Friday, July 20, 2018

Highalnd News - the Prequel

I will post the Highland News interview in a few days but just in case you were wondering about the poems John Dempster referred to, I have posted the links for you.

The poem was written a few years after the event. My brother< Michael had been diagnosed with a vicious from of cancer. He lived in Spain and I had it was my third and final visit.

The first time over, in the spring, he was in hospital having tests. A small tumour the size of a pea had grown to the size of an egg in a matter of six weeks or so. He still had his flat at the time so I’d stayed there, catching the bus to the hospital every day.

The second visit was in the summer. The pastor and his wife had a time share apartment and kindly gave us their slot. It was along the bus route to the hospital but my brother had been moved to the hospice for what was intended to be a rest, He never left. We visited every day in between trying to be tourists – albeit very unhappy ones.

The third visit was in the autumn, a week or two shy of his 50th birthday. The doctor at the hospice informed us that Mike didn’t have long. I had run out of compassionate leave, but not compassion itself. There was no brother’s flat and no time share slot and a friend of Mike’s had a friend who had a small flat a few hundred yards from the beach. It was small and basic, but the closeness to the beach made it a lucrative buy. Just opposite the flat and down to the left, in a courtyard was a cafĂ© that opened only in the mornings and the only thing on the menu was churros.

The block had three floors and four flats on each floor. There was a courtyard in the centre, small and inaccessible, more the size of a large chimney. Sounds echoed, smells drifted and you couldn’t help but eavesdrop.

I kept my praying for when I got back to the flat on an evening. Mike was so fragile. There was no flesh and he wore the skin like a shroud.

There was a constant argument, conducted in whispers, between Mike’s friends and the pastor of a church. Mike had been updating their church website and blog, listening to and transcribing the sermons. The pastor believed that Mike had asked Jesus into his life. His friends thought Mike was, as he had always been, atheist to the core. Mike wasn’t yet dead but they were wanting to arrange the funeral.

So I saved my prayers for night time. They were whispered before an open window and I there were times I wondered what the other residents would be thinking. Mostly though I was in too much distress. My brother, Richard, had been staying with Mike in the hospice, the week before I arrived. Whatever distress I faced, his own was worse. I had God to fall back on. Richard…he phoned home to his wife and cried down the line. She pleaded with me to swap places with him – for Richard to stay in the flat, and for me to stay at the hospice – but Richard would not surrender. He bore so much in those two weeks.

So that’s the context of the poem. Some of it real. Some of it imagined. No one spoke to me. It really was a lonely time – but I felt God so near.

I’m not sure how this one came about. I think this was the time when the picture of the child on the beach was published. Refugees, for as long as I can remember, have been taking to boats to escape poverty and war. Somewhere lodged in my memory are the Vietnamese boat people, refugees who fled Vietnam by boat at the end of the Vietnam War in 1975.

The death of Alan Kurdi – the powerful image provoked a whole finger-pointing row. The government should be doing more to help, said some. The boat owners should be stopped from making so much money out of the suffering of others, said others. The refugees should go through the proper channels to get to safety, said another group.

It was the last line that was written first and the rest of the poem later on.

There’s a wonderful poem in John Glenday’s collection “The Golden Mean” - “The Walkers”. I think that was perhaps my inspiration. I felt some response was needed – something more than the pointing fingers and the blame shifting.

We have no idea what f=refugees face. No father commits his family to the uncertainty of an unsafe boat on turbulent waters, knowing all the tales of people who don’t reach that promise of safety without being convinced that to stay where they are is certain death.

We deal with our own children’s fear of the imagined monsters under the bed at night. Their real monsters hunt by day.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Horse Sense

Rumour has it that I’m bored. I haven’t officially entered into retirement yet but I’m in need of something to do. Rumour isn’t quite truth. It’s the routine I’m missing more than anything.

