Thursday, May 28, 2015

Passing Places

“We Gotta Get Out Of This Place” – The Animals sang it and I totally agreed with them.  The unwritten law about staying at home when you are signed off sick from work needs to be re-written! I am sure that somewhere in a list about what to do with colds and coughs is a number seven that says “Go for a walk.” I feel like I have been breathing in the same germs that I had been breathing out over the last few days. Yes, indeed, I gotta get out of this place!

The weather wasn’t particularly inviting me out the door.  There were moments of sunshine that were quickly blown away by bouts of rainfall only to be overtaken by another blast of sunshine.  The skies were a battleground.  The washing on the line danced dry, then wet, then dry again.

I headed to the hills above Loch Ness for a drive, armed with a notebook, a pencil, a bottle of blackcurrant juice and a “How to...” sheet of tips to writing nature poems. Most days I don’t need a “How to...” sheet to write a poem but it’s only recently the cotton wool has left the brain. The neurons are slow to spark.

I think the challenge I set myself was beyond the neurons.  I should have taken the main road down the south side of Loch Ness.  I took the back roads – lots of hills and twists and turns and blind summits and…single tracks with passing places. There are people who live in them there hills and drive accordingly – certainly faster than I would go, and much more confidently.  

I found myself at the Farigaig Forest Classroom, with picnic tables and a toilet.

A man and his friendly dog sat at one table.  He tried to engage me in conversation.  I suppose I could have written something down in my notebook along the lines of “I’m not being rude.  I have lost my voice.” His car had a caravan attached.  It wasn’t your white Jubilee 4 berth, but something that looked more like a large metal tube, with a door.  The door was open, his wife was inside making tea.  Seeing as I was deemed not friendly no one offered me a cup.

The whole exercise of getting in touch with my senses was not a success.  I could see plenty of things – trees mostly and birds and lots of daisies in the grass.  Had I been sitting on the other side of the picnic table there were mountains to admire, but I didn’t see them until the rain forced me back to my car.  Hearing things didn’t happen.  I hadn’t put my hearing aids in and the noisy tinnitus in my ears was masking every other sound.  Smelling things? I was mopping up mucus with paper tissues and the nose wasn’t up to the task.

I must have been sitting very quietly as a robin landed on the table and cocked his head at me.  I am glad he was a robin.  There are very few birds I can identify. 

Sitting and being quiet was very nice.  I didn’t feel the need to tackle any of the coloured walks on the board next to the path.  The timings on these things I find to be very misleading.  Something that promises to be just a half hour stroll turns out to be a two hour scramble. As much as I wanted to see the viewpoints marked out, I just wanted to chill. The dog and the man and the wife with their cups of tea were out to scramble.

I might have been able by being very quiet to coax a robin to sit on the table, but I couldn’t coax a poem out of the trees. The rain was falling in heavy splats.  It was getting colder and the wind was beginning to bite.

I headed home – not the way I came.  I turned on to the main road back to Dores and on to Inverness. 

Although it was the main road there were sections of it that were two lanes and other sections that were single track with passing places.  Of course, it just had to be the single track part of it with the passing place when the bus was heading in my direction.  The passing place was on my side of the road and I tucked myself in, closed my eyes and hoped he had enough space to get by.  I hoped my mobile phone was sufficiently topped up if I needed rescuing.  The other side of the passing place was a steep slope leading down to the loch.  I thought the primroses and the bluebells on the grassy slope looked pretty but didn’t want to see them close-up. The bus driver was no doubt used to these close encounters and didn’t bat an eyelid and the bus slithered by.

My morning Bible reading came to mind:-

 “You can enter God’s Kingdom only through the narrow gate. The highway to hell is broad, and its gate is wide for the many who choose that way. But the gateway to life is very narrow and the road is difficult, and only a few ever find it.” (Matt 7:13-14 NLT)

One thing about the road to life, said the Bible study notes I was reading, is that it is a one-way road.  Yes, you can stop along the road, but you can only go forward. You can’t turn around and go back and nothing will be coming from the opposite direction.

No bus.  No passing places.

Do you ever get that feeling, when life is not nice to you, and losing my voice is not nice, that maybe you have come off that road to life?  You didn't think you took a left turn, or a right one, but it seems that God's hand of blessing has fallen on someone else's head. 

I asked God this morning if I had strayed from the road to life? 

"Remember that word "difficult" in the verse?" He said, "This is a difficult bit.  That's all."

Thursday, May 21, 2015

A Pile of Magazines

I don’t know who introduced poorly bags into our household.  I suspect it was my husband.  He is acknowledged to be more caring and generous than I am.

