Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Another Advent

Another Advent

For Andy, who suggested the possibility.

From the darkness that returns
each year we sing our plaintive song
and ask that God will come again
and fill our lives with what we know
and hardly know is all we need.
The fire burns low, the night is long,
and yet we feel in some way held
within the circle of this flame
that still we tend with anxious care
in some place hidden from the eyes
that mock and laugh and turn away
with restless ease towards their end.
The world too turns, and we await
the power that fills our life with light
and let our alleluias ring
within the darkness of the earth.

C.M.M. 12/17

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

Dreich weather and a sonnet: Argyll Weather

I haven't written a sonnet for 37 years. At that time, I thought I might be halfway through my allotted life span and wrote my first attempt at a sonnet about being at "life's watershed". You can hear the iambic feet, can't you? This afternoon, it being utterly miserable outside, and dark by 3.30pm, I thought I'd make my Christmas puddings and then - maybe - write some cards. Then I got a message from a good friend that he'd been shown a poem of mine on a window of St Andrew's bus station. In St Andrews. There was a photo - it's there, right enough, in black letters on the glass. Extraordinary.

In the comment thread that followed, others joined in. One of them threw down a challenge. "Write a sonnet about Argyll weather. Walking in the rain". This wasn't an entirely random challenge - I'd pointed out that I didn't participate as much as I might in the poetry scene because I was always walking about in the rain in Argyll.

Reader, I tried. Once the puddings were burbling and the (extensive) washing up done, I sat down with my preferred poetry-writing tools (the back of an envelope and a biro) and a copy of Edwin Morgan's Glasgow Sonnets for inspiration.

This is the result. I've dedicated it to my friend Jim Gordon, whose fault it was.

Argyll Weather

A Sonnet for Jim

The rain drifts in grey curtains from the hills
and turns the loch’s black surface into lace
before a random wind takes up the chase
that now obliterates the day it kills.
The burn beside me gurgles as it fills
and overflows. There’s water on my face,
the path I followed gone without a trace,
enthusiasm drowned in sudden chills.

But as I turn to make my sodden way
to shelter, warmth …dry feet … a sudden gleam
appears. It’s like another day.
The wet rock all around me starts to steam
and birdsong cuts the air as if to say
This is Argyll. Things are not what they seem.

C.M.M. 12/17

Monday, October 16, 2017

The way we were

I've held off from saying much online about the latest celebrity-outing as a sexual predator, but the Harvey Weinstein furore has got me thinking about the past - my past. Interestingly enough, my first reaction was to reflect how it's always the really ugly, unattractive guys - just run over in your mind the names that surface and see if you agree. I can recall that time in the 1960s when I asked my mother how a man like Robert Boothby could attract anyone; I seem also to recall that her answer contained a reference to the aphrodisiac of power - the idea that a powerful man could always have his way with a younger partner. Clearly I was not entirely convinced of that; I do recall my 20-something self finding him utterly repulsive.

But actually that's not the whole story. The thing is, when we were young we were expected to be grateful to be fancied by ... well, by anyone. That's part of the sad truth. When I was in Primary 7 - that is, 11-12 years old - we read comics like Romeo (always had the lyrics of a current pop song on the back) and Valentine (had photo-serials instead of comic strip ones - I never liked it as much). The stories were always about a girl attracting some personable bloke by changing her hair or removing her specs, thereby looking more appealing and less brainy. There were columns devoted to pleasing a boy by allowing him to talk about himself - even down to the questions to ask him. And the girl always, always had to wait to be asked.

We joked about it too. There was a teacher in my secondary school whom we avoided as having "wandering hands". Remember that one? But then I remind myself that he was deeply unattractive. Would we have made the jokes about him if he'd been fanciable? There was the unknown man who chased me and two pals along the road, exposing himself as he did. We could hardly run for laughing - though the fact that we were encumbered with violins and (god help us) a cello didn't help. We were interviewed by a policewoman after that; one of my pals was the daughter of a high-ranking policeman. So they took it seriously - we didn't. Why was this?

