Monday, June 26, 2017

On Prayer

The challenge was posted on the Pol-UK facebook page yesterday. “Just to remind you that I am still waiting for your poems / flash fiction inspired by Polish culture.” I seem to remember a Saturday night at the Sunset CafĂ© dedicated to Polish Poets. The task was to read a poem by a Polish poet and use it as a springboard to writing your own poem on the same theme. It was all too late for me to write anything but I hunted down a poem or two – not for reading out loud, just to say to myself I knew a Polish poet.

I imagine myself sometimes on the TV quiz show “Pointless”, at the last hurdle, with the topic “Winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature”. I hope there are no Polish people in the hundred people surveyed. I pull the name “Czeslaw Milosz” out of the hat. A pointless answer. I walk away with thousands of pounds! Czeslaw Milosz – please don’t ask me to pronounce his name – “ranks among the most respected figures in twentieth-century Polish literature”.

I read “On Prayer” and wrote this:-

On Prayer

You ask
You plead
You insist that I pray
For your mother
For your friend
For your sick child
A tricky operation
A job interview
The saving of a hell-bound soul

What is prayer anyway?
Not a spell
Not the wave of a star tipped wand
Not a twisting of the arm of the Almighty

I have to warn you
I’m not sure He listens to me
My knees are not bruised enough
My heart doesn’t burn
My words are too pale
I’ve forgotten how to weep

Sleeping Jacob saw a ladder and
Angels and
Active in a world that has closed its eyes
Wide awake
I see a ceiling and
Hear only silence

I pray anyway
I pray for the healing of a broken world
For shattered people to be repaired
Make it better, Lord

The answer comes all too swiftly
You make it better, child

Saturday, June 24, 2017

The Swing

I’m here just sitting on the swing
My feet are sore and tired
I thought this walk would help me be
Mind clear and heart inspired

Just now I’m swaying on the swing
A gentle forward…back
To let my feet lift off the ground
Such courage, now, I lack

But soon I’m swinging on the swing
My hands are gripping tight
I climb so high and dive so low
Old greying bird in a flight

Friday, June 23, 2017

The Woman on the Swing

The plan for the afternoon was a walk somewhere, followed by tea and cake. I headed down to Loch Ness. The walk was through the woods beside Aldourie Castle. I’d been there before. The little book of local walks had promised a pleasant hour or so with views of Loch Ness and the opportunity to look through the gateposts at the Castle which is very Disneyesque. One can, if one has sufficient funds, rent the castle for weekends and have one’s friends staying and party late into the night without disturbing one’s neighbours. I seem to remember that the path up to the gateposts was a fight against dense undergrowth. I decided to give it a miss this time round.

Let’s talk about the tea and cake first, shall we? The hour or so was becoming much more, and I was getting hungry. The brisk pace I began with had slowed down to a dragging feet and a stumbling over tree roots kind of pace. The thought of cake kept me moving. I pictured the cake on the plate, and the taste of it on my tongue. Yes, I it was calling to me from Dores Inn.

“I’m on my way, Mr Cake! Don’t go anywhere – just wait for me. I’m coming!”

The inn was in view. I was not quite crossing the carpark, but near enough. A tour bus pulled up and a million people, or more, poured out of the bus and into the inn. They glimpsed Loch Ness but opted for the inn first. There were millions of them in various stages of old age and carrying a lot of walking sticks between them. Apart from all the seats being taken up, I realised I’d be at the end of the queue and chances are they would, between the millions of them, polish off the cake. I wasn’t sure whether I could drive anywhere safely without consuming a cake but decided I would be home long before anyone came to take my order. A cup of tea and sensible biscuits could be consumed at home. I safely navigated my way around a rather large tractor and made it home safely. The Scottish Slimmer in me preened at the sensible biscuits.

As ever I took a notebook and pen, and a poem-writing-intention with me on the walk. I wished I had brought a pencil rather than a pen. A rubbing from the bark on a fallen log would have been creative. It looked like chinks of armour, grey and polished.

I sang as I walked, warbling through “How Great Thou Art”.

When through the woods, and forest glades I wander,
And hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees.
When I look down, from lofty mountain grandeur
And hear the brook, and feel the gentle breeze.

Then sings my soul…

There’s a wonderful poem called “The Creation” by James Weldon Johnson. I wish I knew the poem well enough to quote lines. I googled the bit I was looking for when I got home.