A poorly bag to the uninitiated is a bag of goodies given to a poorly person.  The contents might change but the staple poorly bag contains a magazine or two, a packet of crisps, a chocolate bar of some variety and a bottle of juice.  There may a box of Lemsip, a lottery ticket or a sugar doughnut to pad it out – but we have been dealing in poorly bags for quite a while now.

Sunday saw a slow descent into me not feeling so well.  Monday morning had seen not-so-wellness become a definite feeling-ill thing.  A cough had lodged itself in some unreachable bit of the throat that no amount of coughing was able to shift.  The nose wasn’t working properly, nostrils switching between blocked and unblocked.  And I was weeping miserably.  My stiff upper lip quivered and I just couldn’t figure out how to pull my socks up and push through.

The poorly bag was purchased at just after ten at night from the Co-Op in town. The receipt told me that there was more purchased than ended up in the poorly bag.  I am not a fan of wasabi beans in a spicy coating. 

The magazine turned out to be “The People’s Friend.” The logic might have been that because I like reading the Sunday Post (“Not a real paper!”) I will automatically like the “People’s Friend”.  I am not saying it’s not a good magazine.  It is just aimed at an age group that I don’t feel I have reached yet. The adverts include things like The Age UK Personal Alarm for those 8,000 people who fall each day, a TV amplifier and the opportunity to win a stairlift so I can stay in the house I love.

On the front page it makes the claim “A Short Story for Every Day of the Week”. I think I have broken the rules by reading most of them in one sitting. They are very life affirming and positive – the girl who moves next door gets her man, the farm girl makes the right choice between two handsome men in the village and the grandmother who is grieving for her husband is learning to make connections using Facebook!

Making connections! The People’s Friend magazines have a very special place in my heart.  I don’t think my mum actually bought them, but a friend passed them on to her after reading. Mum didn’t pass them onto someone else afterwards but kept them in a pile underneath the coffee table. The coffee table was never used for coffee but became the dumping ground for letters from the council, blue plastic envelopes for Torch Trust cassette tapes of someone reading the local newspaper for blind people, knitting patterns and easy recipes printed in an extra-large font.

When I came home on holiday from college for holidays the pile of The People’s Friends was waiting for me to sort in order of date – and they were all there – and read my way through over the next few days.  I began with the serials – I didn’t have to wait a week for the next instalment.  It was like reading a book.  There were two or three on the go.  I sometimes didn’t get the beginning of the story but could read to the end.  Other times the magazines would run out long before the story ended. 

My mum would sit in a chair, or on the floor, surrounded by knitting usually in the process of coming off the needle to find the row where the stitch had been dropped. She would be knitting, or not, while I would be reading my way throught the magazines.  A quiet and productive afternoon.

There are things that deserve not to be forgotten.  If I start buying The People’s Friend it will not be because I feel I have reached a certain age and in need of an Avanti Swivel Recliner – it will be all about catching hold of a good memory.  Maybe I won’t read them straight away but let them pile up under a table and then sit down one afternoon and read my way through the entire serial stories in one sitting.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Dandelions

Arriving uninvited
on sun warmed soil
tenacious roots
delve deep
sopping up nutrients
spreading, suffocating, strangling
the welcomed
and wanted
the planned
and positioned
Sun-kissed starbursts
of dandelions
ignore the bouncers
staying long past
closing time
Their clocks tick and
with a last breath
they move on

Friday, May 15, 2015

Too Much Shark?

I managed not to talk myself out of going to a creative writer’s masterclass at Eden Court last night.  The focus was on fiction writing and the tutor was Alan Bissett, an author and playwright from Falkirk in Scotland.  I didn’t confess that I had him mixed up with Alan Bennett so I was mildly surprised to see someone much younger, with a beard and a dapper waist coat.

It wasn’t a huge class – just the four of us.  Alan noticed the very small table and the select few people around it.  Perhaps Alan Bennett would have attracted a bigger crowd, although a play by George Bernard Shaw was showing in the main theatre.  All it really came down to was more individual time with Alan.

In the opening introductions I think I revealed how much of a Philistine I am when it comes to my reading choices.  I have tried very hard to read some of these novels that are shortlisted for various awards. I have downloaded a few on to my kindle and tracked down a few in second hand bookshops BUT I always come back to Jack Reacher or the latest Dick Francis novel.  I like page turners.  I like well-spaced paragraphs and clear fonts.  I like a first line that grabs my attention.