My sister has offered me a job – kind of. It’s the unpaid variety and involves updating the Horses for Causes social media outlets.  She and Malc help people of all ages, abilities and disabilities to deal with difficulties that life throws up. They have a happy herd of horses to help them.

I kind of know what she does. What I used to do to some extent in the classroom using a laptop, a whiteboard and a row of desks, she does in a field or a stable with a horse and a person the world has knocked the stuffing out of.

I kind of know why she does it too. There is a compassionate streak that runs through our family. We want to help people. We want to make the world a kinder place and we want to use the talents and gifts we have to do it. There is nothing more encouraging than putting someone back on their feet and teaching them strategies to cope with the world.

What I don’t really know is why it works. My experience with horses is limited. Saturdays see me coughing up a little money to put a lucky fifteen on a few horse races. I have been to a few race courses – won a little, lost a little. My sister assures me that if a horse really didn’t enjoy running around a course and jumping over a few fences they just wouldn’t do it.

I really don’t know how horses can help people – not the way my sister knows. I found an article on the web that had this to say:_

“Horses make great companions for psychotherapy because they can mirror and respond to human behaviour. Being herding animals, they rely on an acute stream of sensory data to sense safety or danger; they can also hear the human heartbeat within four feet, and research on heart-rate variability indicates that horses have a profound ability to synchronize their own heartbeat with that of human beings. When people are introduced to the herd environment for therapy, horses respond within the same spectrum of physical and emotional responses that govern their own behaviour, allowing therapists an insight into the inner psychology of the client.”

I wondered whether we as a species ever had the ability to hear a human heart beat within four feet. Were we ever able to synchronise our own heartbeat with the beat of another person? Did we lose it all when we left our caves and trails, and built houses and roads? Did we just lose connection as we became more sophisticated? Could we, by becoming still, rediscover these things?

I’d love to think there is a sense that every good friendship, every good marriage has a tiny bit of that talent somewhere. Maybe it’s not so much an obvious ability that can be tested in a laboratory. There a lot of unexplained stuff about the world – intuitive rather than a taught thing. I’d like to think that - but it’s probably not the case. Maybe with twins perhaps, but not the rest of us.

I suspect that we never had the abilities in the first place. There is such a variety of life out there and it makes sense that not every species on the planet can do everything.

There is no denying that for most of us the connection to the planet and the variety of life out there is almost second or third hand. We live vicariously through Blue Planet 2 and such like. Another newspaper article I read, before I got the job, was about the lack of connection to nature. The suggestion was made that if we walked barefoot on grass, through the soles of our feet we could access microbes and stuff that help and heal. We chase our children around with a wet-wipe and deny them the chance to connect with the natural world. Not everything out there is out to get us. Johnston and Johnston have trained us too well. We are taught to fear nature and trust their products for a healthy life. I’m not saying that we abandon essential medicines, but nature was there long before a bottle of pills appeared. We have just lost our nature-knowledge.

We like to think that we can do anything if we try hard enough. I think it takes a little bit of humility on our side to admit that there are some things that others do better – not just other human beings, but in this case, horses.

Choosing Grace

“He said, “Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.” When they did, they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish.” John 21:6

There is a question that gets tossed out every so often when one of us cooks the meal whether it’s a roll and sausage for breakfast or something that follows a recipe for dinner. “Does it taste grudged?” – as if the attitude behind the cooking somehow weeps into the meal itself. It is always said in jest because neither of us resents cooking something for the other. When neither of us feels like cooking there is a selection of take-away leaflets in the drawer.

After the big catch of fish, Peter jumping out of the boat to swim to Jesus on the shore but before the conversation of love, Jesus asks for some of the fish from the haul to all to the meal. There is already fish baking on the coals and plenty of bread but Jesus still asks for some of the fish.

Jesus had every justification to be miffed at Peter and the rest of the disciples. They had let him down badly. The last few days before the crucifixion had been one disappointment after another. They had fallen asleep when Jesus had asked them to pray with Him in Gethsemane. When he was arrested they had scattered in fright. Peter followed at a distance but later denied that he even knew Jesus. When it came to eh examination at the end of a three year course, they failed miserably.

