Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Seeing the daffodils

Yesterday I posted about suddenly realising I could still feel what it was like to experience the world as when I was a child. And today I read the next bit in Michael Mayne's This Sunrise of Wonder and began to think again about this business of how we see the world around us. Is it simply the realisation that our time here is so limited - and getting shorter by the day? Is it also the fact that as we shed responsibilities - job, mortgage, family, aged parents - we are allowed to become like children again? (And if so, it's the best argument yet for not raising the retirement age).

Anyway, this is what John Updike has to say on the matter: (and yes, Mayne is quoting Updike; I'm not quite at the bonkers stage yet) :

Like my late Unitarian father-in-law am I now in my amazed, insistent appreciation of the physical world, of this planet with its scenery and weather - that pathetic discovery which the old make that every day and season has its beauty and its uses, that even a walk to the mailbox is a precious experience, that all species of tree and weed have their signature and style and that the sky is a pageant of clouds. Ageing calls us ... into the lowly simplicities that we thought we had outgrown as children ... The act of seeing is itself glorious.

Today, the sky is a perfect blue. The sea is darker, and in the open water there are small, north-wind-driven waves. But under the wall that faces the sun, there are daffodils in bloom.

Monday, February 25, 2013

LIfe in the bubble of wonder

On the boat
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
Do you remember being a child? Oh, yes ... all these years ago ... But do you really remember? Do you ever find yourself re-inhabiting that wonderful bubble that could enclose you when you were small, when your imaginative world was the be all and end all; when the world of adults was an enabling machine, but little to do with you? Or are you so caught up in the business of being a grown-up that the bubble has long since burst, scattered like the rainbow, now only a damp circle on the concrete of your life?

I'm reading Michael Mayne's book This Sunrise of Wonder - at last, Jim, if you're reading this! - and it's fair got me thinking. Especially after last weekend, when I was visiting a Thomas the Tank Engine paradise with my four grandchildren and their assorted parents. Before we all headed away from the hotel and the theme park, we spent a couple of hours in a nearby playpark. The contrast with the theme-park rides was striking. Yes, there were swings and roundabouts, but there were also climbing frames and the wonderful galleon in the photo. And it was the galleon that kept all four of them playing together the longest. I could hear the oldest allotting roles to the others, who weren't really paying much attention; the smallest child was ferrying sand to the top of the chute that is just visible exiting the hull in the bottom corner; another had purloined a bottle of water the better to demonstrate the drainage the same chute afforded. There was another hiding under the deck, and the strange child that found himself in the middle of the gang was pressed into service as a pirate. And no-one wanted to come away.

And the combination of the book and the grandchildren's enjoyment of imaginative play brought an epiphany. I could remember my childhood bubble. And what was better: I could remember it in such a way that I could feel it again, feel it the way I did when I was under ten (the family moved house when I was ten; it's a useful watershed in my library of mental images of childhood). Here are some of the stand-outs:
  Sitting on the grass in front of our holiday house in Arran, around 6pm on the first of July, gazing at the hills at the head of Glen Cloy, smelling the bog-myrtle on the breeze, ready to burst with happiness because the summer was a lifetime long and I was back in the place I loved more than any other.
 Walking behind the rest of my family after a trip to the cinema - alone, because I was in a movie and Byres Road was actually Dodge City and a dangerous environment.
  Playing under and on top of the kitchen table, because it was a boat. The trick was to get onto the top without falling into the sea of the rest of the floor.
  Spending hours in a hollowed-out rhododendron bush with a few friends as the Arran rain teemed down, happy as could be because our 'house' kept the rain out.
  Looking forward to time alone - on a bus, on a train, in my bed - because I wanted to "think" - which I now realise was re-entering a bubble which was always there.
  Climbing rocks on the shore in the conviction that I was on a sheer rock-face on some distant mountain.

I could actually go on all day. Even writing these makes me feel I want to go out to play. The point is that it was all wonderful. Imagination took me way beyond what anyone else would have seen. On the odd occasion when I have a grandchild to myself, I like to put that child into a situation where they too will wonder at something I love - is this because I now need an excuse to be child-like?

