquainted. We wondered at the red eyes of this large baby - the effort of birth had affected us both. He looked solemnly at us. Later, over a cup of tea, he was returned to me, clean and sleeping. "He's got all his bits," I was reassured. There was no-one else in the small ward - the other mother was next door.

In that half hour or so, while the nurses went for their tea (I presume) and the early evening darkened outside, I knew I was happy. This doesn't often happen - frequently we look back and recognise happiness after it's over. But I was suffused with a happiness that I knew and owned, and I've never forgotten it.

One sad memory from the week that followed: I could never bear saying goodbye to 4 year old #1 son at the end of afternoon visiting. He used to cry, and when he'd left, I cried too, in that bleak time in hospitals between visiting and teatime - and see how that is the same time when I was so happy on this date? And so began the juggling that is the lot of anyone with more than one child ...

So, #2 son, if you read this from wherever in the world your extraordinary job takes you, this shows once more how much more memorable your children's birthdays are than your own. Of course, you and your brother already know this - and you in your turn will still be remembering, God willing, in 2055.

How, I wonder, will you choose to record the memories then?

Monday, February 16, 2015

I remember it well ...

 I've been thinking about birthdays today - not least because it is the birthday of my firstborn. Now he's a very adult person and has been around for longer than the clarity of my memory would lead you to think, and that's the point, really, of this post. All through Saturday, I was remembering that Valentine's day over 40 years ago, when I was leaving to go to the maternity hospital and suddenly my husband turned up, having been sent home from work because the school boiler was burst. No maternity leave, just chance making the mid-term weekend slightly longer. And then I could go on to remember the very strange day indeed when I was subjected to then customary rigours of being induced on my due date, and faces came and went, and I lost interest in how my life was going to be changed for ever and concentrated on the more pressing (as you might say) matter in hand.

The birthday is actually today, because even with induction and much yelling from two midwives, the business of labour took so long. But it is the clarity of the memories that lead me to the conclusion that actually one's birthday is of far greater importance to one's mother than to oneself.  I think that unless one is a small child excited about presents and parties the whole business of remembering the actual day is one in which only a parent can fully participate. I remember with some angst my lack of
preparation for the birth - my refusal to go out and buy baby garments, for some reason connected with superstition and not counting chickens. My parents, I remember, turned up one afternoon at my flat in Hyndland bearing a Mothercare bag and insisted I stash it somewhere sensible ...

We, of course, had complicated matters by deciding to move to Dunoon. Mr B was already working
there, and the early mornings were fraught with getting up in the dark and wondering if the ferries would be running. There were nights when the boats were off and he couldn't get home. There was the strangely transient feel to my existence at the very time when I suppose I should have been building a nest. And I can remember it all.

I suspect we're all the same, we mothers. My mother - above, holding a rather small me - used to tell me how, high on whatever pain relief they gave you in these days, she hallucinated that there were men dancing on the roofs of the houses on the other side of Great Western Road from Redlands. She also told me they offered her tripe for her tea. (She declined.) And she always made sure she gave me something great for my birthday - many of the most esoteric books on my shelves came through her.

The other baby photo is of the one whose birthday falls today. I won't embarrass him by giving him a name. But I wanted to record the moment I realised that no landmark birthday of my own has ever seemed as unforgettable as his - or his brother's.

But that's next week ...

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

On cooking, baking - and custard creams

I've been thinking about food. Or, to be more accurate, I've been thinking about cooking and baking and how I feel about these activities - and about the fact that this morning I spent about an hour reading a recipe book. (I was given a pile of wonderful Ottolenghi books for Christmas; they're already full of paper markers and a list to tell me where exciting-looking things are.) It is perhaps a clue to my attitude that I then felt compelled to clean the bath - for a small inner voice told me that I'd been wasting time, sitting in my cosy living-room looking at the birds on the snowy feeder and reading about food. And cooking.