The workshop began by exploring first lines and the hook that lures the reader to stay with the book and about building tension. There must be a page of first lines of novels out there in cyber space.  I’d seen the sheet before in another writer’s group talking about the importance of opening lines.  My own personal favourite was “They’re out there.” I had successfully swallowed the bait and was hooked.  Who is out there exactly? Where is “out there”?  Am I safe if I am “in here”? If the reader isn’t asking questions by the end of the first paragraph, the writer has lost him (or her) and the chances of them putting down the book has increased.

“Storytelling is the slow revelation of secrets.” I haven’t read enough, or indeed any, of Alan Bissett’s novels to know if these are his words or whether they belong to someone else.

We moved on to talk about the film “Jaws”. We all know that the shark is there.  It’s beneath the waves. There are the flurries in the water, the spreading stain of blood and the music in the background.  You don’t see the shark and all the teeth until somewhere in the middle of the film. Your imagination is far better at picturing a shark, so they feed your imagination. You know it’s there.  You can feel its presence but you can’t yet see it. The longer the shark remains unseen, the more the tension is drawn out.

A good writer helps you to imagine the shark but doesn’t allow the shark to surface for a long time.  The reader asks questions.  Too many answers provided and reader loses interest. 

A good writer uses actions and dialogue and symbols to suggest a secret but doesn’t easily reveal it.  The tone of voice, the body language of the characters and the words spoken or even silence can all be put to use to send out clues but let the reader do thinking  If you spill the secret early, then what is needed is another question and another secret.  You might reveal the murderer, but then the reader must be given a new question like “Why?”

My husband and I watch a number of crime series.  The other night we were watching “Elementary”, the US version of Sherlock Holmes.  The body turns up and they have a list of suspects which they whittle down. My husband takes a shortcut at this point.  He looks for the most famous person on the cast list and declares them to be the guilty party. It’s a given, he says.  They are hardly going to give someone famous a small unimportant role and pay them a huge amount of money if they are not the killer.  Too often he is right.  I have since moved the goalposts.  He is not allowed to identify the killer unless he can suggest a motive.

I seriously do not play to an audience! I can’t pull the literary rabbit out of the lets-write-for-twenty-minutes exercise. As I said to Alan, ten minutes into the task, I was writing myself to sleep. Incidentally, he did say earlier that if the writer isn’t excited by what they are writing, the reader isn’t going to be that excited either.

He raised an eyebrow and asked me to explain myself.  I wished I hadn’t spoken.  Any characters, he said, in any setting talking about any topic can be made to hint at a secret.

OK let’s see if I can put you to sleep as easily as I can put myself to sleep.  Here’s some of what I wrote in those twenty minutes:-

“The roses are looking lovely, aren’t they?” said Natalie.

“I’ve always had roses in my garden,” replied Evelyn, “Always.  Of course the quality of the soil matters. Something organic to feed the roots.”

“Tea bags,” suggested Natalie, “that’s what my Nan swear by.”

“Hmph,” snorted Evelyn, “There’s no strength in a tea bag, girl. Something more solid is required, something richer and full of nutrients.  And, of course, a heavy scent is essential to a good rose.”

So are you asking any questions?

Too much shark? Or too little?

Monday, May 11, 2015

Water, Walls and Words

The opportunity to have a poem engraved on stone was too much to resist.  All that was required was a pencil, a note book, a camera, a packed lunch and a Saturday workshop with Ken Cockburn.an Edinburgh based poet.

The project, River Connections, is all about the flood management scheme – that’s a wall to you and me along the River Ness. 

My husband used to live in the bedsit in Douglas Row.  Once or twice a year he would be issued with sandbags.  Continual rain for days or weeks on end, or the spring thaw of snow on the mountains, would cause the river level tor rise and spill out onto land. I’m kind of curious why the canal doesn’t overflow but it doesn’t.

I had my doubts about the wall.  I seem to remember a video from years back about a project in a developing country.  They had times of continual rain for weeks, spring thaws and rising river levels.  They didn’t have houses along the river but fields of crops.  The river bursting its banks destroyed the crops.  A do-good charity raised money to build a wall along the river.  What they neglected to do was to talk to the local people – the older generation. One year, not long after the wall was finished, the river suddenly changed course.  It happened every so often, but would eventually find its way back to its usual route over the weeks.  Trouble was the wall the charity had built stopped the water from making its way back.  The fields that wall intended to protect were back to being under water but with no way for the water to drain back into the river bed. Their wall had done the opposite of what it intended and all because they thought themselves to be the experts. 