Then the green grass sprouted,
And the little red flowers blossomed,
The pine tree pointed his finger to the sky,
And the oak spread out his arms,
The lakes cuddled down in the hollows of the ground,
And the rivers ran down to the sea;
I was aware that my trainers were on the way out. It seemed that I could feel every contour of every stone and pebble, every prickle of every yellowed holly leaf on the path, and every curve and rim of every tree root. Thin soles. I mused for a while about the thinness of my “sole” and whether there might be a corresponding truth about the thinness of my “soul”. Did a thin soul make me feel too much the irritating spiritual pricking and prodding as I walked through my day? I was reminded about something I had written last month about nurturing a fat soul by feasting on the abundance in God’s house, and drinking from His river of delights.

The path was a mixture of trees. In some parts of the wood the trees had enough space between them to allow the sun to filter though. The forest floor was thick with green, growing things like ferns and saplings. There were birds and butterflies flitting about.  Other parts of the forest were much darker. The trees hugged closer together and the floor was thickly dusted with pine needles. Nothing grew on the forest floor. Light and space, growth and life? Or denseness and darkness, silence and pine needles? Which one best described me and my faith walk?

But it really wasn’t anything about the woodland walk that inspired me
to think about a poem – I haven’t written one yet. There is a stretch of path that leads up to a gate into the wood. The path skirts a children’s play park. There are swings and a spinning thing and a spider’s web net thing. It wasn’t there the last time I had been by that way.

There was an old lady on the swings.  Her husband was pushing their grandson on one of them, but she occupied another. She wasn’t just sitting on it as a place to sit, but swinging. Her face was screwed up with concentration, her hands gripping the rope firmly, and she swung her legs back and forth to get the swing moving. She smiled.

At the start of the woodland path there was a tree. It was a tree that almost begs a person to climb it. The branches are low enough and thick enough and numerous enough for even the least fit person to climb it. There were no notices not to, and no warnings that you climbed it at your own risk and if you fell out of the tree you could not claim compensation from anyone – it was climbable. I imagined the woman on the swing climbing the tree!

I have a tendency to think too much about my dignity and my age.

I thought about why the woman was on the swing. I thought perhaps she might have sat on the swing to encourage her grandson to do so. Not everyone is courageous. Not everyone has a sense of adventure. Not everyone wants to get on a swing. Perhaps she saw that in her grandson. She didn’t want him to be afraid so she showed him that it was safe by getting on the swing herself.

If my faith walk is anything it’s an adventure. If I stop myself from participating fully in that adventure because I want to protect my dignity, or I’m think myself too mature for this or that – it is not just myself that I am robbing of enjoying the adventure. What am I teaching the next generation through the example I set?

I want to be embracing the adventure that is faith. I want my spirit to climb the tree, and if I fall out of it, not to be looking for compensation or someone to blame.

I want to be the woman on the swing.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

This Do I Know

Lord, I am crushed, I am ground down like dirt
Day after day, I am wounded and hurt
Fists strike my face and words fracture my heart
Lord, show me mercy, Your aid now impart

My enemies wink, they want me to fall
I’m pushed to my knees but to You I call
Be my strong tower, the place where I hide
The anchor I cling to till troubles subside

What can men do? I have nothing to fear!
Men who conspire, who scoff and who jeer
Lord, in your anger, cast down every foe
Triumph and victory upon me bestow

You know well my path and catch every tear
The praise on my lips You bend down to hear
Of one thing I’m certain. This do I know
That You walk beside me where ever I go

What can men do? I have nothing to fear
God, the Eternal, will always draw near
I offer my life, with its minutes and days
Always to walk in the light of Your ways

(Psalm 56)

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Parable Walking

A friend of mine shared an article with me about parable walking. It was about how Jesus used the everyday things around him to teach people about how they should live their lives and what they should know about God and His Kingdom. We are used to learning in a church setting through someone’s sermon spoken at the front of the church, or in a home group setting – again, inside a building. We don’t have someone who waves an arm at a flock of sheep and tells us a story about a man who had a hundred of them and lost one, and what happens next.

Being outside, walking through a wood, or along a beach and allowing God to speak through these things is something that I do. Usually it’s more to do with stirring up a poem than a parable, and more recently it’s about trying to earn a few Scottish Slimmers “checkercise” points having eaten too much cake, or wolfed down a sharing sized packet of crisps without the sharing part happening.

Yesterday I purposely parable-walked along part of the South Loch Ness Trail. It’s not an ancient path. It’s possible that some form of the path existed ages ago, and just maybe St Columba trod the forest trail in his journey from Iona to Inverness.