Dammit. I don't need excuses. I'm fortunate in that I worked with young people for my whole life - ok, they were teenagers, not tots, but they were amazingly easy to make young again with a little encouragement. I was able to avoid growing up. I grow old, I grow old ... but I'm not going to succumb to the equivalent of Eliot's rolled trouser-bottoms: no. I may have reached the cardigan/tweed skirt era beloved of a previous grown-up generation, but there's nothing appealing there. Who cares what the world thinks?

I've had a taste of life in the bubble again. The life of wonder has been re-awakened, and it's ... wonderful.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Just war memories in Lent

I went to the first meeting of the Lent Course today and found myself involved - or perhaps trying not to get too involved, or trying not to talk too much which is an associated matter - in a brief discussion of Just War Theory. I first came across this a long time ago, when I attended my first RCC* in Edinburgh and had to second a motion put by the man who many years subsequently became our bishop. At the time of agreeing, I hadn't realised that seconding a motion would mean rather more than simply sticking my hand up, and I was horrified to find out that I was expected to speak to the gathering for about 10 minutes.

Of course, once I had prepared what I wanted to say, and typed it out double-spaced on, I think, A5 sheets of paper, I found the whole thing rather shockingly enjoyable. At the time, I had not yet returned to teaching after the weans, and it had been some six years or so since I had addressed a class, but the combination of a microphone, a largish audience and the applause at the end proved irresistible. It was also the fatal move that had me not only going along to a local CND group (in 1980 this was quite radical in a US Navy garrison town) but also becoming publicly vocal, and TV and radio interviews followed, as well as requests for copy from Peace News and other publications. Heady stuff, which didn't end till the navy left and I was not anywhere to be seen in the public deliberations of the Scottish Episcopal Church.

I went to Greenham Common too ...
It fascinates me now to see how mainstream such thinking has become in church circles, how we can discuss the ethics of Christians and violence without polarisation. My disappearance from church matters was directly linked to my CND activities, and I didn't enjoy much of the fallout. But today I relived that early introduction to the dilemmas of violence and proportionality, and I felt glad that I'd gone through the four minutes to midnight era and emerged into the morning.

But I do love a good demo ...

*Representative Church Council - where most of the laity functioned. The Provincial Synod at the time had 10 lay members, if I remember correctly - I was one of them.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

A fashion for penitence?

Ash Wednesday. It snowed all morning, and now the rain is washing down the windows - but judging from the whiteness of the roofs opposite my study, it may not be enough to wash away the snow that can make the last bit of the walk - or drive - to church interesting. And as we don't have a car at the moment (it's a bit broken) we may end up walking. I'd call it the first of my Lenten penances, but I'd be less than truthful, for I'd be quite happy to have to walk somewhere on a day when I've not been over the door yet. It seems perverse to do something like that for pleasure in such weather, but for the Imposition of Ashes - well, I could make that sound noble, could I not?

So where am I going with this? To a question: did we always hear so much about "giving up something for Lent"? (It may well be that we just hear more about everything in the Times of Twitter, but that's another kettle of communications). Brought up in a questioning Presbyterian environment, I never even heard about Lent - not at home, not at school. There was one girl who appeared with ash on her head and tales of an exotic church where people dressed up and had wine out of gold cups, but at ten I tended to write her off as a romantic. Having spent my first years in the privation of post-war rationing (I mainly remember the butter ration of a "big week" and a "wee week" and the sweets that had to be hoarded before we went on holiday as we couldn't get them on Arran), I wasn't about to enquire about self-induced abstinence, and my parents never mentioned it.  And then I became a Piskie.

Nothing changed, at first. But a friendship with a clergy family who arrived here - kids the same age as ours, one just starting school - made me aware that other people Did Things Differently. Mainly it was the booze and the chocolate thing, presented as firmly and as unquestioningly as the need to clean one's teeth regularly. It began to seep in to my consciousness. Should I try this?

