Monday, November 29, 2010

Reflections on a man's place

At last - I've got on to a proper computer so that I can blog. Meet Anna, my new granddaughter - whom we're currently waiting to greet home. She's wonderful and well and her big sister can't wait.

All this had me reflecting on my own experience of childbirth, and how things have changed. When Anna's father was born, in Dunoon Hospital, I stayed in for a week - not because I was ill, but because that's what we did. It was very restful and we all had a good laugh on the ward, doing one another's hair and eating chocolate cake. I daresay we moaned a bit too. One thing we didn't see all that much of was our men; they appeared at evening visiting, which was for fathers. Grannies, friends and siblings came for an hour in the afternoon. The rest of the time was for us to slob around in, look like frights, sleep with our mouths open, have showers - all without caring. There was no-one to see. The babies slept in the little nursery; we could have them when we wanted and fed them when they wanted - but when we wanted some down-time, they were looked after and we didn't worry. Time enough for that when we got home.

Now, it seems, fathers take up residence in the ward. They lie on the bed, sit holding the baby while mum takes a shower, chat to other dads. Other visitors have regulated times, but the dads are there all the time, apparently. The baby is beside the mother's bed, and she changes nappies as if she were at home. Dads are pressed into service. The atmosphere is a far cry from the peaceful space I remember. I would find it completely stressful to have other people's husbands in the same space as my dishevelled self - we used to spend the hour after teatime putting our faces on and washing our hair so's to look wonderful for evening visits. Progress? Total involvement?

Of course, there was a time when childbirth was Women's Work. Men were banished from the cave/hovel/whatever, and the Sacred Mysteries remained just that. I would never want to return to the perils of childbirth in the raw, but I wonder if the ancients didn't have something. Maybe we need a kind of via media.

Now, back to the kitchen. Someone has to do the cooking, after all ...

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The waiting season

It's cold, tonight. At the end of this afternoon, the sky behind us grew in a wonderful flaming intensity over the still, shining sea lying like steel between us and Bute - and then died, leaving only the afterglow on the hills. Now the night is nailed to the sky with hard, bright stars - not my words, but taken from a poem by Vernon Scannell which I cannot for the life of me track down. It must've been in an anthology in school, and these lines come into my head often at this time of year, for it's an Advent/Christmas poem and the season is almost upon us.

As readers of this blog will know, I love Advent. I love it especially out here on the western fringes of Europe, when the darkness intensifies and makes all the more special the promise of light to come. I have written a new poem for Advent, but as it is to appear in Inspires magazine I shall leave publication online till after I've seen it in print. However, I shall not be beginning Advent in the west this year: I shall be in the city, in the East, waiting for another birth as the season of Advent begins.

I don't know how much blogging I'll be doing while I'm there, but the iPad will accompany me. It does little for the accuracy of my typing but much for my sanity. There is also a highly addictive game on it, for which I blame Ewan. But I'm going in order to be useful, so games and blogs may not be in order. Watch this space, though ...

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Godly weans

Oh dear, I fear I'm pushing the boat out: another post and it's not tomorrow yet. But I have this awareness of time's winged chariot vying with the need to blog something - so here goes.

We had weans in church again this morning. Other than a fortnight ago, it's been so long since we had noticeable childer in Holy T that the last representatives of the genre are now turning up with their own, so I've read about things like Godly Play with only a remote interest, as one might consider the current drive in parts of the world to protect the tiger as a species. But Godly Play went on at the back of church today, and at the communion these lovely children trooped up to the altar rail with wonderful cardboard crowns on their heads, and we knew what they'd been doing while we got on with the usual stuff. (Actually, it wasn't the usual stuff; it was the Grey Book liturgy making its monthly appearance. I find it harder and harder to say the Prayer of Humble Access - but there you are)

We'd heard the odd noise, the odd surreptitious clatter, the quiet reading of the crucifixion story from the back - but we'd apparently missed the bubbles, produced by one of them and hastily pressed into service as 'prayer bubbles'. And it all worked because we knew they were there and because we knew they were being well looked after by someone with a purpose and enthusiasm and experience. Mary, you're a star!

Another fold

This cloud - taken from tags in this blog, using Tagxedo, has nothing to do with what I'm thinking, other than that I should be doing something else, like wrapping presents ... but it's fun, and only took a few moments ...