Remember the cattle-market dances? Girls down one wall, boys facing? And then waiting to see if some pimply youth would ask you to dance, thereby sealing your fate? I went to about two of these: that was enough. And I was lucky. I had a very strict father who had been a secondary teacher all his life, and I'm eternally grateful for the way in which he restricted me and what I did. "Use me as an excuse if you like, he would say - you're not going." Until I was 18 and had passed all the Highers I needed for Uni, I wasn't allowed out to random parties. Imagine how much I hated him at the time, and how thankful I was each time I heard of what had happened at the parties I missed. I wasn't allowed to go hitch-hiking with my pals, nor on cheap, vaguely-planned holidays in Greece. So actually I was never assaulted on the deck of a Greek steamer in the middle of the night, nor on a hotel roof where it was cooler to sleep. And yes, these things happened.

But what of the life of a woman after she's left the protection of her family? (and I know some women aren't protected at all - I'm talking about myself, really) Someone else mentioned the oft-heard question: "Is he bothering you?" And we had to devise ways to avoid being "bothered". Remember, this can include a whole range of behaviours - the sudden hand on the thigh, the tongue down the throat when even a peck felt offensive, the lascivious wolf-whistle from some bloke down a hole in the road. And in the 60s we were never told that it was fine to tell the man what we really felt - rather the reverse. It was regarded as perverse to object to any of it. You made some excuse and wriggled out of the situation, or you let it go on and ended up raped. I was never raped, but I know people who were. They didn't call it rape; they euphemised the whole situation.

Where on earth am I going with all this? I think I'm looking at the sense of entitlement that men have had since time immemorial, and which the women of my generation hadn't climbed sufficiently out of the pit of submission that women had always lived in. So when I hear the current stories about the way famous men have been exposed for the promiscuous predators they are (and it's only famous men - the ordinary tosser in the street just goes on his ghastly way, presumably) - when I hear these, it's like hearing of people waking from a centuries'-long sleep and talking about their nightmares. But they are the nightmares on whose fringes I lived in my youth, and they feel familiar.

Even the best of men - and I'm fortunate: I know many such men - can't know this past as people women my age do. Can't know the present hell that too many women still inhabit. But it's not going to improve unless women occupy the confident upper ground that men have walked since they emerged from the slime; until all women feel the equal of any man they meet and bring up their sons to know this truth; until every girl is imbued with the powerful sense of self that circles her with the armour of confidence; until the Harvey Weinsteins of this world are slapped down the moment they show their true colours.

And until we can be sure that such men will never, ever, become the president of the most powerful nation in the world.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Defective articles and the Love of God

I've been catching up on an unread bit of a Sunday paper, and found an interview with actor James McCardle. In the light of what I've been involved in recently, this struck me:
People who live a heteronormative life might feel they are free but until we life a life that includes equality of sexuality, gender, equality of class, equality of race then no-one is free.
There's no freedom at all unless there is freedom for all. I understand there have to be labels when there is still a fight to be had, but that shift has to be cultural and it's never going to work if you keep dividing people.
Yes, you say - or do you? Not yet, it seems, if you're a certain kind of church member. And it pains me, as a member of the church for the past 44 years, to have to say that. Especially after the relief many of us felt when my own denomination (and yes - that's another division) decided at last to remove the barriers to equal marriage in our churches. And then it came to deciding where these marriages would be celebrated.

I don't want to go into agonising detail of my latest discoveries - the how, the when. But I want to ask a question. What in God's name is going on in the minds of the people - and I think and pray that indeed they are a minority - who stand, grimly or miserably, in the way, barring the use of "their" church buildings for the celebration of a same-sex marriage?

"It's the word 'marriage'" they insist. It means a man and a woman."