Now, this is where I ought to lead on to a life spent enjoying increasingly holy Lenten observances and self-denial, but it wasn't quite like that. In fact, it barely registered as more than an annual niggle, like a transient toothache. Not that I didn't give it a go, once. At the time I had returned to teaching and came home ravenous for a quick snack at lunchtime. I got into the habit of finishing off with a Twix (remember them? Not the big double one, but the smaller fun-sized one - no excess here). One Lent, I decided I enjoyed this so much I'd give it up, and eat a banana instead. Six weeks on, I discovered I'd become addicted to bananas instead, and had lost a pound or two. I'd also gone off Twixes. Not much self-denial there, eh?

On another occasion, I was spending a couple of nights at the house of dear friends who gave me these mini-holidays as I recuperated from surgery. Usually we had a drink with dinner, or just before it. Then Lent hit. And there I was, on a Monday evening, really wanting a drink. No, I don't have a problem - I'd just spent a week in hospital with nary a drop - but the more I realised they had no wine, no sherry, the more desperate I became. To cut a long and potentially embarrassing story short, I ended up with an elderly can of Guinness which had lurked in the back of their fridge since the visit of a son at Christmas.  I rarely drink Guinness, but ...

But to retreat from the anecdotal: There are several things that I'm not liking about my current awareness of Lent. People post on their Facebook status that they're about to give up ... whatever ... for Lent; others make sure they tell you why they won't have a glass of wine, thank you (all very proselytising - or is it?); there are jokes by the thousand (the Pope's imminent retirement provides the meat for this year's). Whatever happened to the idea of praying secretly in your closet? The entire Anglican community (I exaggerate) - to say nothing of RCs - seems to erupt in the twitter-era equivalent of sackcloth and ashes. Or people tell you what they're "taking on" instead, with the expectation that you'll match them.

But I won't. Because I don't think I'm asked to do any of these things. So I can tell the world that I have been practising portion control for 7 months and have lost 9 lb as a result - but that was for me, not for God. And besides, I feel smug about it. I've started reading "War and Peace" - but that's because I feel ignorant, and I feel it's something to do before I die (I could die trying...). And success may well make me feel smug. Again. I could give up my one drink a day, or my one chocolate a day - but I don't think that would make any difference to anything at all.

This is our life. We're given it as a gift, given the world and its beauty, given minds, tastes, delights, friends ... I know this. I don't need to turn from any of it to know it better.

Since I began writing this post, I have heard that the car is still poorly and in bits at the garage. So we shall be walking the half-mile up the road in the slush to church. Just remember - it's not a penance. Not for me. I shall enjoy it.

Friday, February 08, 2013

Pure dead relevant

The other evening - well, more like teatime - I attended an Information Evening in the University of Glasgow Medical School, the atrium of whose new building appears left. For several years now I have supported the Beatson Pebble Appeal, and now that the new building is in place, I have transferred that support to work in cardiac and stroke research. Call it enlightened self-interest. An agreeable spin-off from this comes in the shape of invitations to interesting events in the University, of which the other evening was an example. (Sadly, I can't go to the one of the future of print media - I'd be better informed at that!)

I've decided I like going back these days, though buildings like this have transformed the campus from my student days. I found it personally fascinating to sit in a lecture theatre and be enthused about a subject of which I know next to nothing, and to talk to researchers about their work - the two I spent some time with did a pretty good job of making their specialisms intelligible to an ignoramus like me. Clever, enthusiastic, committed people - what's not to like?

I have to add here that I share Mr B's sense of the evening's reminding him of those tales of a pal of a med student who donned a white coat and snuck into an operating theatre only to pass out at the sight of blood - so many of the guests were obviously medics, some of them possibly of Lister's era (I exaggerate, but ...) who had at least a handle on what was happening. I felt the need to preface every conversation with the apology "We're Arts graduates, but ..."

But it made me think. What use had my degree been to anyone? The Medical School is enormous and forward-looking and I'm glad - but I studied English Lit., Early English language, Latin ... cui bono? So that I can use tags like that and know why? So that I can slip bits of Shakespeare or Eliot into a Tweet and wonder if anyone will notice? I know that there are things going on inside my mind that are informed by what I learned all those years ago - but what did I ever do with them, what help were they to my fellow-creatures?