I don’t think the River Ness is likely to change course but that doesn’t stop me being suspicious of walls.  Sometimes it is all a matter of height – I’m not a tall person and have had more than my share of too-tall walls.

Anyway, it appears that the wall is more than just a wall.  It’s intended to be a bit of a gallery.  Lines of poems will be carved into some of the stones on the wall.  There are plans for seating areas with stone tables with lines of poetry carved into them.  For the end of the wall they have planned a display of circle poems.  This is what the workshop was all about.

A circle poems is
a) something more than a poem about circles – googling “circle poem” leads to sites of poems about circles.
b) not just any poem written into a form of a circle.
c) a short poem, written in the form of a circle, that can begin at more than one point.  It’s like the Disney song “This is the sing that never ends…it goes on and on my friend...” as taught to us by a very precocious six year old who later was invited to be a bridesmaid at our wedding.  The poem can phrases that relate to one another in a theme, or involve a cycle of events, for example, the changing seasons.

The teaching part of the workshop was full of examples of circle poems from other workshop that Ken had led.  He took us through a huge variety of ways to structure the poems. Sometimes it wasn’t a poem at all but a selected word repeated over with the visual impact of a particular font.  There were double circles too – one line of thought on the outside and an opposing line on the inside going in the opposite direction. It’s all very clever and very imaginative.

There was a walk involved, quite a slow amble for some of us, more of a swift march for others, to the end of the wall.  It’s still under construction.  There’s no grassy bank as yet, just a big digger and lots of soil.  We had a sheet of boxes to fill in identifying sounds and sights and colours and stuff – an aid to writing the poems later on in the afternoon.

I really don’t shine with time constraints and other people in the room and no access to a thesaurus.  Rather than just enjoying access to a table and empty pages in a note book, I add the “comparison” factor.  Are the other people in the room writing something better than me? With only a few circle poem spaces up for grabs on the end of the wall, will mine make the grade? The desire to impress the workshop leader runs deep in my veins.  I also have a tendency to struggle with a single idea that I insist will work if I play with it long enough rather than casting a wider net.  When it’s time to share I always feel like the foundation pupil in the higher English class.

My one idea was a good one, but I ended up with too many words.  My friend, Karla, listened with awe, which was nice. It is certainly a format I shall continue to play with.  Here's my edited version in the circle format.







Sunday, May 10, 2015

The File on the Table

Larry Johnston had spent most of his time in one office or another.  He had worked his way up from the closet sized ones, and the barely-enough-space-to-swing-a-cat ones to the ones so big you needed a compass to find your way around.  This office was neither.

He took a seat beside a large desk spurning the comfortable sofa and low coffee table on the other side of the room.  He hadn’t come to chat but to do business – serious business.

His eyes scanned the bookcases. It reminded him of the office at home.  Children’s books spilled across one of the shelves in an untidy pile. He noted a bird’s nest perched on the edge of one shelf and a scattering of stones and shells from a beach day adventure. Yes, the thought, it was very like the bookcase in the office at home. He softened a little as he remembered Ellie.  Then he frowned and straightened his shoulders turning his gaze away.

The desk was free of clutter. There were no trays stacked one upon another.   A phone was placed in one corner, the spiral flex in an untidy tangle. There were no photographs in silver frames.  It seemed not to be a working desk at all with no evidence of any recent activity.

A solitary file had been tossed onto the desk at one time.  In the absence of an elastic band the contents had spilled a little.  Larry couldn’t help but crane his neck to get a glimpse of some of the sheets.

The door opened and he jumped a little and flushed pink with guilt.

“Larry, it’s good to see you.”

There was an awkward pause.  Larry poked out a firm hand.  There was a slight nod before the two men shook hands.

“I thought you were out.  They said it was OK for me to sit here for a while.”

The staff at the Complaint’s Department of the Kingdom of God were used to people just asking to sit awhile in the Father’s office. After an offer of tea, which was refused, they gently closed the door.  Larry hadn’t asked to speak to the Father although that didn’t mean that the Father didn’t want to speak to him.  The Father heard Larry’s heart call out to him and had come.

The Father moved the chair from the other side of the table and placed it near to Larry, their knees almost touching. He reached across the table lifting the file and pushed it in front of Larry opening it carefully.

“I thought you might like to have a look through this,” he said.

The sheet on the top was familiar.  He didn’t need to translate the medical terms and all the Latin words written in an untidy scrawl to know it was Ellie’s diagnosis.  The prognosis wasn’t good.  The cancer had replicated itself and moved on to various organs.  Six months or less was their best offering.

