Saturday, June 21, 2014

Cloudy morning

I started writing this before the current spell of dry weather, when I was longing for it to look and feel like summer. As the solstice is rather cloudier than anything we've seen in the past week, it seems a suitable time to finish it off and publish it...

As I step outside
the damp, birdsong air opens wide
freeing my claustrophobic brain
from the confines of waking thought
and the fears of night. Why do we
close ourselves in grey, these days
that threaten rain? I want to
sing with the birds in the promise
of the new light, the freshness of green - to forget 
to fear the darkness that awaits 
at this day’s end, at all our ends.

And in the rain-washed morning
a hidden bird repeats why
not, why not, why not?

© C.M.M. 06/14

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Time to think ... about Synod

P's & G's, complete with MDF gallery?
By the time I finish writing this, I'm sure everyone else will have moved on. But if I had attempted a blog post about Synod at the weekend, when all the other bloggers (sounds rude, that) were getting their posts out, I would have written something I'd subsequently regret. No; I needed time to reflect. And I'm glad I did - I hope I remember to return to why later.

Having been one of the signatories to a Rule 10 motion that would have hastened us along the path to legislating for same-sex marriage in church, I was pretty fed up when the motion failed to attract the two-thirds majority that would have allowed us to deal with the subject in open debate. Synod wanted the debate - but not quite enough of us wanted it. I have a strong suspicion that the secret ballot, as we tautologously referred to it, along with the confusion resulting from a bishop-led objection to a show of hands, led to several inattentive or merely poor souls voting the wrong way - in other words, not as they actually thought they were voting.

This raises another scunner (no, auto-correct, not scanner: I'm Scottish.) The venue for this year, the once-grand and now modernised cavern of P's & G's, didn't make for the same contact with the chair as we had in the more regimented but better-lit surroundings of Palmerston Place. Punters in the middle or rear of the space couldn't communicate confusion or unreadiness without a great deal of palaver involving roving mikes and the bearers of the mikes peering into the throng to try to find the confused/challenged/challenging one. This being the case, it was more than ever important for the various chairs to speak with clarity and decision, and certainly not to rely on the overhead screens to make up for the deficiencies in their own communication skills. (People don't always cast their eyes screenwards in moments of stress, especially when they're rummaging through their Synod papers and have their reading glasses on anyway.) And, as every teacher knows, you can't simply assume that everyone is paying attention the moment you open your mouth; the table-group layout makes (again, as every teacher knows) for covert communication or simple distraction.

But the single thing that got to me this year was the sudden descent of a whole bunch of protagonists into fuzzy, warm and ultimately vapid religious jargon. And tone. There. That's it. There's a whole raft of expressions that belong in this jargon, and some others that are pressed into service and will never be quite the same again (like Francis of Assisi after Margaret Thatcher had appropriated his words).  "Unpack" comes to mind, and they're not talking about the messages (shopping, if you're not from these parts). No-one called a spade a spade, let alone a bloody shovel, and there was no place for what one commentator has described as "honest fury". Those who were feeling such fury had nowhere to go, because it would have been smothered in soft fuzziness, smiled at and forgiven.

Now, I was personally grateful for individual kindness and concern in the aftermath, even as I still raged for friends old and new whose hurt and frustration were all too apparent - but I have huge problems for this kind of institutionalised, forced gentleness. For a start, I think it betrays the god I believe in. I think it castrates the prophet and makes a virtue of passivity. And where was the passion, the leadership that would have given some sense of a vibrant community realising its past and grasping the opportunity to move into a new, juster present?

I can't at the moment think if I'm actually at the end of my time on Synod, or if I have another year to go. Maybe someone reading this will be able to tell me. The Primus gave us a sliver of hope that things may move in 2015, but who knows whereI'll be then? A friend gave me even more hope in that  his perceptions have changed post-Synod, and that is joyous news. That's the news that makes me glad I waited to post this, as there would have been nothing to redeem the situation had I leapt in. But if anyone is planning any more soft play areas for the church, any more padded "conversations", I'll be returning to a quip that was going the rounds on Facebook recently:

If anyone asks you "What would Jesus do?", remember that overturning tables is always an option.

