A good place to live...

Saturday, 30 January 2010

The one they did not read for Carol...

On Death ~ Kahlil Gibran [from "The Prophet"]

You would know the secret of death.
But how shall you find it unless you seek it in the heart of life?
The owl whose night-bound eyes are blind unto the day cannot unveil the mystery of light.
If you would indeed behold the spirit of death, open your heart wide unto the body of life.
For life and death are one, even as the river and the sea are one.

In the depth of your hopes and desires lies your silent knowledge of the beyond;
And like seeds dreaming beneath the snow your heart dreams of spring.
Trust the dreams, for in them is hidden the gate to eternity.
Your fear of death is but the trembling of the shepherd when he stands before the king whose hand is to be laid upon him in honour.
Is the shepherd not joyful beneath his trembling, that he shall wear the mark of the king?
Yet is he not more mindful of his trembling?

For what is it to die but to stand naked in the wind and to melt into the sun?
And what is it to cease breathing, but to free the breath from its restless tides, that it may rise and expand and seek God unencumbered?

Only when you drink from the river of silence shall you indeed sing.
And when you have reached the mountain top, then you shall begin to climb.
And when the earth shall claim your limbs, then shall you truly dance.

"On Friendship" by Khalil Gibran

This is something chosen by one of Carol's friends to read on Friday...

On Friendship ~ Kahlil Gibran (from "The Prophet")

Your friend is your needs answered.
He is your field which you sow with love and reap with thanksgiving.
And he is your board and your fireside.
For you come to him with your hunger, and you seek him for peace.

When your friend speaks his mind you fear not the "nay" in your own mind, nor do you withhold the "ay."
And when he is silent your heart ceases not to listen to his heart;
For without words, in friendship, all thoughts, all desires, all expectations are born and shared, with joy that is unacclaimed.
When you part from your friend, you grieve not;
For that which you love most in him may be clearer in his absence, as the mountain to the climber is clearer from the plain.
And let there be no purpose in friendship save the deepening of the spirit.
For love that seeks aught but the disclosure of its own mystery is not love but a net cast forth: and only the unprofitable is caught.

And let your best be for your friend.
If he must know the ebb of your tide, let him know its flood also.
For what is your friend that you should seek him with hours to kill?
Seek him always with hours to live.
For it is his to fill your need, but not your emptiness.
And in the sweetness of friendship let there be laughter, and sharing of pleasures.
For in the dew of little things the heart finds its morning and is refreshed.

Friday, 29 January 2010

A Quaker funeral

We went today to the village where we used to live, to be part of a farewell. No experience of a Quaker funeral before this, imagined silence and wondered how it would work as a funeral...

Arriving with friends, we found chairs, and had time to look at what had been prepared. The village Hall, with chairs arranged in concentric circles, grouped so people could walk between, and in the open centre, a table. Small objects with an unknown significance - a pleated, white shell; the dark length of a fir cone; the Bible, a Quaker book of quietness; subdued flowers in purple and blue in a tall glass; a pot of bulbs.

The folded 'service' sheet had pictures of Carol, clear, bright and full of her character. There was her favourite hymn "In the bleak mid-winter" space for a Quaker reflective period, then her other favourite hymn "Be thou my vision" (my 'key' hymn: chosen for my Licensing with the Bishop of Edinburgh, and for my eventual funeral).

People began to arrive: the clusters increased to streams; Grassby's gently moved people to the back, then to the stage, then more and more... until finally there were about 300 standing and sitting (in a Hall licensed for 120 sitting, OR 180 standing!)

A wonderful and unsurprisingly varied group of people: padded patchwork jackets, cotton skirts, warm skirts, male earrings, vertically-high heels, long hair [men] longer hair [women] - and none of us felt 'out of place'.

The service began with an introductory word from the Rector, who probably wasn't entirely comfortable with this informality - and we sang, with great strength and clarity "what can I give him...give my heart" knowing that was the reason Carol had chosen that hymn.