Armed with sturdy trainers, a notebook and pen and a copy of the instructions I headed off, stopping off every so often to list the things my senses detected.

Tall trees, straight trunks swayed above my head. Shrubs, ferns and thick bunches of flowers and moss covered fallen logs bordered the path. Pine cones were scattered everywhere, open and empty of seeds. A few lines from a Martin Luther King Speech came to mind

"If you can’t be a pine at the top of the hill, be a shrub in the valley. But be the best little shrub on the side of the hill. Be a bush if you can’t be a tree. If you can’t be a highway, just be a trail. If you can’t be a sun, be a star. For it isn’t by size that you win or fail. Be the best of whatever you are."

The route was marked by posts. It’s always nice to feel secure that you are on the right path. One part of the walk takes in a minor road and a hill into another patch of forest. It’s a long stretch without any posts. It was easy to convince myself that I had somehow come off the path.  Passing beside a couple of houses, a barn, a field or two of crops, a tumble of stones, a field of horses, and climbing a steep hill that became less of a minor road and more of a grassy path I saw the marker post in the distance.

A couple of bike riders erupted from the path and wheeled down the hill gleefully. They were the first people I had seen. The parable walking sheet had said that it could be a communal thing – walking together, in silence, then comparing notes at the end. There were prayers to be said and readings to read aloud – but I skipped that. I like my own company, my own pace of walking and the conversation I have in my head.

The wind was quite brisk. I stopped to admire a tall tree with branches and leaves that bent with the wind. I took on a tree-bending-with-the-wind pose and felt a little silly. It was Theresa May who came to mind this time. I thought about how difficult the last week has been for her and the barbs in the newspapers I have read. There may be a time for being strong and safe but there’s also a time to bend. Without the bending comes brokenness. Bending is not compromising. I might not be a people person either, but I’m not a prime minister, I don’t need to turn up and give comfort to survivors but I would have done. She needed to and didn’t.

I made it to the marker post, looked at my watch and the grey clouds gathering. I had walked further than I intended to. Turning around I retraced my steps. Why is it that the homeward journey always seems to take less time?

I stopped beside the field of horses. Had I been my sister I would have made encouraging clucking noises and held out a hand. The horses would have recognised a friend and ambled over. She would have said, “Who’s a lovely boy?” and they would have exchanged mobile phone numbers. I am not my sister.

I was back in the forest,  It was a quiete, peaceful place. I daresay it’s not so peaceful with one bug eating another and plant life jostling over ground for sun-space, and underground for root-space. The trees had enough room to grow. It was a managed forest – some trees felled to give others the room they needed. I thought about my life and whether it was managed enough. Was there too much crowding going on? Did I need to get rid of a few things to allow the planting of new stuff?

I have often had a picture, on various forest walks, of Jesus walking beside me. He would stop at one particular tree and run His hand down the trunk, feeling the contours. He would look upwards, shield his eyes perhaps from the sun, and notice the absence of branches most of the way up and top of the tree with “beanie hat” of life. He would remind me that He was once a carpenter.

“This is a lovely tree,” He’d say. “So straight and tall! What could I do with the wood from this tree? I could make a door or a table. I could frame a window or make a shelf. I could make a baby’s crib or a boat with it. I would craft it to my purpose, smooth it down, polish it and run my finger along the clear grain.”

He didn’t say it, but I knew that he wouldn’t make it into a cross to nail someone to it. The picture usually stops at that point.

Yesterday, I had that same picture and conversation. Then came the next part of the conversation.

He’d touched my arm, and look into my eyes.

“This is a wonderful woman,” He’d say. “So upright and full of integrity! What could I do with a woman like her? I could make a teacher or a preacher. I could make a prophet or a healer. I could make a warrior and a worshipper. So much I could do but I choose to make her a poet and through her words she is all of them. I will craft her to my purpose, smoothe and polish her and as I run my finger along her clear grain I cannot help but smile.”

What a conversation to have!

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Finding "Home"

“Vocation does not come from a voice out there calling me to be something I am not.  It comes from a voice in here calling me to be the person I was born to be, to fulfil the original selfhood given me at birth by God.” Thomas Merton. 

I read this in a chapter of a book I am reading at the moment as part of an online book club. The book “Booked: literature in the soul of me” by Karen Swallow Prior, is a kind of life story traced through the books she has read. The chapter is based on the play “Death of a Salesman”, a play I have not read. It is about not living your life trying to be someone you are not called to be. Someone else’s path to success and happiness is not our path.