Saturday, June 07, 2014

Of fear (with a nod to Bacon)

Does anyone read Bacon's Essay's in school any more? I doubt it. They don't really strike one as everyday fare for your average 16 year old. And yet ... I have provided a link there that leads to one of the essays, Of Death, that I read when I was in S4, one whose opening sentence sticks in my mind to this day - and I have not exactly read them regularly since. I did, however, on one occasion in living memory - in the 90s, I think - find myself being given sole charge of a wonderfully sparky group of new S3 pupils for the whole of their Standard Grade course, and filled the short month of June with a crash course in Bacon. They rose to the challenge, and when I set them the further challenge of 'doing a Bacon' over the summer holidays, came up with some wonderful almost-parodies.

And in a way, that's what I'm doing now. Only I'm not bothering to write in a Baconesque style - I doubt I could - but rather seek to examine fear in much the same spirit as Bacon might. That adventure that formed the hub of my last post - we've been dining out on it, as I knew we would, and some people - in the comments on the blog, or on Facebook, or to my face - have expressed wonder at our bravery in surviving all this. Of course, it wasn't bravery. It was necessity - and I suspect that though they sometimes coincide, that wasn't the case for us. Why? Because there was no fear to overcome.

Think back to Bacon (for of course you've checked the link by now - no?) Men fear death, as children fear to go in the dark. That's the line that sticks - and it's true, even if we'd object to the male presumption these days. But that's because we have time in which to contemplate our mortality, worry about the nature of our dying, fret about its propinquity. (I think I'm being infected ...) But when we were in that little speedboat, weighed down with boots and packs so that if we'd fallen into the sea we'd have had a job ever coming up again, all during that time when the waves were breaking over us and the cliffs seemed too close, there was really no time to feel afraid. I wasn't happy, and in fact every fibre of my being was screaming - but it wasn't in fear. No, it was screaming something like "You stupid people - this is not a good place to be! It's wet and dangerous!" - and so on, like a nagging parent you soon get used to ignoring.

Even when we had to transfer from one bouncing boat to another, all I could feel was a kind of distaste - and a strong desire not to make a fool of myself. I realise now that the latter pushed aside the realisation that people could be trapped between boats, crushed or killed - because it was afterwards that I thought about these outcomes. At the time there was a bit of swearing, the odd shriek, and obedience ("Now, lady - jump!" and I jumped). There was none of the paralysing fear that grips your gullet, gives you pins and needles in your hands, makes you want to vomit. How do I know these symptoms? Because I can get them - when I have to catch an early flight, perhaps, or when I think something awful has happened/might happen to someone I care about - not consistently or predictably, but with hideous randomness of occasion and severity, rendering me useless and nauseous and able to think only of the worst possible outcome.

Perhaps Hamlet had it all along. It's "some craven scruple of thinking too precisely on th'event" (outcome, here). I wasn't thinking of the outcome, I was thinking only of the present - or, to be more precise, I wasn't thinking at all. I was doing. Hamlet again, fighting pirates - "In the grapple, I boarded them": he wasn't thinking while he fought, because he had to get on with it; it was only when he allowed himself to fret about the morality of killing his uncle in cold blood that he was in trouble. When his uncle was obviously indulging in wickedness, Hamlet could bump him off in hot blood and die content. (Sorry for the spoiler, if you don't know the story ...)

To round this off, I want to think briefly about war. We've been watching these old guys who were once young and seasick on the approach to the Normandy beaches and who are now lauded as heroes - and yes, they are heroes, and survivors, and human, and ordinary, all at once. When I was a post-war child, listening to my parents' stories, whether of bombs on neighbouring tenements or booby-trapped oases in the Western Desert, I used to wonder how people could bear it. How did they survive at all? Why did they not simply die of fear, curl up in a corner and never come out again? And I suspect that the answer is that when something frightening is happening to you, you get on with it. As long as it's actually happening, and you have to act in some way, there isn't time for the fear to overflow. The adrenaline has other uses than to make you feel sick.  These soldiers who landed on the beaches - they were sick with the sea and God knows what else, but when the ramps were down they were off, and they were soldiers.