Jesus on seeing his disciples with down-cast shoulders could have smirked a little – but He didn’t. He could have kept quiet – but he didn’t. He could have withheld the word that would have brought them abundance – but he didn’t. He could have dipped every word he spoke in “grudge” – but he didn’t. He wasn’t a less-happy-with-them Jesus. He wasn’t anything other than the Jesus they had followed for three years. He wasn’t a different Jesus – harsher somehow, frowning more than he used to, a Jesus without the usual smile. He was their Jesus.

And he asked for a fish to add to the ones he already had. He didn’t say, “It’s OK, I have it covered. I can make breakfast for you all by myself.” He didn’t ask the disciples as they ate breakfast whether it tasted grudged or not.

I know how I tend to treat people who have disappointed me. Mostly it’s the silent treatment, the withdrawal of fellowship at least for a while. There’s a lot of internal mumbling going on, a polishing up of resentments, the building of a wall, the constant replay of events with the assurance that I am in the right and they-deserve-every-bad-thing-that’s-coming-their-way attitude. I’m human.

The way that we deal with the people who disappoint us can sometimes be the way we think that God deals with us. It is because we are human that we mess up. We should mess up less as our friendship with God deepens – but messing up happens.

The way that Jesus dealt with his disciples that morning tells me so much about how God deals with me.  All the “could-haves” that Jesus could have done but didn’t do – God doesn’t do them either. There is no smirking at my failures. There’s no closing down of His word. No closing the door of the throne room. Just as Jesus called the men in the boat friends, God doesn’t cross me off the friends list. We never get to be defriended.

I suppose that any messing up we do makes it hard sometimes to come into God’s presence. We feel as Isaiah did when he found himself in God’s throne room:-

 “Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.” Isaiah 6:5

God’s grace is there for moments like that. Isaiah wasn’t kicked out of the throne room. He was cleansed and commissioned for a renewed calling.

Because I have been treated with such grace by God I am able to show that same grace to other. Maybe I don’t want to, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t. It is certainly not an easy thing to ask or do, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t.

Grace or grudge? We get to choose. Choose grace.

Saturday, July 14, 2018


I had my eye on the book for a while. Every time I was in W H Smiths, trying not to buy yet another notebook, I had picked it up and read the blurb at the back. Apart from being labelled “magnificent” and “sublime” by the top newspapers, it was also described as “a poetic investigation into what it is to follow a path”. I’d not bought it before because I felt I didn’t have enough time to follow paths. Now I do. My official papers came through the other day confirming that I really had retired from work, how much of a lump sum I could look forward to and when the money would start appearing in my bank account. I’m still not worth mugging or anything.

The book, “The Old Ways – a Journey on Foot” by Robert MacFarlane, appealed to me because since getting the fitbit I have been walking a lot more. MacFarlane combines walking with writing, The premise of the book appealed to me..

The first chapter began with a man standing by a window watching the snow falling. It was winter. He took a whisky flask with him and ventured out. I like the shift from a bottle of water or juice to a flask of whisky – yes, I might try that!

Untrodden snow doesn’t stay unmarked for long in what seemed to be countryside but tuned out to be a golf course. A fox crossed his path. He began to follow and identify the tracks left by various wildlife – deer, rabbits and pheasants. A larger animal loped between trees and his first thought was “wolf” accompanied by a prickle of fear. It was British countryside and no one has yet been granted permission to introduce wolves into the wild, but the brain, at night, on a golf course, with the moon, and the snow, the imagination lets loose.

I wasn’t reading the book in winter. There was no snow. There is a golf course nearby and I have walked around it. The golf course owners had, at one point, planned a nature trail, but it never happened. I remember walking around a golf course in Durban, South Africa. It was relatively new and they were also building houses either on the course itself or near the edges. They were big houses, the kind that only very rich people could afford. I suppose you’d have to be rich enough to be able to replace the windows on a regular basis. Big houses – I was working with a missionary organisation. We were working with an orphanage in a black township. Over sixty children living in the space of a double sized garage. The big houses on the golf course seemed almost offensive. How much land does one person really need?

