Saturday, November 10, 2018

Autumn Garden Walkabout

The Inverness Botanical Gardens aren’t that big. I couldn’t imagine how it would take an hour to walk around it. I hadn’t factored in the stopping and the talking and the advice given. It was more than walking.

As usual I arrived early. There was a cluster of women near the door. There’s a queue? Not at tall. The women were being giving a training session – volunteers. The garden advice they already knew. How to use the till for plant purchases was the mystery being uncovered.

Maybe I’ve only visited the garden in summer. Maybe I have thought that without flowers a garden has nothing on show. I got a glimpse of the backstory, the behind-the-flowers perspective. Flower beds were stripped back to ground level and bare soil.

She, Pam, dressed in gardening garb, full of answers to every question asked, began by pointing out the ivy on the wall – or in this case the lack of it. My next door neighbour has been pulling down his ivy over the summer. The birds made homeless have relocated to a tree, noisy in their disapproval of his ruthlessness. It’s all about the wall. Left unchecked, the ivy root dig deep into cement and motar and the whole thing becomes a Jericho about to happen.

The flower bed beneath the wall was similarly pulled up. Flowers had turned brown and brittle and were taking up space. They’d done their show and, at the end of any show, the stage is dismantled and packed away – bulbs lifted, brushed off, wrapped in newspaper and given the rest of the year off.

The ghost birches begged to be stroked and admired as we passed by. So we stopped to give them praise. There’s nothing wrong with washing down the bark, white bandaged. It was on the to-do list.

She talked about the pond. A heron had sat on the roof of one of the green houses. It had eaten the fish in the outside pond and now gazed lustfully down at the koi fish in the tropical greenhouse. Big momma and papa koi fish circled the pond with nervous upward glances. The younger generation swam on fearlessly.

A quick peak into the potting shed, Pam talked about the perils of plastic pots and how they were moving over to an environmentally friendly pot made from rice husks. With a six year life span they were not cheap but they left no carbon footprint as they passed away. These changes did not come easy to a cash strapped business and had to be argued for with the people that held the purse strings.

Another tree, red barked, lured us over. I liked the “please touch” lure but the flowerbed below made the tree technically inaccessible. Technically? When a person wanted to stroke the tree, the flower bed didn’t stop them. Pam was pleading for a bench that circled the tree trunk. The tree was probably as high as it would grow but the trunk would thicken.

Out through a gate and into the place where the gardeners played. A basket held windfall apples and a pile of scotch bonnet chillies with an invitation to help yourself.  A wigwam, carpeted and cushioned, stood off to one side for children. Insect hotels sprung up by walls and fences. Wild flowers planted last year were cleared away.

Inside the tropical greenhouse we “ooohed” and “aaahed” at a tiny pineapple in its growing and spied a bunch of green bananas high up.

You see what you see and you don’t see other things until they are pointed out to you. Once upon a time, before the cacti had taken over the other room, there had been insects and snakes and lizards in tanks. The stick insects had got out. They had followed God’s command to increase and multiply and fill the space. I wouldn’t have seen the chewed leaves on almost every plant. I wouldn’t have noticed a moving twig. They were causing so much destruction. More active at night, Pam and others had offered to do a night shift, overtime you will, to catch them – the big ones with pink knees about to lay eggs. The purse string holder declined.

The walk came to an end. I went home and raked up the leaves from the back garden – as told to. My own mulched leaves for spring!

A lot of work went into the gardens.  OK so the flowers don’t just appear in their right places in the various beds but I hadn’t realised just how much work went into making it look good, I hadn’t seen the back-to-soil tear-ups, or thought so thoroughly about, even in a garden, watching out for the environment.

We often picture our lives as gardens in need of care. We talk about the weeds that need to be pulled out and the seeds that need to be planted. We talked about ploughing soil and digging up the fallow ground – but we entirely miss the truth that it is an ongoing project.