“Are you going to do anything about it?” whispered Larry, a tear sliding down one cheek.

“No,” said the Father choosing not to explain His decision.

“But…” Larry knew the scriptures.  He had written so many positive verses on blank cards and posted them about the house.  He stopped often and held one of the cards praying a promise and reminding the Father of His word.

He picked up a photograph recognising the Kodak print from many years ago.  The birthday cake took up most of the picture and Ellie sat, mouth pursed, ready to blow out the candles.

“I remember that…,” said Larry. “She was six.  She asked for a horse.”

“She asked me for something else,” said the Father, “She asked me to stop you and Helen yelling at each other.”

Larry dropped his head. He and Helen had been going through a difficult time.  So much grief from the miscarriage that they didn’t know how to handle.  Larry remembered then that he and the Father sat on the sofa that time. 

“She asked what her baby sister looked like.  Did she have blue eyes? Ellie used to ask me for blue eyes all the time.  I told her that her brown eyes were exactly the way I wanted them.”

More pictures of Ellie.  And her school reports. A diary that Larry had never read.  And so many things that Larry didn’t know about his daughter.

He and the Father talked about them all.

Larry never noticed just when they had moved over to the sofa.

Sunday, May 03, 2015

Powerful Words

A friend and I were discussing the misuse of vocabulary.  Earlier on in the week I had been talking to someone about a particular challenge I had been facing.  It was a stressful situation and, for the most part I had been careful to pray about it and seek God’s perspective. What others might label as coincidence, I took as God’s answer – the situation changed.  It became something well within my scope to deal with. The story and its resolution was greeted with a single word, “Cool.” Too much was wrong with the world when "cool" describes something other than an ice-cream.

The English language is rich and varied and, I know it is in a constant state of evolution.  New words are added to the dictionary and old words get tossed out and other words take on another meaning.  I sometimes think our use of words can be really lazy.  Perhaps that’s what I like about poetry – the use of good words,

I love words.  I love hunting down a word that carries the exact meaning I am looking for and I will not settle for a convenient word.  It’s the writer in me.  I’m not sure that I am capable of dumbing down the words I use, or willing to do so.  Do I distance myself from my listener, or my reader, if I use a word they’re not familiar with? Perhaps. I asked group of young people this week whether, if I called them apathetic, I would be complimenting then or insulting them.  Some thought about it.  They knew the word “pathetic”, and knew it wasn’t a good word to be called.  Did the “a” at the front make it a better word or a worse one? They plumped for the compliment – though they ought to have factored in past history and the things I had called them on previous occasions.  Praise was something hard won and didn’t slip so easily from my lips.

This morning I was reading the end of Numbers ch6.

“The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you; the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace.” (Num 6:24-26)

They are words given to Aaron by Moses to bless the Israelite nation. The heading in that section of the page says “The Priestly Blessing”. 

Having a chequered history of going to a variety of churches throughout my almost forty years of being a Christian, I have heard the words spoken lots of times. Although the Bible tells me that I am part of God’s royal priesthood I can’t think of any time that I have spoken those words to anyone in that particular order.  I have asked for God to bless people on a number of occasions.  I have asked for His grace and His peace to be poured into people’s lives – but never quite using those words.

Aaron had God’s permission to say that blessing.  It wasn’t something to say to make people feel better – some kind of spiritual placebo.  The words were God’s intention and purpose, His promise.  There is a blessing to be experienced and the assurance that God keeps us in His hand.  He doesn’t let go of the things He treasures – and He treasures His children.  There is grace to underpin our lives – grace not to be just saved by, but grace to live by.  And don’t we all need peace?

The blessing isn’t a three wishes thing.  It’s not the words of a spell. It is a powerful blessing – words that are spoken that have the power to truly transform the life of the hearer. And because of that they should not be spoken casually or out of habit.  I wonder if the church minister who ends the church meeting really intends that people be blessed and know that they are kept.  As he says the words does he, in his heart, call God to keep His word?  How different would our faith walk be if someone spoke those words over us in faith, and we received those words in faith and lived those words each day accepting them as true and letting them transform our daily lives?

Father,

Thank you for Your blessing.

Help me today to speak those words, in faith, over myself.  May my spirit take hold of these words, in faith, and live in the expectation that I will be transformed. Tomorrow and the next day help me do the same. I am tired of telling myself something other than the truth.

Encourage me to speak those words, in faith, over my friends and family as I pray and give thanks to You as I see their lives transformed.

Amen