I thought again of the heavy weight of words that occupy a funeral service; that comfort some [those who must cry] and almost crush others with the solemnity, and continuous statements: for an older generation this was a comfort, and who would deny them.

The silence gently introduced by the Quaker 'leader' was interspersed with short readings: we were reminded that the Quaker tradition is to keep silence for 2 minutes after each person has spoken, for reflection on what has been said.

It was a transforming experience: never-to-be-forgotten.
Everything about the words felt like another piece of a shimmering mosaic; We heard 'My friend' from Khalil Gibran's 'The Prophet'; small comforting verses; a few words from one ('I think of her as like the Cheshire Cat, the last thing you see is the smile, and that will stay with me always') and then another - someone spoke of going to an exhibition and seeing Carol with rainbow-coloured silk scarves - and thinking of her always as rainbow coloured... and BOTH those rang true for us too. I wished I'd heard the friend [?Cath] and the one which quoted Blake; some were inaudible, some were written out, some spontaneous, some were spoken through tears, but the overall impression was of a most joyous gathering of memories; of friendships; of laughter.

It was so totally different from any Church funeral, let alone the chilly neutrality of a Crematorium, that it could only be comforting. I wish I could capture in a few words, the sense of uplift, of spirituality, of unsentimental love and affection.

For us there has been a sense of lightness, of deepened friendship through the reflections of people we might never meet again, united through knowing one person. And the awareness of a personality with far more dimensions than we had ever encountered (something we both hugely regret - why had we missed having those conversations, and discovering that she loved that hymn/poem, that I knew well...) but all will be well - all manner of things will be well.

There was such an overwhelming sense of Carol's presence: of her own satisfaction that everything was right; of her companionship all through the day. If we felt it, her family were inspired by it to be the centrepoint holding everything.
Our sense of the huge blessing Carol has been to so many people, but in the end the sense of Dave, Paddy and Chris's own generosity as a family, in sharing so much of her with others.

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Scribble, scribble, scribble...

... and the first Chapter went in at 1.15 am. Now it has been reviewed, and my literary allusions cropped by requests for explanations, simplicity. As this is an MA Dissertation, I imagine the reader, or "Reader" [marker] to be academic, well-read, and looking for evidence of imaginative understanding of texts - ie that I am making connections and drawing out possible connections. It appears I must make no such assumptions: the marker should have some knowledge of this subject, but the second marker may have none whatever. How odd.

Probably the answer is to write something I feel I might be satisfied, even pleased, with - and trust that it will be read attentively, and without excessive pedantry. No academic endeavour can be complete in itself, always raising more questions, more avenues to explore - the trick is to know which avenues to leave for another time. But an entire 20,000 words written with copious explanations of simple concepts would be stultifying: and would omit all the interesting elements!

On with the motley!

Monday, 18 January 2010

A friend's passing

...sadness, shock, at a sequence too rapid to take in quickly enough to be prepared. A letter which time prevented from being written before Christmas, arrived on Friday. A friend, in hospital now for 7 weeks, tenaciously part of life. I wrote, and emailed our letter to her husband - short, loving, and with a little, cheerful news. Two days later, an email from another friend, had we heard that C had died - on Friday. Husband, 2 sons, her 2 sisters, all with her in a peaceful room as she slipped in and out of consciousness - adding to their conversation - and then further out, and was gone.

A long exploration of cancer. Her own speciality. What could be done, who would do it, and where - then following that through. Access to treatment with different specialists eventually meant volunteering for Trials: since she knew her cancer would be fatal, this was an active, energetic way of 'sharing' her experience in the single most helpful manner. Not talking about it to others, or relating her latest treatment, but doing it - and letting the benefit be useful to future candidates for treatment. Eventually, the treatment she needed, the specialist in London she knew could give it, meant being admitted to his hospital via A&E ...and her final 7 weeks, planning the next step until the end.