I think of all the things going on at the botanical gardens, and how vast and varied the garden is. My walk with God is also vast and varied. God is working in my life all the time trying to get me to work with him to dig out the old worn-out sermons ready for some new truth. He wants me to help pull down the pride that digs deep into the walls. He wants the wigwam fun and scotch bonnets to give away. And the stick-insect errors that chew away at revelation, that sound so real, He wants me the chase them down.

 God knows what my life should look like. He knows how to get me from autumn brown and crisp to spring bulb planting and new shoots and onto summer’s blaze of colour. He could do it all by Himself but He chooses not to. He involves me. Not just in my own faith walk. He lets me plant something in, and pull something from, the life of another person. He calls it kingdom living.

Saturday, November 03, 2018

Rebel Rebel

The theme of the writing workshop was “Rebel” and was a part of the Scottish Book Trust’s plans to get people writing.

“Rebellion incites opposition and change, allows us to find our own individual voices and inspires future generations to challenge convention and expectation.”

I wondered what I could actually write about in terms of rebellion – I am not a rebel. I am a rule follower. If there were no rules I would have to make some up just to feel comfortable.

There were a little more than a half dozen participants, a large scroll of paper on the floor and marker pens. The venue was a church building that had been converted to a second hand bookshop. Spiral staircases, galleries and stained glass windows housed shelf after shelf of books.

I’d been to Berlin last week and seen the memorial at Bebelplatz, the public square in the centre of Berlin, the site of the notorious Nazi book burning in 1933. A glass flagstone looks down on empty bookcases.

It was a jolt o be sitting in a chair surrounded by bookcases full of books. I had never given it much thought before. The things we take for granted.

I don’t quite know where most of the folks had been but they were all into the Jacobite rebellion and the Battle of Culloden. That’s not where I was.

The first exercise after a warm up stimulus was to evoke a place. A place you’ve actually been to, and which you associate with a rebellion of any sort. Now I have been around Culloden Battlefield a number of times. There are marker and flags and the names of various clans. The Kerrs are there – fighting on the “wrong” side.

My own train of thought was a personal one.

I have a bad memory about some events. I think I remember then as memories only because I have been told the stories so often that I have made them mine. I’ve seen a photograph and woven my account of what happened in the picture.  There’s a photo in an album of three girls in white dresses dancing on the front lawn outside a house. I am one of the girls and it was taken the morning of our First Communion. I remember the dresses were the same, sewn from the same pattern. I’m not sure I had ever worn something that wasn’t a hand-me-down, so the dress was my dress, made for me, worn by me. It must have been a warm day. No rain. No hand knitted cardigans. I suppose if I put my mind to it I could work out how old I was. Not a teenager.

While the three girls were dancing on the lawn, showing off their white dresses, there was a boy standing off to one side. He was not dancing.

Dressed in neat trousers and a white shirt, perhaps even a tie, he was scowling. Brows dark and lowered, a stubborn jut of a chin. Fists bunched, fingers pressed into his palms.

My brother, Michael, announced that he wasn’t going to go through with it. He had no intention of taking First, last, anything in between, communion. He didn’t believe in God and to go through with it would be hypocritical. He didn’t say it like that, he just made his stand.

There might have been an argument. There might have been pleading. There might have been tears. But there was no persuading him to change his mind.

I think Mike looked at me with almost disapproval. I possibly didn’t believe in God either, not the way I do now, but I was caught up in the white dress, looking pretty for once and the whole ritual of it. I wanted to be centre stage with everyone’s eye on me, because I never usually was.

Why did it matter so much? Don’t we all go through the motions at times? It’s just what we do because it’s expected.

I rather think it wasn’t just about believing in God or not. My dad had died and my mum wasn’t able to look after us well for a while. The Roman Catholic Church stepped in to give support. It almost seemed that it came with a price – the children of the household going through all the rituals of confession and communion. It seemed as if they took control. There were rules in place that hadn’t been there before.

Michael’s rebellion was his way of trying to claim back his independence. I kind of admired him then, but chose not to join in the rebellion because I wanted to wear the dress.