But I was thinking, yet again, of the way time crumples when you undertake annual tasks. Stir-up Sunday, familiar to generations of Anglicans as the day when the collect for the day reminded them that it was high time to stir up their puddings and such for Christmas, may have morphed into the feast of Christ the King, with the collect only mentioned before the service in case any of us was relying on it, but my fruit has been soaking in booze for a week and now the cake is in the oven. Two years ago I wrote a poem about the same sense of a folding in time, when the intervening years vanish in the routine (lining the cake tin - still the same palaver) and smells of cake-making.

Today I was recalling the first time I baked my own cake, instead of going back to sample my mother's cake and perhaps purloin some for our own house. I was on maternity leave, it was cold, and I had slipped on the frosty pavement in Clarence Drive, having gone to the shops before the sun reached that spot. At that time a good stone over my usual weight (I'd think nothing of it now - darn!) I came down with a crash on my rear end. Panic and pain. Would the baby be all right? (yes - still is, as far as I know) Had I cracked my coccyx? (probably, but nothing was done about it). Whatever long-term problems might arise, it was too sore to sit down that afternoon, so to take my mind off the pain and the angst I baked a Christmas cake.

Actually, the memory makes it sound more spontaneous than it must've been; I recall I had planned things, had been given a recipe by a friend whose cake I'd enjoyed, so I must have had the fruit soaking and needed only the impetus to turn it into something. That self-same cake from the self-same recipe is now in the oven, about to have its hat put on and the temperature lowered. Before I go to bed I shall pour the fruity left-over booze over it and wrap it up carefully, and another year will begin (I'm kinda governed by the liturgical, I fear). Perhaps the child who did not suffer from the fall will phone. Life will stagger on.

And then there are puddings to turn to ...

Monday, November 15, 2010

Celebrating MacCaig in style

This is The Library in Waxy O'Connor's pub in Glasgow, where I spent a delightful evening with seven others reading and discussing poetry in honour of Norman MacCaig's 100th birthday. The interesting thing was that I'd never met any of these people before (except Mr B - I met him 43 years ago), and that the medium of communication that brought me there was Twitter. (That makes it sound as if there was nothing else to interest about the evening, but don't be fooled)

I am grateful to Bill Boyd for instigating this evening on several counts. Let's begin with the prosaic. Instead of the usual Sunday of getting the dinner in the oven, eating it and then dozing in front of the telly till it was time for bed, we hied off to Glasgow, ate wonderful tapas in Café Andaluz (ah, the green chillies!), had coffee with Duffy (an irrepressible FP - again arranged via Twitter) and then realised a long-held ambition to visit the building with the flaming torches outside the portico. What is more, we both stayed awake, didn't yawn, and talked all the way home.

And, less prosaically - indeed, positively poetically - I found the desire to write welling up again. I realised how seldom I have the chance to share poetry, to enthuse and be understood, to listen and to discover new things and revisit old friends - and all this in the company of a group of people whose link was the poems of one man. Somehow that cut out all the distractions of shared lives, all the small gossipy details that distract, leaving us with the words, the ideas, the mastery and the mystery that is great poetry. We didn't need to be polite, to make small talk, to organise anything, and that was a release.

Of course it couldn't last. But we were outside in the freezing street before Bill realised that I was a certain Ewan's mother. And then we weren't discussing poetry at all. We were roaring with laughter. And that too was good. A good night, in fact. I look forward to the next one.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

I am the enemy you killed, my friend ...

Moonrise over the Cross
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
Strange Meeting

It seemed that out of battle I escaped
Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped
Through granites which titanic wars had groined.
Yet also there encumbered sleepers groaned,
Too fast in thought or death to be bestirred.
Then, as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared
With piteous recognition in fixed eyes,
Lifting distressful hands as if to bless.
And by his smile, I knew that sullen hall
By his dead smile I knew we stood in Hell.
With a thousand pains that vision's face was grained;
Yet no blood reached there from the upper ground,
And no guns thumped, or down the flues made moan.
"Strange friend," I said, "here is no cause to mourn."
"None," said that other, "save the undone years,
The hopelessness. Whatever hope is yours,
Was my life also; I went hunting wild
After the wildest beauty in the world,
Which lies not calm in eyes, or braided hair,
But mocks the steady running of the hour,
And if it grieves, grieves richlier than here.
For of my glee might many men have laughed
And of my weeping something had been left,
Which must die now. I mean the truth untold,
The pity of war, the pity war distilled.
Now men will go content with what we have spoiled,
Or, discontent, boil bloody, and be spilled.
They will be swift with the swiftness of the tigress.
None will break ranks, though nations trek from progress.
Courage was mine, and I had mystery,
Wisdom was mine, and I had mastery:
To miss the march of this retreating world
Into vain citadels that are not walled.
Then, when much blood had clogged their chariot-wheels,
I would go up and wash them from sweet wells,
Even with truths that lie too deep for taint.
I would have poured my spirit without stint
But not through wounds; not on the cess of war.
Foreheads of men have bled where no wounds were.
I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark: for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.
I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.
Let us sleep now . . . ."