That's where I'm stuck at the moment. It must be wonderful to do something that directly affects life itself. One of the speakers on Wednesday had been delayed because he'd been called away to see a new stroke patient - how good to feel that something you know or propose might mean the difference between that patient's recovering or not. How completely relevant to us all. Does it matter (I ask myself) if that doctor lapses into comma-splice in a communication?

They served some mean canap├ęs afterwards as well.

Thursday, February 07, 2013

Talking posh

Just before I left the house this morning, I caught a snatch of Call Kaye on the radio. Should we be insisting that our children talk 'properly'? Sadly, in Scotland that tends to mean adopting a Pan Loaf accent - and, worse, using the first person of the personal pronoun regardless of grammatical context. And so it was, as I hovered over the off switch, that I heard with a crushing sense of inevitability a brief skit of a family scene. Pan loaf Mum, Glesgae Dad, silent wean. Mum: "You don't want to disgrace your father and I."


- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone
Location:Dunoon ferry

Sunday, February 03, 2013

Rebus in arduis *

It's Sunday. You've celebrated Candlemas, because you could - a day late, but in the boondocks you can't celebrate too often and get people there. It's been a joyous service, and at least one person has confessed to having their heart up in the air and tears running down their face because of the music. So you're happy. Actually, you were happy before they said that, in all sorts of ways involving children, young people capable of reading the lectionary as if it made sense, lovely imagery, a vision of how things can be ... I could go on, but I suspect I already have.

And then you go to the social area at the back of the church, greet someone standing alone - not a stranger, someone who's been coming on and off for decades - and he informs you, quite firmly, that he didn't know any of the hymns except for the first one and he'd hated them all anyway.

Time was I'd have felt wounded at that moment, for church sometimes leaves you vulnerable to the kind of barbs we don't often get thrown these days. But I've been around a lot of barb-fests, and I merely, mildly even, point out that what he derides as "happy clappy" music didn't form part of my tradition either (Church of Scotland, seduced by singing Byrd and Palestrina, in Latin) and that Mr B never chose happy crappy (sic) music and that this chap should perhaps widen his horizons ... Again, I could go on. I did, a bit - something about singing sentimental verse full of lamentable poetic diction set to dreary tunes - but I won't.

But I do wonder, sometimes often, about the future of parish worship. If I were faced with the prospect of worshipping where there was a diet of Victoriana, badly played at funereal tempi, led, perhaps, by a choir whose sopranos had voices that weren't, any more, I think I'd give up. On t'other hand, if there was an indifferent praise band with a very powerful amplifier, I fear it too would drive me away. So what am I looking for?

Easy. Either a competent musician, on any instrument, who has the gift of inspiring people to sing (and that often comes down to rhythm) - or silence. We sing too many hymns, mostly - and this is especially evident when actually hardly anyone sings anyway. They leave it to someone else. And I'm looking for hymns whose words are theologically meaningful, whose imagery I relate to, which don't ask me to think that God made us high and lowly and so on. I reckon that hymns tend to reflect the folk music of their day. That being the case, we shouldn't object to the odd bit of syncopation here and there. They also tend to reflect the world which informs their words - so we balk these days at singing that all must love the human race "in heathen, Turk or Jew", and some of us at least rejoice in discovering the songs of Christians in other countries, because the world has shrunk and we have access to a far wider song-pool than we did a century ago.

I didn't let all of this fly at the misery in the church; I'm letting go here instead. I didn't even ask him what made it all right for him to girn this way at someone who doesn't actually choose the music but who obviously had enjoyed singing it - or even just at someone who had offered him a friendly greeting.  Long ago I made the decision to try to be Pollyanna till I got home - or to keep out of the way of temptation if I felt unduly volatile.

 But sometimes, just sometimes, I want to throw something.

*Aequam memento rebus in arduis servare mentem : Horace. Means Remember to keep an even temper in difficult situations.