I was thinking, as I was reading, of those moments when I knew for certain I was on the right path.

When I first came up to Inverness in September 1989 as part of a Gospel Outreach team I really wasn’t certain of how much the decision to be there was mine, and how much the decision was made on the basis of trying to please other people.  We had travelled up over one very long day. The journey to Inverness is not a short one. I remember we stopped, in a large layby, possibly at the Drumochter Pass, somewhere along the A9. It was dark and the sky was heavy with stars. I had a sense of God telling me that just as those stars in heavens were always there in the night sky, He would always be with me. It wasn’t confirmation that I was supposed to be on that team, but that His presence was assured. We continued the journey to Inverness, arriving late, and tired enough to leave the unpacking till the next day, to simply fall on a bed and sleep.

The next morning I ventured out to see where I had landed. Inverness has the magnificent River Ness running through it, spanned by a number of bridges. There’s a couple of footbridges, little suspension bridges that cross the Ness. The Grieg Street Bridge is one of them and one lurches from side to side in a drunken motion when there’s people crossing in the other direction. I stood in the middle of the bridge looking down towards the castle and I knew I was where I was, for want of a better word, home. I was exactly where I was supposed to be, so I settled down to business.

The second of those certain moments was when I signed up for an evening class at Inverness College. I had intended signing up for a twelve week counselling course, believing it to be a useful skill to contribute to the church I was a part of. Next to the singing-up list was another list signing up to Creative Writing. My hand shifted across. Maybe my heart shifted too. When I sat down at the table in the class and wrote a story about a missing girl, prompted by a school photograph, I knew again that sense of coming home. Words and I had once been lovers in my teenage years and we rediscovered each other.

I have often questioned whether the vocation calling me to be “the person I was born to be” was really teaching. I can’t think of a time when I opted for it or made a conscious decision. Mum insisted that I lined up my dolls in the bedroom, all of given a name that began with the letter “R”, and taught them whatever I had learned at school. I don’t remember doing that – but I have a lousy memory anyway. I know that my choices of who to be were limited by the stream of schooling I had. The English class was deemed not bright enough to read some of the classics that Karen read. My “A” level, just the one, was Religious Studies – so I became an RE teacher.

If a vocation is something that comes easily to a person, then I wasn’t supposed to be an RE teacher – or any kind of teacher. I’m not, nor ever have been, outgoing. But that is not entirely true – put me on a stage, give me an audience, words to speak and I love the performance. I am a closet exhibitionist! I worked my way up the casts of numerous pantomimes in our local village. I never made it to principal leading lady.  I like to think it was my lack of being pretty that stopped me.

My first teaching job was in London, in Walthamstow, where they went through RE teachers like pints of cold Guinness on a hot summer’s day. I vowed that I had given four years of my life to get my teaching degree that I was going to stick teaching out for four years, then, and only then, if I didn’t like it I would throw in the towel, the red pen, the stick of chalk, the piles of marking, the report writing, the parents evenings, the answering-back pupils and everything else.

I stuck it out for four years, plus another thirty one. Whether that was out of fear of admitting I had got it wrong or out of finding another “home” is sometimes not clear. I loved the interaction I had with most classes – I had my stage, my audience, my words and the opportunity to perform every day. But it didn’t come easy.

When words and I re-united after all those years I did wonder if I had been on wrong path. If my ability to earn money had rested on my ability to use words, would I have lost my joy in writing?

Karen, towards the end of the chapter, looks at the reason behind work. Martin Luther once said that before the Fall God created both men and women to work. We work not because work saves us or gives us a sense of “home” but because work meets the needs of our neighbours. We work because of an in-built, God-purposed need to serve others. There is enough of the narcissist in me to wonder if in teaching I am simply serving myself rather than others.

I am into the last few metres of the teaching race and see the finishing line of retirement ahead. I had cherished in my heart the notion of a part time job behind the counter of the local Co-op. I recognise it as something I want to do rather than something God has called me to do – but the one doesn’t necessarily exclude the other! I think of it as something easier than teaching but it might not be.

I also think there might be something that makes better use of the love between words and I. Perhaps it is there that I will find my next “home”.

God knows.

(Not the “God knows” that translates as a shrug of the shoulders and an I-have-no-clue tone of voice, but the “God knows” that is confident that God really does know and will share it with me when I ask Him to.)