I thought about the trail I regularly walk – the path that circles the estate where I live. The only evidence of some other life form passing by is litter. Yesterday I walked the path trying to drum up 10,000 steps. There were giggles and laughter just up ahead. I thought at first it was the other side of the burn, someone’s backyard. It hadn’t been a hot day compared with previous days. Not warm enough for paddling pools. It was my side of the burn – four children hanging on various branches of a tree. The tree wasn’t one of the older trees with sturdy trunks and branches, for the most part inaccessible. It was a young sapling and they swayed quite dangerously – four of them in one small tree. It looked fun. Had I been younger…

I remember a sermon a long time ago about Abraham and the trail that he left behind. His landscape was littered with altars and empty patches of grass where his tent once stood. He left behind a testimony to his walk with God. Every altar was a reminder that God was to be praised and consulted. Every patch of empty grass spoke of a sojourner’s heart.

I have to say that as much as I tell people that I have no worries about retirement and how I will use my time, and how I will not miss work – I really feel a little like Abraham called to move into unfamiliar territory. I would like to leave behind me as I pass, a sense of worship and looking to God - not that I don't try to do that anyway - I would like to think that I can uproot myself from a life lived according to bells to one less straight jacketed.
A while ago I was reading the challenge God tossed into Abraham’s life –

“Leave your country, your family, and your father’s home for a land that I will show you. I’ll make you a great nation and bless you. I’ll make you famous; you’ll be a blessing. I’ll bless those who bless you, those who curse you I’ll curse. All the families of the Earth will be blessed through you.” (Genesis 12:2-3 The Message)

I’d always focused on leaving the familiar things behind, the family and friends back home, to go to somewhere new. I am more focused now on “you’ll be a blessing”. It’s not so much the altars or the patches of the dead grass where the tent stood that grips me but whether I can, on a backward glance see the people who I have blessed. Can someone walk in my footsteps and meet people who will say, “Mel blessed me!”?

A better challenge than marking out 10,000 steps.

Friday, June 29, 2018

So Long

My reirement poem - rather long with echoes of Pam Ayers. It went down well at both readings - my afternoon tea on Wednesday afternoon and the more formal recognition of my retirement ealrier this mornng.

So long, farewell, I’m leaving now
It’s time for me to go
The cracks that come from wear and tear
Will soon begin to show

I fell into this RE life
(Or was I “burning bushed”?)
I think I blame my mother who
Stood behind and pushed

My first job was in London
An East End city school
To show cooperation
It really wasn’t cool

The classroom was a prefab
Beside an outside loo
They danced upon my doorstep
Those toilet needing few

Those were the days of bandas
With their distinctive smell
And purple words on paper
That served us all quite well

The job, not made to measure
It rubbed me raw to tears
To match my years of training
I promised then, four years

OK I never left the job
And decades down the line
I built my teacher muscle up
And think I got on fine

I taught abroad for just a while
Beneath a Cyprus sun
The mornings full of lessons
And then the beach for fun

My class was full of strapping lads
Moustached and six foot three
Saudi army conscripts
They didn’t want to be

I ate kebabs, drank Ouzo
A little Greek I learned
With sun and sand and factor eight
A golden brown I turned

I tell you, endless sunshine soon
Begins to lose appeal
Sweaty skin and chaffing thighs
Hot days were not ideal

I dreamed of clouds and rainfall
I packed and said goodbye
I moved back home with parents
And taught at Newbold High

My body clock was ticking but
There was no man in view
Teaching failed to scratch the itch
I needed something new

I joined a gospel outreach team
With saving souls my aim
My Bible packed and heading north
To Inverness I came

I preached, I prayed, I knocked on doors
I spoke to young and old
I walked the talk, the gospel shared
God’s message brave and bold

Too soon my time was over and
I had to find a job
I waitressed at the Calley then
I joined the Millburn mob

Yet again, a prefab, parked
Beside a grassy field
Heaters hot and smoking and
Windows poorly sealed

I battled wasps and rabbits
Graffiti everywhere
And yelled at Gary Stuart
“Stop swinging on your chair!”