Wilfred Owen

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Progress Report, anyone?

This pic shows the end of a fascinating exchange on Twitter last night, one which sums up much of what I love about social media - but which in a way saddens me, in that the very praise that gave me genuine pleasure showed how slowly things move in educational circles.

The work that @digitalmaverick is referring to and commending to @janeyk419 is a blog, Progress Report", maintained through 2006 and 2007 by first a couple of S4 students and then by one of them. It began when the two girls came to me for private tuition; following an excellent Standard Grade result one of them returned to the blog for further mentoring as she worked for her Higher English. It became more widely known when I spoke about it at an early TeachMeet at the invitation of Ewan, aka no. 2 son.

So far, so satisfying. But note how long ago that was: four years have elapsed since that blog was being used to improve the writing skills of the students involved, four years since I realised my ambition to use technology to disseminate advice which in the normal classroom I might have had to repeat over and over again to different individuals and groups. The blog itself is as old-fashioned in blogging terms as the one I'm writing now, and the formative assessment given in the comments is what I've built up over a career in the classroom - no change there. After my talk at the TeachMeet, I expected a huge growth in the use of such basic technology to further all kinds of learning - including the fairly traditional model practised by me.

And that's why I was so surprised last night, to find that someone actually recalled this event vivdly enough to consider it outstanding, and that it was not in fact so old hat now as to be past mention. I suppose I thought there would be examples of outstanding practice all over the social networks, an explosion of exemplars that would render this now inactive blog redundant, a curiosity at best.

I left the classroom just as the possibilities of this medium were opening up. There was at the time one classroom's worth of laptops on two trolleys, and you booked them weeks in advance. Any one class was lucky to get them for a period a week, and the labour of tracking them down and finding that someone hadn't plugged them in to recharge put you off the notion as often as not. I don't know how much better provision is now, but I do know that more and more pupils have their own technology. I gather from some former colleagues that they find it a drag to use computers more than is absolutely necessary, but it's been 6 years since I was in school and I'm limited in my local contact now.

I do, however, have one question: how much detailed formative assessment takes place online these days? (unless it's one of these things that are not done any more) It seems to me an obvious area for widespread sharing, for teachers to be of use way beyond the walls of their classroom. Maybe there's loads, and I'm just showing my lack of current experience; in which case, dear readers, I wait for your correction - and your links!

Wednesday, November 10, 2010


Rather belatedly, because of having to write about it for the local paper and be mindful of grandmothering activities, I must remark on the joyful nature of Sunday's Eucharist in Holy T. Usually we have a turnout of between 20-25, most of us more mature in years than in demeanour with one or two exceptions (work that one out), but on Sunday we found ourselves with over 40. What is more, there were weans: weans visiting, weans of a former chorister who felt inspired to come, weans of old friends who felt like a blast of Anglicanism again.

Because there had been some prior warning of some of these children - our grand-daughter, for one - there had appeared as if by magic a play-rug, jigsaws, books, drawing things and so on in the social area at the back of the church (and a heater - don't forget the heater) so that all through the service we could hear childish voices and the odd thump (no - they weren't thumping each other; just dropping things), and by the end of it everyone looked ... cheerful, hilarious, joyful wouldn't be too strong, and joined in Andrew-led clapping in the final hymn.

The previous Thursday we'd had another performance from Voskresenije - whose name means "resurrection". The theme of the lectionary readings had been Resurrection. On Sunday, that's just what it felt like. Cheers!

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

All Souls celebrated

It can take an unaccustomed service, something out of the ordinary, perhaps, to remind me what it is I love and value in my church. All Souls was such an occasion. A strange time to celebrate the Eucharist, at 5.30pm in the early dark of the beginning of winter; a stroke of genius to use the lighting on only one side of the church, supplemented by the red glow of the infra-red heaters and the flickering of candles - not just the altar candles, but an extra cluster in the choir. This was added to during the reading of names: as we remembered those we have loved and see no more we lit candles and left them there.

The names were underpinned by the quiet playing of the organ - the Kontakion for the Departed, and a further musical meditation on the In Paradisum - and there was also silence, a silence far more complete than we ever experience on a Sunday morning. And this is what I love: music and silence; singing and prayer; dignity and simplicity; words to recall and to heal; and at the heart of it all the Eucharist.

Requiem aeternam dona eis Domine.