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Re-connecting With Nature

There was an article in the national papers this morning, just four small paragraphs or so, about a recent poll involving young people and nature. It seems that only 51% of young people can identify a bluebell and just 4% know what a red clover looks like.  The over 55s did better – 83% knew their bluebells and 45% knew red clovers.

This lack of knowledge about nature was blamed on the growth of technology and safety issues.  Concern for children’s safety means that wandering across fields and wading through minnow-rich ditches is a thing of the past.  I remember school days, afternoons, of walking out of the building and through a couple of fields down to a bridge crossing the Grand Union canal. We poked cow pats and watched a flurry of flies. We picked rosehips and sent them off somewhere to get made into rose-hip syrup. We kept a beady eye on frogspawn waiting for tadpoles in a pond.

Maybe the makers of the games that they play on computers need to decorate the scenery with trees and wildflowers. Rather than skirting around buildings and scaling rooftops armed with automatic weapons to kill people, they should move it into the forest. People perhaps should get shot not on the basis who has the biggest gun or the fastest reflexes, but according to how well or not they can name the wild flowers and insects around them!

Last week on a walk along the river I visited the cathedral. I like the quiet space inside and time to sit and be still.

Part of the space was taken up with an exhibition “My Ark of Nature”. An artist and environmental conservationist, Jonathan Sainsbury, had set up the exhibition. His artwork filled the small chapel space. He is based in Perth and has received a number of awards for his work in protecting the environment. His pictures are amazing. There were a number of very big charcoal sketches next to smaller, painted versions of the same thing. The scenes, of highland landscapes, trees and wildlife had an almost “middle earth, Hobbit look” about them. It’s not New Zealand at its most fantasy-landscape best – but just a few miles down the road, or up the road, or along the way from where I live – the rivers, the forests, the mountains and the deer that appear on my horizon.

Interspersed with the artwork were poems:-

I caught this morning morning's minionminion favorite, darling; also, an underling or servant, king-
    dom of daylight's dauphindauphin prince; a French historical term, along with “chevalier”, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
    Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimplingwimpling rippling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing…

(from the The Windhover by Gerard Manley Hopkins)

And Bible verses:-

Just as the sparrow seeks her home,
    and the swallow finds in her own nest
    a place to lay her young,
I, too, seek Your altars, my King and my God,
    Commander of heaven’s armies.
How blessed are those who make Your house their hom
    who live with You;
    they are constantly praising You.
(Psalm 84:3-4)

And along the walls at various intervals there were child-level bird boxes to peer into and see pictures of birds.

And there was a wooden shelf stuffed to spilling over with books and feathers and little wooden birds.

And in the background was the sound of bird song.

I think if I had inhaled deeply enough I could have been breathing in a forest fragrance.

It was a delightful exhibition. The artist and his wife were there and talked through some of the pictures. One of them was of sparrows hopping around a blackberry bush. Jonathan explained that it was just the one sparrow that had posed for him, a sparrow that they had nursed as a baby, who lived in their house and ate at their table and really thought itself to be a person rather than a sparrow.

I was reminded of the few nature poems I had written over the years. I shared the poems with them. The last line of a poem “Abriachan” ends with this verse – which brings me full circle to the newspaper article this morning:-

Shame on me I cannot tell
The names of trees some know so well
Hazel, downy birch and yew
A tongue now spoken by so few

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

50 Word Flash Fiction

After watching my boys play the first half of their match in the street league, I headed off to Pol-UK, the creative writers’ group that meets at the Bike Shed on Grant Street. Earlier in the week the Scottish Book Trust had posted something on Facebook about their monthly 50 flash fiction competition – a prompt to write something about an enchanted wood along with a picture of trees in the mist. I thought it might be something we might try.

We didn’t do the enchanted wood theme. We thought we’d save that one for real! A practice go or two was needed first. The first was based on a phrase:-

The Future Will Take Care of Itself

A man on the doorstep. Smart suit and tie. An Identity badge flapping in the wind. A clip board. A pen poised in hand. I squint at the badge. Sunny Horizons Insurance. He smiles. Even white teeth gleaming. I close the door, a winning lottery ticket clenched in my palm.

Impressed that I nailed the word count, I was ready for our next prompt – four random words.

Thursday. Brown. Cat. Seven.

Where is a black cat when you need one? Where are my seven years of good luck? On Thursday I saw a ginger cat on a wall, a brown tabby hiding under a car and a Persian blue staring through a window. I didn’t see the kerb I tripped over.

Bring on the enchanted forest!