There was an opportunity towards the end of the afternoon of the writing class to write a rebel poem:-

feeling powerless
we always dance the
rehearsed steps
“It’s my life” we say
but it isn’t, is it?
we dig feet deep into soil
raise heads
lift chins
And say, “No!”
And make them listen

Thursday, November 01, 2018

Bebelplatz, Berlin

it was glorious, someone said
books consumed as fires spread
words that lied, deceived, misled
nought but ashes, now unread

I saw the flames, I watched the fire
hot inferno climbing higher
the death of words that could inspire
such a blind and brutal pyre

all rivals dead, just one to reign
yet thoughts and dreams cannot be slain
poets write, their words unchain
and books will live and breathe again

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Objects Out of Place

It had been a while since I had met up with the writers at the Spectrum Centre. They still knew my name which was nice. We had been shifted from our usual room to somewhere larger where the sound bounced off the walls. I was equipped with my hearing aids for once.

After catching up with the news and the writing pieces people wanted to share, we got down to business. We were introduced to Raymond Carver – not in person, you understand. He wrote short stories – short on the fluffy stuff. Bare bones, if even that, the story we heard, “Why Don’t You Dance?” included no names, just the boy, the girl and the man and a roomful of bedroom furniture arranged on the front lawn. No explanations of why it was there. The reader is left to supply the details, make their own connections and jump to conclusions.

We moved on to talk about things we had seen that seemed out of place. One person talked about an army rucksack he spotted, leaning against a wall.  The plumage of a pheasant was sticking out of the top and the smell was rancid. The bag and the bird were just abandoned. Another person spoke of small pink bags filled with doggy-do tied to the branches of a small bush. The bag was tied up with a neat bow. Listening, someone suggested that it might not have been doggy-do at all, but he heard about drugs transactions where the pink bags tied to trees were used by drug pushers. Sometimes, however, a pink bag with doggy-do is just that – a baby nappy bag standing in for the usual scooped poop.

We had a few minutes to write up our own stories, real or imagined, of finding things in places where they didn’t fit. Here’s mine…part biographical.

I wish I had his courage, I decided. It might, of course, have nothing to do with courage. A boy, perhaps, playing street league football in the field out back. The need to not break his glasses. But there they were, frost encrusted, hanging from the wire fence, waiting for someone to recognise them and reunite them with their short sighted owner.

“Four eyes!” The insult lacked any kind of creativity but had followed me through every school classroom and playground. I tried to point out that I didn’t have four eyes – just two. Two eyes that did not work as well as most people.

It was the frames that shamed me. Pink and plastic they announced my poverty to the world. They were NHS frames with lenses not much thinner the bottom of a glass bottle. No one ever commented on the colour of my eyes – hazel flecked with blue.

I wish I’d had the courage to leave my glasses somewhere, hanging perhaps on a stretch of wire fencing as I stumbled away half blind.

I did stumble for a while without glasses. They had got broken. I was in the habit of slipping them under my pillow at night. Perhaps the tooth fairy would take them away even though they looked nothing like a tooth. Truth is there was no bedside table to place them on. They broke.

I was of the age where image mattered. Did I just simply refuse to get another pair? Did I have a teenage girl’s hissy fit? I don’t know. I know I never owned up to all the things I couldn’t see. I sat at the front of the classroom not so I could see the board better but because I always sat at the front. Seeing the writing on the board from the front of the class was as much an impossibility as seeing it from the back.

My teenage years were a blur. Nothing to do with drugs or alcohol consumption – just poor sight. I particularly remember a Christmas party game at the local Mormon Church. I wasn’t a Mormon, but I was a Donny Osmond fan flirting with Mormonism.

The game involved sitting in a circle. Someone winked at someone else and swapped seats before the person chair-less in the middle of the circle could find an empty seat. There was much winking going on but I never saw it happen! They gave up on me after a while, thinking me a simple idiot that hadn’t listened to, or understood, the instructions.