I can think, as my mind flounders in the face of their intransigence, of two things that I didn't get the chance adequately to point out. The first is that such a meaning of the word is but one of four in the quite elderly Concise Oxford that I consulted. The second is that it's a word. Not the Word of God, whatever I believe that to be, just a word. A different word in all the languages of the world, from the close relations of the Latin languages to the intricacies of Russian ... and take a look at this, from an excellent blog:
The word «брак», of course, has another meaning in addition to “marriage”. Its second meaning is “defective articles, discards”. While some marriages do end up discarded, the two «брак»s are not linguistically related.
Language is fascinating, but if I were to enter into any such detail in conversation I'd be accused of being intimidatingly clever, far too fluent for my own good. But for anyone to bar the way to an equal sharing in the love of God in the poor house that we humans have built to gather so that we can feel we are together in sharing that love, for anyone to use a pathetic, human concept, expressed in language that humans have made in order to communicate with each other as an excuse to reserve that space for their own selfish use - is that of God? We don't even need to use language in our deepest communication with what we call God - God who knows the secret of our hearts...

So I'll put it simply:

Language is not of God.
Love is of God.

Tuesday, July 04, 2017

Memories of a Hillhead infant

It was this picture that started it. I've been rummaging among my old teaching materials and came upon a small buff book, with cartridge-paper pages that are half blank, half ruled in light and heavier red. This pre-dates all the other stuff I found, as it comes from my childhood. From 1952, I would say, when I was in Infants 2 in Hillhead Primary School in Glasgow. A chance remark on the Facebook conversation that followed its publication there brought memories flooding back - far too many for that medium. And it struck me that this is social history as well as my history, and I find it fascinating. That's what brings me back to Blethers after so many months. I want to write it down before I forget, or before no-one who was there is around to remember with me.

Let's begin with Christine Findlay, pigtailed in Primary 2. By this time she will be almost 7, because her birthday is in September. This meant that she started school in January, already 5 years and 3 months old and able to read. She is no longer playing with Plasticene and lacing cards (the latter, for some reason, a great thrill; something never seen at home).
Presumably for reasons connected with accommodation - and perhaps staffing - her class was called 1e and the school day began at 1pm and ended at 4pm. She travelled by tram from her top-flat home in Hyndland along Great Western Road to the foot of Cecil Street, where she crossed the main road with the help of a traffic warden. (He was once knocked down while she waited beside the road - perhaps this story will reappear). The lunchtime journey cost a ha'penny - the "Ha'penny Special" for school children; the return a whole penny. A yellow ticket at lunchtime, a blue to go home. Six months later her class became 1a and attended school in the morning. I cannot recall - see: it's going already - if the beloved Miss Buchanan survived the transition to morning class or if it was then that Mrs Reilly appeared, a red-haired, vivacious woman confusingly addressed by older pupils as Miss Forrester.

It is her class that provides this book, and some of my clearest memories. I can actually remember writing some of the legends in it, drawing the pictures to go with the writing exercise. In the course of it, we moved on to joined-up writing, copperplate. But before I go there, a vivid, stressful moment...
We were writing the letter l, lower-case, on the same kind of ruled paper as is above. And I couldn't work out how long the letter l (lower case) should go on. How many lines? Two thick and two thin? It looked far too long and wavering. I was distraught. We were forbidden erasers. Even when I saw a friend - was she a friend? - doing what looked a more correct version, there was no way I could hide my shame. I was a fool, and I blushed. That perky child in the picture - wearing, I notice, the regulation school winter jersey with the collar (striped in school colours) through which one threaded the school tie under the gym-slip - was feeling anything but perky.

But I progressed. My writing became fairly spectacularly neat copperplate - an example occurring in the day we learned about Diogenes. There is a wonderful picture of someone else's vision of how he might live here, but this is what I drew.

On other days we drew such things as the Glasgow coat of arms (so hard, these fish!) and a cuckoo which still looks quite convincing. All with this amazing writing underneath. Of other learning I remember less; I was bored much of the time during reading lessons because I was already a fluent reader and became cross at people who read aloud each individual word. Clearly, I was not destined to be a patient person.

I think there were forty children in my class, boys and girls equally distributed. The "a" designation referred to our birth dates, and all of us had our birthdays between September and December. We were the oldest class in the year group, we had had two terms of education more than the rest of the year. We felt superior, and no doubt we acted that way. We had embarked on our Hillhead journey. And the next time it's raining and I have little more to do, I'll regale the waiting world with a few memories of the next stage of that journey ...