And of course, I know all this - but actually I know it as I know far too many things: from fiction. From reading. But it has taken me till now, because someone else landed me in a situation that could have had a very different ending, to own the knowledge  that fear will only paralyse if you let it.

And, not to end on a moralising note, I have to confess that I've been seduced by Bacon, and may read some more of his essays before I close that tab. Because the books are gone, long gone ...

Sunday, June 01, 2014

Turkish saga - not a Saga holiday

I'm going to tell you a story. It's a true story, and it's already been told  in the form of a letter to a holiday company, but I feel the need to tell it with less restraint. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin ...

It's another glorious day in the area of Fethiye, Turkey, the second last day in a week of guided walking among the hills of the this beautiful place. Our group, the one doing the more challenging walk of the day, has enjoyed a morning hike over the hills into a lovely valley, a lunch of mezze and beer and Turkish coffee, an amble down the road to see some Lycian tombs. Now we are going to be taken to the entrance to the deserted village of Kayaköy, where our Turkish guide will show our leader - who is new to the area but has a map, of sorts, and instructions - which route to take in order to end up on the right path to get us all, eventually, to the Blue Lagoon at Olu Deniz. So far, so ...

So bloody disastrous, actually. For this is where the story really begins. Bear with me.

We feel we're  being rushed through Kayaköy, the village that inspired Louis de Berniere's novel "Birds without Wings", a sad, ghostly testament to the folly of politics. If we were closer, we might be able to see our leader's worried expression and be worried ourselves - for we know he's already lost the way on an earlier walk. But we take our photos, and wonder where the church is, the one we're supposed to be able to see inside, and by the time we arrive at the upper limits of the village the onward path has been chosen and we're ready to head out of the valley and down to the sea.

For a while, it seems ok. Even when we have to retrace our steps uphill when a chosen path (all way- marked, but with varying degrees of authority) proves to be leading in the opposite direction to the way we want to go, even then we feel we might be heading, eventually, to the Blue Lagoon. After all, is that not sea ahead, is it not vivid blue, is that not a pleasure-boat we can see through the trees ...? And we come to a halt.
Not the Blue Lagoon

We are on a small cliff, beside a stone water-cistern. The path leads to the left - the correct direction - and peters out. We try a short foray, return to the cistern. Our leader by this time has disappeared down the hill. Someone has heard him mention a boat. We think it's a joke - but hey, that big pleasure-yacht-thingy is still moored below us, belting out pop music. We sit on the ground under the trees; we drink some water; some of us obey the call of nature. I check my phone - great signal, so can see Google maps ... and we're a very long way indeed from where we should be. I point this out to a few people, but it is a rule on these holidays that the Leader has to be followed and obeyed or the company takes no responsibility for you. (We later learned that the Turkish guide had been told to accompany us to the start of the hill path. Had he misunderstood?)

And so it is that we find ourselves on a small beach, with the promise of a boat. The large boat with the music is preparing to sail - but to sail out of the bay, not towards us. We can see an inflatable dinghy beside a jetty; there is a rowing-boat, and there is a speed boat with an outboard motor. We are still making jokes, wondering how many will be left behind, when a man in a sports jacket appears magically (I must have been looking elsewhere; it seems magical) in the speedboat, fires up the engine, makes a showy sweep round the headland and returns to the jetty: our lift.
Waiting for the speedboat

The boat looks ... small. I later find it has a maximum capacity of 10. We are twelve, and we have rucksacks, walking boots and poles. Somehow, we are all squeezed onto the hard plastic seats and told to hang on. Some manage to get their packs off; mine is still fastened firmly to my back. There is not a life preserver to be seen - other than the decorative traditional lifebelt in front of the tiny wheelhouse. We move away from the jetty. The man driving us turns to me. "You will get wet," he says.