I came to my senses eventually and went back to the opticians.

If only someone would wink at me now!

Tuesday, October 02, 2018



I am thankful for autumn
For its slowing down
No hectic clamour of
Eager buds and green spill or
The urgent soaking up of sunlight

I am thankful for autumn
For its dressing up
Lifting gold and rust red
From the wardrobe
Slinging bronze over a shoulder

I am thankful for autumn
For its letting go
Quiet surrender, gently releasing
A thousand leaves
Waving and saying goodbye

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Fifty Shades of Grey

It was closer to six rather than fifty. Last night saw the first meeting of the art class I joined in Alness. I am finding the Vincent Van Gough in me.

“Count me in,” I said when a friend of mine told me he was going to be running a series of art sessions for adults in the Alness area. I confess to an absence of talent and imagined my "O" level art teacher turning in his grave with the idea of letting me loose with a paintbrush.

We were introduced to tints, tones and shades. As a writer I would have used the terms interchangeably.

“In the field of design, every colour has what are called tints and shades. A tint of a basic colour is a lighter version of that colour, and a shade is a darker version. Tone is a general term to describe the lightness or darkness of a basic colour”

Armed with a couple of brushes, a jam pot of water, a piece of heavy paper, a palette and a dab white paint and dab of black, we set about painting boxes and cubes. The lady sitting on my right had the experience of children and painting and had no trouble. I skipped the tints and went straight for the shades overestimating the amount of black paint to mix with the white. The man on my left also headed into the shades.

The man on my left was a friend I had told about the class. He has once upon a time, over four months or so, produced a wonderful picture of a tree. He intended to keep painting but it was something that fell by the wayside. I wouldn’t say it was his painting skills that prompted me to tell him. The drive over to Alness isn’t a long one but as the days shorten and the nights become dark, I’m less happy driving. The bus routes could have got me over to Alness but not home again. I’m happy to share the petrol costs.

I googled Piet Mondrian when I got home. He painted a very nice tree using shades of grey – he night have been the one who coined the phrase long before the book came out.We looked at his tree in an art book.

There was an instant connection. Piet Mondrian was born on 7th March 1872 in Amersfoort, the Netherlands. He’s Dutch and I’m a quarter Dutch. Maybe it’s my right hand and the fingers on it that are specifically Dutch – painting Dutch. He became a primary school teacher and he painted in his spare time. Another connection – we are both teachers. We are both artists – his preferred media is paint while mine is words. His early paintings were mainly landscapes, featuring fields, rivers and windmills. No connections there. I visited a windmill when I was in Amsterdam years ago – and a cheese factory. And that’s where all the things Piet and I have in common. I’ve not moved to Paris and I know nothing about cubism. It’s the Dutch Connection that matters.

We began our own version of his tree. The secret is in the layers. One could be talking about lasagne. A black tree with branches and stuff overlapping was followed by filling in the spaces with white paint being very careful to merge a little with the black branches. Lots of grey – fifty shades perhaps. Then fine white lines on the black branches. The next bit I think I misheard. Did he say olives? The bits between the branches we filled with olive shapes – or almonds, maybe. My tree was looking less like Piet’s. It took on its own life and personality. I was amazed at how much movement I had created.

There was the end of class thing of showing the teacher what you had done. My neighbour on the right had a Piet-looking tree, as did my neighbour on the left. They were nothing like mine.

It’s amazing how we had all been given the same materials, the same dabs of paint, the same glimpse of Piet’s tree and the same instructions and yet we had produced very unique trees of our own.

What might have been interesting, if we had tramped on to a psychology class, was to try and work out what the tree revealed about states of mind or personality. I got caught up in the swirl of the brush creating the olives or almonds in the spaces between the branches. I liked the shapes. I liked the act of creating something and capturing a sense of movement.

God has created us in His image – His creative image. I might strive to find connections with Piet Mondrian but my connection with God is very clear. I am beginning to look like Him and act like him more and more every day.