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Not easy on a bus

I was reflecting the other day how much more difficult simple faith (in God, mostly, on this occasion, but not exclusively) has become in the past century or so. And I think I was ruminating ruefully - do you have a vision of a sad cow? Trouble is, we know too much. All of us, in varying degrees, are equipped with more awareness of what constitutes our surroundings than were our forebears.

Start with something non-religious. Think of these medical dramas which show even the time of my own childhood, the documentaries which show doctors as white-coated invincibles, the patients as wide-eyed innocents ready to believe that all will be well as they descend into what Robert Frost called "the dark of ether". Nowadays fully-fledged hypochondriacs like me can look up procedures, statistics, symptoms, photos (God preserve us from the photos) and learn doubt. We realise when we are being soothed, and the best that can happen is that when we're actually in extremis we feel soothed. It's when normality returns that the doubt arrives.

And I think it's much the same with religion. All the old certainties - from hell to heaven and places in between - are now subject to the scrutiny of science and knowledge. We know what's up there, out there, beyond ... it's not a mystery any more. We can no longer feel sure that God's in his (note - his) heaven, which is up there in the sky. I remember wrestling at University with the teleological and ontological proofs of the existence of God, at a time when I didn't believe in anything. It was a struggle, but not a spiritual one. It changed nothing; it was easier than Formal Logic; I passed the exam.

All this conspires to make me increasingly irritated at people who assume that if you adhere to a faith you are either "throwing reason out of the window" (what my father said when I announced I was going to be confirmed at the age of 28) or are somehow sufficiently ill-informed to accept a child's version of religion. (I also become irritated at Christians who insist that that's the only way, but that's another story). Someone who thinks and challenges and argues is going to bring that attitude to what they call God - and if having done so they can find themselves happy with the language and attitudes of a faith system, that is where they will exercise their minds as well as their souls.

God - that word we use to describe the indescribable, remember? - God hasn't shrunk because we know the workings of the world that we used to consider a sacred mystery. God isn't the little shrivelled creature of some celebrated fiction. My understanding of this word, this concept, is of something at once all-encompassing and omnipresent and at the same time tiny enough to be within every mind that allows itself to wonder, every heart that allows itself to melt. God is in every moment of thankfulness; still there when the heart hardens and shuts God out.

When a faith-structure allows for this kind of vision, provides the framework of beauty and wonder and loss of the self-consciousness that inhibits, gives space for sorrow and joy and the tears of both, that is what I call Church.  When I find myself in it, I am grateful. When it is threatened - and it can so easily be threatened - it is like an impending death. When it solidifies into something else, I'm better off without it, sad though that feels.

But try explaining that over the dinner-table. Or on a bus.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Rummaging in the cyber past

I retired over 11 years ago. After all these years of teaching English I found I was missing the discipline of writing - for when I set essays, particularly to senior classes, I tended to write one myself. It was something I liked to do, to contribute to the discussion, as well as believing you shouldn't ask people to do something you weren't prepared to do yourself. At the time, blogging was pretty new - and it was really the only shared form of communication, the first step in what we learned to call Social Media. My sons were already blogging. I was seduced.

And it was in that first year of blogging that I began to meet people outwith my own circle (there - Blogger doesn't like "outwith" any more than it ever did), several of whom were (another new word at the time) edubloggers. Some of them were Scots, so that I met them physically in Glasgow ("You're Blethers, aren't you?"); some were much further away. And one of the more distant edubloggers I also met, and it's a good story.

I can't remember the exact sequence of events, but it was in November 2006 that I blogged about my input into the classroom work of Anne Davis - allowing her to use my photos as a classroom resource for creative writing, commenting on some of the pupils' work, thoroughly enjoying that little bit of teaching again. Three months later, we met - in San Francisco - thanks to Ewan's social engineering. We were on a month's tour of our American friends, one of whom had just dropped us off at our SF hotel. The cases had just appeared, when the phone rang. You don't expect anyone to phone you in a strange city - but it was Anne, also in town for a conference. Could we meet for dinner?  And we did, and you can read a short blog post about it, though it doesn't mention my recording a podcast for her pupils.