Strange the gifts of friendship we are given: this one especially. A course I ran when we arrived from Scotland, on Healing, drew people from a wide area together for 10 weeks - including C. One element repeated each week was the 'Triads' groups of three, which remained constant throughout. For each of those groups, something permanent emerged - prayer 'in absence' continued from that point; regular contact, and support. This was more remarkable in the end than the anticipated Healing and Wholeness services which people had intended to bring to their respective churches.

How much there is to miss...

Sunday, 17 January 2010

When did Christianity reach Ireland?

Wonderfully amusing coincidences! My Dissertation on Pilgrimage, is now on its second Chapter [of four - totalling 20,000 words before July 2010] and concerned with Iona and St Columba.

We have serendipitously a quantity of books which relate to pilgrimage, coinage, language, music, art, modes of travel, healing, Crusades, wilderness, 'anthropology', poetry, and of course Bede, and other contemporary accounts. There are marvellous, tottering piles with inserted notes - we both relish this shared fun, and swap stories over our meals!

With modest amounts of reliable information available on early Christianity in this area of Western Europe, there are plenty of questions to be asked - the first logical step was to find out where St Columba - Colum Cille - encountered Christianity. If he was born in the region now Northumbria, and was bringing Christianity to Ireland, was he the first? What about St Patrick? and so on.
Paulinus, sent to "the Christians in Ireland" from Rome at the same time as Germanicus was sent to England, to counter the Pelagian heresies, seems the earliest named individual. But - there were already Christians in Ireland!

While borrowing a book from a friend, he remarked he had been at a dinner party the previous night when the conversation had been on just this subject - When did Christianity reach Ireland! Much amusement!

The answer appears to be that it came from Gaul, to Wales and then to Ireland. Logic backed up by linguistics - as the changes in Irish language, and in Welsh, in response to Latin show up in monastery records.

As ever, a small question leads to fascinating research - and all for the sake of 2 accurate sentences [with citations!]. Very satisfying.

Winter draws away?

[Winter draws on was an awful Edwardian pun, innocently enjoyed by my grandmother] [= 'Drawers' a now-unused name for underwear].
Rain came with its heavy sound - pounding on the snowy ground, the roof, the road - washing away the residues of grit and salt, no doubt to poison the grass and the creatures dipping into puddles for a drink.

The spatulate fingers of neighbouring trees appear a warmer shade of brown in the sunshine. Every plumped up bird sheltering from the cold in an uncomfortable proximity along the branches has flown elsewhere.
All our previously-rejected offerings on the new bird-table look pretty forlorn and unappetising - but the little black dog sniffs hopefully around the base: how deep the instinct to scavenge goes!

Endless pps emails arrive from the heated summer of Oz and NZ, of densely snowed-in vehicles in Canada/Scandinavia - which seems slightly like coals-to-Newcastle in the circumstances, but may help them to feel cool, or superior!

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Pilgrimage and other things

Writing and reading about Pilgrimage: full of interesting information, and about 4,600 words on the subject - first chapter of a 20,000 word Dissertation.

We've lost the sense that Medieval people had, of being on the threshold of the sacred. They expected miracles - and lived quite naturally in a liminal world.

Perhaps we consider them naive to believe there was really something sacred in the bones of a saint: but we have learnt to ask too many questions about faith, which shivers in the neon-light. And who benefits?

Nile Grove in Edinburgh, now closed, alas! taught people contemplation, as part of the Spiritual Direction training - peace, silence, and the depths of light...

Light is the lovely up-waking: snow-shine! [there isn't much sun] first thing today, when the school bus paused, rumbling, for the last child to arrive. The little black dog rushes out with a lovely exuberance, to taste the snow, and find whatever the birds have dislodged from the frozen bird-table.

Monday, 11 January 2010

Keep on trying...

Today I wrote to a Bishop (will Bishops fight for a Christian presence in this traditionally Christian country? particularly in Teacher training colleges, if children are ever again to learn/discuss the Lord's Prayer in schools, etc) and to the BBC (indignant at their lack of coverage of conditions in Gaza).