The roof was flat, accessible
A big cross daubed one day
With words “Al-Qaeda bomb right here!”
What more was there to say?

A passing plane had spotted
The words all black and bold
They phoned the press on landing
A million papers sold

The day my hut was torn down
I didn’t shed a tear
I’d watched the swing of cranes each day
Saw something new appear

A clean and sparkling new school
All bristling with tech
Computers smart and polished
And of the highest spec

I mass produced my powerpoints
Embedded Youtube clips
I sang and danced through lessons
Took endless virtual trips

But - This body starts to crumble
The hearing’s first to go
My aids are made of plastic
Well hidden, they don’t show

So many indicators show
My best-before’s expired
No longer fresh, I’m overripe
It’s time that I retired

I’m bothered by the chewing gum
That lurks just out of sight
That hangs beneath the tables
And flies around at night!

I cannot learn this alphabet
Of DIPs, the SIPs, the SALs
HGIOYS and Es and Os?
I can’t say we are pals

These chromebooks are a mystery
With google apps and docs
My “classroom” doors won’t open
Despite my many knocks

And see those William Wallaces
Lined up against the wall?
I hear their stirring Braveheart speech
And long for freedom’s call

It’s time to leave the building
Before I’m dragged away
It’s time to let a younger lass
Have her own RE way

I’ll miss the scratch of pencils
Across a workbook page
The sound of neurons firing
As boys and girls engage

I’ll miss those awkward questions
Creation or Big Bang?
Why do good men suffer and
Why don’t bad men hang?

I’ll miss you, David Allan
The best  department head
Through all the myriad changes
Boldly you have lead

I’ll miss you, sweet Fiona
Your optimistic cheer
My job was so much brighter
Just knowing you were near

So many friends I’ve made here
So blessed to work with you
Pop in for tea or coffee
If you are passing through

I’m off into the sunset
With bus pass held in hand
To have more great adventures
And journeys I have planned

Wednesday, June 20, 2018


Memory isn’t a lane
Bordered by houses once remembered
And a lilac bush that leans at an odd angle

Memory is a smell
A cinnamon finger biscuit
Cellophane peeled away
I see us then crouched over
A reel to reel tape recorder.
Granny sulks in Holland
Thunder brows lowered at
A son’s choice of wife
We record messages
Lines learned by heart
To say we love her
Dutch Speculaas on a plate beside us

Memory isn’t a lane
With dirty brown puddles and
A noisy bridge where the motorway passes over

Memory is a taste
Of porridge
It’s my turn for the top of the milk
The moat around my porridge is
Filled thick and white
A dusting of brown sugar
My sister sits opposite me
Her spoon diving down
Stealing my cream

Memory isn’t a lane with
Trees hugging close and
Staircase branches inviting me to climb

Memory is the touch
Of a rusty nail that pierces my foot
Cobwebs stretch over doorways
Of scrapped cars
Spiders swing and bounce with
Long legs and round button bodies
A forbidden playground
My father’s slap hurts more than the nail

Memory isn’t a lane
Hot and sweet with fat blackberries
And the hum of an electric cable overhead

 Memory is a sound
A wild whipped wind
Slapping rain against the window
Rhythm and blues
On a Saturday afternoon
And oiled and glistening wrestlers
Slammed against ropes with
Grunts and snarls and
A baying crowd
On a black and white TV set

Memory isn’t a lane
Between ordered gravestones and
Old flowers crisp and faded

Memory is what you see
A photo of my father
And the wish he wasn’t gone
Nothing more than
Ashes and an urn