But I must tear myself away from this nostalgic wandering among the archives. The reason I'm doing it appears in the photo at the top: Anne sent me this book that she and a colleague, Ewa McGrail,  have written (and it costs a fortune to send a book from the USA) and it has the most lovely dedication on the front page and several references to me, all wonderfully flattering, scattered throughout the text. I'm delighted to get it, and to relive that time - which in many ways feels like another life. Even this blog post, full of links that take ages to find because I keep reading what I'm rummaging among, reminds me of that era.

Now, of course, it's all short-form communications. Social media rules, and the most unlikely people turn up on Facebook. Blogging is much less of a thing. And yet ... I find myself returning to blethers when I want to say something longer than a sentence, or something that I haven't got a proper photo for (because Blipfoto seems to have turned into my regular blog spot, in a strange way - maybe because of the interest of photographers). And when I was reading the book this morning, and reflecting on how I'd celebrate its arrival, I thought about children's writing and the joy of having it read by more than just the classroom teacher - to say nothing about having comments added by outsiders.

Children - and we've been talking primary school pupils throughout this - still love to have their best work displayed on the classroom wall. There is a place for this sort of controlled online interaction - on the much bigger wall, as it were, of the internet. This book, Student Blogs, seems to me to cover so many of the areas that might worry the cautious teacher - everything from accessing photos to Creative Commons and beyond - as to encourage any teacher to have a go.

Unless, of course, no-one can write more than 140 characters at a time these days. Just like The President ...

Monday, February 06, 2017

A Treaty with metaphor

I've been listening quite a bit to Leonard Cohen's final album - You want it darker - and in particular to one song that many, including me, regard as his last. Treaty, a song which is reprised by a string quartet as the final track on the disc, has provoked several thoughtful responses, ranging from questions about its meaning to personal accounts of how it has come to symbolise and to soothe at this particular time in the writers' lives.

It's got me thinking too. Cohen was "a Sabbath-observant Jew", we are told, and his language reflects that background - but not only that. In Treaty, some of the symbolism comes from Jewish tradition - the fields rejoicing at Jubilee; some that is as familiar to Christian as to Jew - the serpent in the Garden; reference to changing the water into wine sounds like the marriage at Cana, in the Christian canon. Elsewhere on the album there is the juxtaposition of Jewish prayer with reference to the Crucifixion - and to me the effect is of a seamless blending of imagery which has a profound effect.

But then, I'm a Christian - I belong within a certain tradition, just as Cohen belonged in his. The joy for me is that the imagery works, so that without spelling it out I gain an insight into the regrets and compromises that we recognise as we grow old, and claim them as my own. But when I say that, am I asserting the rightness of my interpretation? Am I succeeding in what, to the best of my remembrance, Matthew Arnold demanded - to see the object as in itself it really is? I had to write an essay on this, the first essay set in the Ordinary English Class at Glasgow University in October 1964; I wish I could rewrite it now, when I have so much more to bring to it than the frantic garnering of other people's ideas that my essay amounted to then. But I digress.

What I'm trying to say is this: because I have access to a wide-ranging framework of imagery gained through several decades of worshipping and reading in a Christian context, I feel a resonance with Cohen's song. But if I were to attempt to explain it to a completely non-religious person, someone who has not grown up with the language, someone who has resolutely turned their back on such nebulous superstition, I would find it much harder - or at least, I would have to find another set of metaphors and different imagery to lay out that which I have a shorthand for.

So is all religion, in the end, set out in metaphor? My hero, the poet-priest R.S.Thomas, thought so. In a video clip the interviewer John Osmond asks RS Thomas whether his rôles as poet and priest conflict. No, he replies, because poetry is metaphor, and religion is also metaphor. He sees no conflict between administering the Christian sacraments, which are metaphor, and administering the metaphor of poetry. I have that video somewhere, though for want of a suitable connection to my TV I can no longer play it. But the memory of that interview sticks in my mind, and points to what I now recognise as my own position.