I love food. I'm what you would well call fussy, in that I like interesting and well-cooked food, and that there are things I body-swerve with increasing dedication: cream, fatty foods, shellfish, anything that will lie weightily in my digestive system long after I'd prefer to have forgotten about it. My mother, and now my sister, have long mocked my preference for green tea. But because I love good food, I try to produce same - and on the whole I would say I succeed. The creation on the right is one I recently enjoyed - venison fillet accompanied by freekeh pilaff and garlic yogurt - and I usually say that no-one who likes eating should be incapable of producing a decent meal.

But even after almost 44 years of being responsible for making the meals in my own home, I still feel it's not really me. I have the sense that I'm a sort of dilettante cook, playing at it without having acquired the basic skills or even the right equipment. Baking is even worse. My closest pal throws pastry together without a thought and uses it to entertain my grandchildren; she may never know (unless she reads this) how much awe I hold her in for this simple act. My Christmas cake is the best I've ever eaten, but since I stopped making children's birthday cakes it's the only cake I ever make - and more or less the only cake I eat, come to that.

So when I refer to myself as a Domestic Goddess, you should know that I do so in the spirit of deepest irony. Cooking - and the odd bit of baking - gets fitted in round the rest of my life even if the results are totally toothsome, and there's always this feeling that I'm in the same boat as the monkeys writing a Shakespeare play. Or something. My attitude to eating, I've decided, has hardened over the years. I shall never again, for example, eat a pizza - because you have to climb a Munro to use up the resulting calories. And I shall leave you with one final, devastating truth:

Life is too short to eat a custard cream.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

A kind of madness ...

It's a sort of madness, I suppose. This need to be out of doors, preferably away from streets and cars and - if I'm honest - other people. This compulsion to walk fast enough, far enough, or maybe high enough to be tired, to warm up, to feel hungry.

Yesterday was not one in which I could accomplish this - a trip over the water to an appointment in Greenock and a subsequently late lunch meant that daylight had almost gone, and the rain was battering down once more. But today?

Not as promising as you might think. We drove out of Dunoon into a blizzard; the hill where we planned to walk couldn't be seen. But there was a glimmer further west, the merest hint of blue in the sky. I felt all would be well. And it was. Actually, we had one or two fierce snow showers in our faces as we walked, and an arboretum wasn't exactly a sensible place to start in the aftermath of a gale. There were branches and twigs all over the track; four conifers had fallen in a straight line, each one miraculously not hitting any of the trees among which they toppled; one huge eucalyptus was down while another swayed at a crazy angle. We could hear the wind roaring through the tree-tops, and there were alarming creaks all around. There were two daunting moments when we had to duck under half-fallen trees on the track. (One, two, three ... Why? What will that do? ... Make sure we have no survivor guilt.) But then we reached the lookout point, and the sun was out. It was quite sheltered, and the tall deciduous conifers to the left of the picture were swaying in unison as if conducted. My shadow, and that of the lone tree beside me, were clear on the far side of a small gorge - you can tell how far by the tiny figure beside the tree, which is yours truly.

By the time we got home it was 2.30pm. We'd eaten nothing since 9am. I felt legless with hunger. But I felt so much better than I have for days. It's a sort of madness, but it's my madness.

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Snuffing out the candles

 We are in the season of Epiphany. Today I took down the (moulting) tree, put the decorations back in the loft, looked out at the rain, noted that the gloom of early morning had moved imperceptibly into the gloom of early evening, and reflected. I reflected on the past fortnight or so, in which the raging energy brought on by the pronouncement of the Bishops (read back - the links are all there) had been dissipated in singing beautiful music and soothed by the magic of Christmas.

And I have been consolidating something I've known for a long time. It's a long time since I stopped thinking that the gospel accounts of the Nativity are literal truth, half a century or more since I realised that in fact the gospels are full of what a student of literature recognises as the hallmarks of a fictional account. (Think of all that direct speech, for starters). And over the years I've heard sermons that have, in their way, dealt with that - pointed out relevance, invited us to think. And I've thought.