Anywhere else in the world - from floods in Cockermouth to the tsunami in Thailand - BBC reporters interview locals, Relief Agencies, and reflect through words and images what is being done to help those caught up in a disaster. Gaza has no such reporting. WHY?

In an entire YEAR only 41 lorry-loads of building supplies have been permitted to cross the Israeli checkpoints, not enough to repair a single house, let alone the bombed blocks of flats, public buildings, schools, and hospitals. The whole infrastructure awaits repair: roads, sewage, water... so they must use contaminated ground water (babies are being born with heart defects due to the chemicals)

Medical supplies are prevented from entering: the rationing of food supplies means that never enough is allowed in to feed the refugees adequately; the people are prevented from earning a living - prevented from using their farmland by Israeli snipers - anywhere else in the world the BBC would be reporting on this as a terrible injustice...

I'm one of so many people who want to hear some clear accounts of life as it is, for human beings, not terrorists, just ordinary courageous human beings, in Gaza. The political agenda which dictates whose disaster is reported, is an extraordinary bit of information control: in the aftermath of the tsunami, Disaster Relief Agencies took their people and their help where it was needed - it would have been shameful if they had elected not to help politically-complex states.

Back to the little black dog - all squeaks and enthusiasm at the prospect of the great outdoors. Life is full of contrasts...

Sunday, 10 January 2010


Snow Sunday! Roads into the village are clear one way though not further: much phoning and the wonders of e-communication have allowed Services to be re-negotiated. So instead of my heading over the hills and across a field, for Christingle, and even further along dark, high-banked lanes to a more remote church for Evensong, they've had their Service sheets by email [they already had the hymns]. Up and down the valley, clergy have swapped services to avoid travelling too far, and encouraged Church Wardens to lead the services wherever possible.

In this village, with people from a different, cancelled service, we spoke of the Wise Men, of the different forms they have taken over the centuries - through imagination, art, poetry - to represent 'all' Gentiles. The original [Matthew 2:1-12] tells so little, only that wise men came from the East and bore 3 gifts - we have clothed them in majesty, given them names, reduced them to 3 Kings, and placed them firmly on camels.

What they saw, in the end, cannot have been what they were expecting. They were tracking a King: so they looked for him in a palace, and brought symbolic presents that must have looked singularly out of place to Mary and Joseph, and the child Jesus - although part of me likes to believe that ‘symbols’ have many different values, practical as well as representative, and perhaps each gift helped the little family to survive in their flight, and exile in Egypt.

Not for the Magi the direct visitation of the angels, with clear instructions on how to find the baby: that is reserved for the shepherds. The wise men follow the bright, enigmatic star, using their intelligence to plot its path, making assumptions in their visit to Herod - and with what fatal consequences.

They came to search for Jesus, representing all of us Gentiles - everyone [which is to say, Greeks and Turks, Serbs and Albanians, Tutsi and Hutu, Israeli & Palestinians] together with the Jews -- what is now, in the 21st century, a multi-national church of God. BIG questions for the start of the new decade: essentially involving church with open doors? or closed.. what nature of welcome can we bring to this melting pot; and at the bottom of it all, are we gift-bearers or gift-receivers - or both (which changes everything).

Friday, 8 January 2010

Snow much more than we bargained for

Through the evening and night, snow fell. The little black dog set off in a series of extravagant zig-zags: looking for the scent of something she recognised, or perhaps simply enjoying the strange newness. I had forgotten her Halti and so we both ran sometimes feeling more like flying...

The forecast was confident - 10 days of winter. Essential supplies of milk and bread: the village had neither, so off to a village normally 20 minutes away. The main road East through the Valley had been gritted into a welcome slush - the side road climbing over the hill led into an arctic landscape: one set of tracks only, and a slithery-slow journey. No milk. The previous day's sell-out of bread included the frozen pastry, AND all the flour. Home again with small trophies.