We use language to describe our experience. When we experience something new, we describe it in terms of the familiar, the known. When we continue to experience this, we perhaps change our similes into metaphor - so, God is no longer "like" something else (or like nothing we've ever experienced at all), God "is" something else. And then the attributes of the original something else become God's also, and the metaphor hardens with each accretion. Before you know where you are, God (or any other spiritual experience for which you originally had no words) has become solid, fixed, immutable - and lost something in the process.

I fear I'm drifting into territory where others, much more learned than I, already hold sway. Bear with me, folks - I'm doing this for myself. But the wonderful thing about Leonard Cohen's song - and about many, many more that he wrote in a lifelong pursuit of what he called "blackening pages" - is that he never himself explained what he meant. He left it to us to respond. And that, now that he's gone, is what people are doing in droves.

And this, I offer, is the antithesis of what I hate about organised religion. There is plenty to love, but rigid fundamentalism isn't part of that. Let's hear it for metaphor, and the freedom to respond: I do not care who takes this bloody hill.

Friday, January 06, 2017

At the year's turning ...NHS magic

A brief appreciation, on the Feast of the Epiphany, of an experience at the year's end. The year's end, when nothing is quite as normal, when people and institutions are not working at all, or on a shoestring before the next holiday, when the nights are long and dark and when often - as was the case last Thursday - the sun never really puts in an appearance and life seems suspended. It was on the evening of such a day, two days before Hogmanay, that I had occasion to make use of the Ambulance service and the A&E department in Dunoon's hospital. And before I get carried away, let me say one thing: they were wonderful.

A persistent cold virus has had every second person I know struggling over December, and it had caught me up over Christmas, so the day has been quiet, boring even, in a pleasant sort of way. This all changes when I am assailed by a searing pain that feels as if I'd been stabbed under the ribs (I haven't.) As it is actually the worst pain I've felt - even more so than childbirth - Mr B ends up dialling 999. It quickly becomes apparent, even to me, that people think I might be having a heart attack. (I'm not. I'm pretty sure of this, for some reason. Can one tell?) I think that when they hear my date of birth these days alarm bells ring. Besides, I am dripping in sweat, freezing to the touch, unable to stop trembling - you know the kind of thing. Quite dramatic.

I find myself being assisted downstairs by a large man in green. He is making soothing remarks. There is another big man in the hall. Soon our sitting-room is full of green - uniforms, bags - tubes, paper things, a white oxygen cylinder, needles. They take an ECG, despite the contacts' sliding off periodically. Morphine. Anti-emetic. "Don't go to sleep on me!" Fascinated - even in this state - to realise that though the pain is still there I don't care so much. And I don't really care about anything but the pain in the first place.

Seventeen steps between our front door and the gate. Swaying down on a small chair to which I am strapped, worrying that the man behind me will have a hernia by the time he reaches the gate, realising that the gate is not held back by the big chuckie I've used since I was pulling a pram up and down, noting dispassionately that the lead paramedic is having to hold it open with one foot in order to get me through it. The blue light on the ambulance is flashing, as it has presumably flashed for the past 45 minutes. Oh, Lord - the neighbours. It is strangely difficult to transfer from seat to bed, but I get there somehow. The ambulance has rock-hard suspension and I hear myself groaning. And all the time the lead paramedic is telling me I'll be all right and not to worry, and somehow I am comforted and simply give up.

It's the same in A&E. One nurse, one doctor. The paramedics are there doing the handover and then they're gone. More stabs. A cannula. Somewhere along the line the pain recedes and I fall asleep. The whatever-it-is you lie on in A&E seems sublimely comfortable. I don't know what I dream and what is real.

I'm allowed to go home at 4am. Mr B is roused by a phone call, having been sent home before midnight, and I march out across the car park unaided. I am incredibly grateful for these people who rescued me, looked after me, restored me to myself. My own bed beckons. There is only one thing that perturbs me in this euphoric state ...

I have been wearing my EastEnders dressing gown. Vulgar and totally risible. Warm, comforting - yes, but not what one's mother would have tolerated. Perhaps I should buy a more decent one ... just in case?