I shrug. What can I do? The woman next to me gives me a spare jacket to cover my camera, make me feel better, just as a wave curls over the boat and soaks me, and her, and the other two women in the stern. The engine roars as we hit the open sea and the open sea hits us. Through sea-streaked sunglasses I can see Mr Blethers and our friend Leo, who is next to him, rise into the air as the prow lifts with the acceleration. He seems to bounce, crash down again. I duck as more sea heads my way. When I look again Leo is crouched in the bottom of the boat. She later told me she'd slid off the seat and at that point was untying her boot laces in case she ended up in the sea. To port (notice the nautical terminology), uncomfortably close, there is a grey rocky cliff - the end of the promontory we'd have had to walk over had there been a path. To starboard, the large pleasure-boat, still playing pop music, scooshes along, swifter even than us, adding its wake to the turbulence of the open sea. I can see people looking at us, smiling. I have no spare energy to curse them.

I don't know how long this goes on. There is little to hold on to, and I am soaked. I have my hat clasped over my camera which is strapped to my chest; my poles are in my left hand and with my right I'm straining to keep hold of the plastic side of the hull (fibreglass?) I feel there is a strong possibility that I may throw up. Then the engine slows, and the sea stops coming in beside us: we are in Olu Deniz bay and the beach lies ahead. The beach ... sloping quite steeply into the waves, which are breaking enthusiastically, the beach where there is ... no sign of a jetty.

Before the significance of this can register, I become aware that our gallant rescuer, still unsullied and unsoaked in his sports jacket, is on his phone. And gradually, as we cruise in gentle circles just beyond the surf, we realise that he is negotiating our transfer to another boat, one with a prow gangplank that will let us land without risking his boat. The first to offer is rejected as being too high out of the water, with no scramble nets (come on, you're joking ...) but another, smaller craft is approaching. (I'm a strong swimmer. Would it be better to swim?)

Now I need you, dear, empathising reader, to picture this moment. You may have been lulled into imagining a boatload of fit, lithe forty-somethings having an adventure, but it's time for the reality check. There may be as many as four of us under the age of 60, though I doubt it. I know that at least three are 70 or over, and that the oldest is 75. Normal pensioners we are not - we have already hiked at least 40 miles of Turkish countryside over the past four and a bit days. But transferring from a small boat to a larger one in a lumpy sea is not easy, and this is a truly unpleasant moment.

I am in the last four to make the transfer, as we have been in the stern. I have just watched the oldest of our group, an indomitable Irish Californian woman, launch herself onto her belly on a table in the bigger boat. Now it's my turn. As our boat rises on a wave, our driver shouts "Go, lady!" I put my foot onto the side of the bigger boat, shove my poles ahead to give me two free hands, grab the rail of the big boat. At that moment, the speedboat - and my left foot, on which my weight is still balanced - drops a couple of feet and I am left stranded, hanging on like grim death, my right foot on the big boat, my rucksack pulling me back,  and my right knee bent at a tighter angle than it's experienced in a decade. I can see Mr B's anxious face suddenly vanish as he is pushed aside by some macho soul, then a young Turkish seaman grabs my belt and pulls and I find myself sprawled in the bar of the boat we've boarded.
Preparing to land

It isn't quite over - no sooner are we all aboard when the cry goes up that we've to remove our boots and prepare to enter the water. (After all that ...) The gangplank can't reach the beach, but is waving in the air about four feet out in the surf. So I end up edging along an increasingly slippy gangplank, now holding my boots and socks in one hand (along with my poles) and the rail of the gangway in the other. The Normandy landings flash into my mind as I take the hand of a seaman and jump - and find myself scrabbling up the shingly sand onto dry land.

And there, best beloved, I shall leave us, lying like beached whales in a row just above the surf line. It has not been what we signed up for, on this walking holiday, but I will admit one thing.

It makes for a great story ...