Yesterday, cheered by a brilliantly sunny day, and the forecast of hard frosts/snow, it seemed a good idea to head West to the next village with a well-stocked shop. Uphill. The gritter passes, turns right and heads down-hill onto the parallel road along the valley. Unfortunately this leaves our hill untreated - as I discovered on rounding the first sharp bend.

The sunlight encouraged ideas of thawed snow further up, but then a compacted, icy stretch was quite impassable even after several attempts. The car slipped neatly in to the side of the road...

A cheerful farming neighbour dropped me home in his 4-wheel-drive, and 2 hours later, another kind neighbouring farmer came and, with bagged-up wood-ash and a large spade, we went up to rescue the car before the night fell. He drove it helter-skelter up the hill, straight through the [softened] icy stretch, belching black clouds of exhaust, and vanished from sight. All the field-gates were drifted, with nowhere to turn before the woodland.

It felt so bitter-cold on the high slope, in the evening sun's afterglow, sharp as swords to breathe. Below, walking the little black dog, the air felt comparatively warm! and we sped along the narrow snow-way behind cottages and fields, dodging unfriendly dogs, and calling greetings to their owners. The light on the hills was a wonderful tinge of palest strawberry-fool - nothing to cause such a colour, no 'red sunset' just the softest reflected glow from a pale sky.

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

and the snow came [finally]

After all the weeks of other people's snow, we have our own... during the night the transformation that returns us [all?] to a childhood delight, happened here.
Gone are the ice-filled puddles where the tractor enters the field, gone the crimped ridges of frozen mud along the road-edge - everything is smooth and newly white.

Too late to have misgivings about plants in the garden (could I have wrapped them better against the cold) they are out of sight - small lumps in a mystery of shapes.
Looking at the sky, full of light and distant dove-grey, it isn't hard to believe this fine rattle of snowflakes will not persist - but immediately a fountain of snow rushes past the window in a draft...

The gritter - not being in such demand here as in snowier counties - has cleared selectively, and there's a chance of reaching the next village for bread and milk (which were sold out yesterday).

The small black dog thinks less well of this novelty: we huddle briefly into the cold wind, but no interesting smells persist in such cold.
...and no birds sing.

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

the coldest time of winter...

I've been finding some readings for the Christingle service next Sunday, and discovered one by Laurie Lee, which will accompany T S Eliot's 'The Coming of the Magi' with us singing 'In the Bleak mid-winter' to separate the two. The weather forecast is snow for the whole south... strange to think that 6 years ago, when we were in Scotland, that inundation of snow was normal, and so was laying in food against being cut off...
The two poems capture so much more than word alone... as poetry always does.

The Journey of the Magi T S Eliot

"A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter."

And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.

There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.

Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty, and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we lead all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I have seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

Twelfth Night by Laurie Lee

No night could be darker than this night,

no cold so cold,
as the blood snaps like a wire,
and the heart’s sap stills,
and the year seems defeated.

o never again, it seems, can green things run,
or sky birds fly,
or the grass exhale its humming breath
powdered with pimpernels,
from this dark lung of winter.

Yet here are lessons for the final mile

of pilgrim kings;
the mile still left when all have reached
their tether’s end: that mile
where the Child lies hid.

For see, beneath the hand, the earth already warms and glows;
for men with shepherd’s eyes there are
signs in the dark, the turning stars,
the lamb’s returning time.

Out of this utter death

he’s born again,

his birth our saviour;
from terror’s equinox he climbs and grows,
drawing his finger’s light across our blood
the son of heaven, and the son of God.

Monday, 4 January 2010

First fruits of the year

What a wonderful start to the year - the news that our eldest grandson, Alexander, has been awarded a place at Oxford to read Modern Languages.
The exciting part is that it has been such a wonderful surprise: until 2 days before the application deadline last Autumn, no-one had suggested he was a prospective candidate. His references were due to go off to UCAS when the decision was taken to apply to Oxford because his subjects had such promising predictions.
We heard when we went up for his Concert/Pantomime/Carol Service: that he had been asked for an Interview.
and now, to start the New Year, here is this good news!