Now, as the rain batters on my study window, I can see clearly what it does, all this magic. I don't care that the stories of the shepherds, the angels, the Magi (and Eliot's wonderful poem about them) - I don't care that they can't possibly be true in the way that it's true that I was born in Glasgow. I don't want them changed in any way, for they are perfect. They are perfect poems that contain a truth that inspires, and they are best absorbed as poems, enhanced by art and music and beauty.

And what does this truth inspire me to? I suppose in one way you could say that it inspired me to become a damned nuisance. It certainly knocked me off a comfortable path and set me climbing the spiritual equivalent of the Aonach Eagach, on a ridge walk that I'm still clambering along more than forty years later. It's exciting, it's bound only by trust and love and balance, and that's how I want it to remain.

What does not inspire is a set of rules. Dogma and authoritarianism aren't very thrilling either. Dry politicking within ecclesiastical structures leaves me cold, and people - men, usually - telling me what can and cannot be done because of history and prejudice will tend to set me off on yet another mountain, to sustain the metaphor.

So what about all the beauty and mystery and the stories that tell us of Love incarnate and inspire us to love justice and truth and our neighbours as ourselves? I can't imagine that our bishops, for example, haven't had a bit of that for themselves this Christmas. None of them, after all, is as old as I am - surely they're not blasé about the mysteries they dispense? Does none of it do something to rekindle the fire that, presumably, used to burn in them?

Because in the end, that 's what it does, this season we've just had. It rekindles a fire. Dangerous element, fire - but warming and wonderful. Gives you courage. Gives you passion. I have heard at least one of our bishops preach with passion - but a new image has just presented itself to me, and it seems horribly apt.

Bishop's mitre as candle snuffer.

Icon, anyone?

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Crisis? What crisis?

In what has been described as the biggest crisis to engulf it in living memory, over 50 Scottish Episcopalian Church (SEC) clergy – around one in six – have signed a letter condemning the stance of their bishops over same-sex marriage.

 Gosh. Two pieces in the paper - The Herald, even - in one week. Almost as good as the SNP ... But I get ahead of myself. Normally the Scottish Episcopal Church doesn't generate much news, but what the Bishops' Statement on Equal Marriage started in Wednesday's paper rumbled on into the weekend with a new story, the tale of an insurrection in the ranks.

 It's this word 'crisis' that interests me. For a start, it's a crisis that hasn't engulfed an awful lot of the worshippers that turned out this morning - the conversations I've had on the subject could be numbered on the fingers of one hand, and these were all with interested parties or senior clergy. But I know all about it, I've been part of the process that - surprisingly - ended up in this odd place, and I simply don't feel it's a crisis. Quite the reverse.

The fact that a good number of clergy - and, as the paper points out, a good proportion of those serving the church - have seen fit to think for themselves and say No, this is not what we think right, and have felt sufficiently confident in their own minds to stand up and be counted, this is not a crisis. This is a high point. This is exciting. This is the SEC doing what its own publicity says it does. 

When I posted the letter here the other day, I said I was proud of the signatories. I'm still proud. And I'm proud to belong to a church that numbers such people among its leaders. I'm thrilled that suddenly we're talking about the elephant in the room, and that conversations - real conversations, not this ridiculously neutered Cascade malarkey - are beginning to happen in real life, in churches, in sitting rooms, and not just on social media. We're showing that our faith can actually inform our decisions, guide our words, make us brave. We're showing that we can think for ourselves, as mature Christians who recognise that a great historical mistake is in danger of being perpetuated.

What I'm looking for now is some brave leadership from the top, from the Bishops who are supposed to provide a focus for this thoughtful and courageous process. It's still not too late for these men to recover some moral authority by showing some of the courage that their priests and lay leaders have demonstrated. 

And then the papers can stop talking about crisis and talk about joy instead.