Sunday, December 23, 2018

Fighting the Hermit Gene

The end of the year approaches and then there’s the New Year and resolutions, clean slates, starting again, something new.

I begin to think about what I can resolve to do and about what I have resolved to do in previous years and never did.

It’s all got to start in the heart – and that is where my problems lie. I try to change an outside thing and hope that the heart catches on. If it begins in the right place, in the heart, it will work its way out.

I’m not entirely sure I want to go poking about with my insides – my thoughts, my feelings and emotions. It frightens me. The worms are best left undisturbed in the tin.


I am discovering I’m not indestructible. Winter, life-wise, is coming. Daylight hours, life-wise are, are short. I want to live well while I am still living and not merely survive or exist. How does a person live well? What does it even mean?

The fridge magnet has the answer. “Live like someone left the gate open.”

I spend too much time fretting about what might come through the open gate – something that spoils life’s flower bed or stomps over life’s manicured lawn.

The gate left open is for walking through. It’s about having adventures and taking risks rather than playing sate.

Of course, it all takes courage and as I look into my heart I wonder if I have enough.

Thursday’s writing class was about renewal, or recovery or rebirth. There was just the four of us. Four of us sat around the table, pens busy.

Last year, or the year before that, or maybe many years ago, a friend and I didn’t so much as make a resolution, nothing official, nothing that required a hand on the Bible and a solemn declaration – just musing really. We thought it would be a good idea to do something new, something we had never done before, an adventure into the unknown, if you will. It wasn’t a communal thing we planned to do together, just something on our own.

I am very proud to say that I did three things. Three things doesn’t sound a lot but for a person who has built her life-house in a rut, that’s a lot.  Maybe I wouldn’t have done the three things if I hadn’t retired. I fight a hermit gene. Sometimes I win. Sometimes I lose.

Knitting – I joined a knitting group called Knitter-Natters. My husband assures me that there is another group called “Stitching and Bitching”. I used to knit a lot. Most of what I wore, once upon a time was home made. I knitted and I sewed. In some ways it’s not a new thing.

I’m loving being part of the group though I don’t natter much. It takes me a while to settle in with new people. I have knitted a variety of scarves over the last few months and I have been to more wool-fests that my bank account can deal with. I bought a sock kit. I have never knitted socks before or used a set of double pointed needles. 

“Can I make a suggestion…?” said one of the ladies and the needles were tamed.

Art – There have been times when I have looked at a landscape and wished I could paint it. Yes, I paint with words and what I produce sometimes is stunning.

A friend contacted me to invite me to an art class he was planning to run. We had met through poetry events that stumbled through graveyards and forests.

Art was beaten out of me at school. It was in the days of still life. I shifted over to a more craft based class and spent a year making a fibre-glass tray. It turned out that I was allergic to fibre-glass. Hands swelling and turning red and itchy did not do me any favours. So, yes, art and I had a dodgy past.

We fell in love – art and I.  I discovered colour and texture and marvelled at the world as if I had just opened my eyes. Forget about still life – although a mug and lemon turned out fine.  I loved it. The bank account coughed up for paint and paper and a host of art related stuff. Between knitting and painting the housework never got done.

Walking – What’s new about this is who I’m walking with. The Scottish Waterways Trust has recently started up their winter walks. They are not long journeys, an hour and a half, with a tea break in the middle.

I don’t often walk in company. I have a fitbit which kicks me out of the house to notch up steps, so I do walk often. Sometimes in the New Year we plan to get a dog and dogs need walks.

The lads and lasses at the Waterways Trust plan out the routes. Getting people outside and into nature is a good thing. We are, as a species, becoming less and less at home in nature, and, sadly, more and more suspicious of it. All the remedies for all the ills we experience come in small bottles filled with pills. Nature has the better cure.

The walkers are all shapes and sizes. There’s no rewards for first up the hill. Things are out there to touched and handled, to be picked up and smelled.  Last time there was a tree trunk, fallen over, that just had to be walked along while someone held out a hand to keep you balanced. Kid’s stuff? Playing? Yes, it is. As adults we have become far too sensible and some of us have taken a road with too few risks. It is good to rediscover the adventurer is us all.

My three things. I have made new friends through doing them. I have also connected with myself in a way I didn’t expect.

The hermit gene has taken, perhaps, a fatal blow.

Monday, December 17, 2018

O Sapientia (O Wisdom)

December 17 is the first day of the "O" Antiphons, an ancient part of Christian liturgy.  It dates back to the fourth century. There's one for each day until Christmas Eve. The antiphons describe Christ using seven Messianic titles. They are based on the Old Testament prophecies and types of Christ. The first one is O Sapientia (O Wisdom).

This sonnet was written last year. At the time I was reading Malcolm Guite's advent poetry book "Waiting on the Word". Here is my version of an O Sapientia sonnet.

Our greatest folly is to close the ear
To wisdom’s voice when she reveals the way
And say that ancient paths have had their day
We choose what we think wise, what we hold dear
Yet at the city gate she makes her call
Spreads out her feast, invites us all to eat
Wisdom so rich it makes a man complete
The flush, the broke, the tramp, the king, us all

Come wisdom draw us from our broken wells
From fallen human truth where error dwells
Come wisdom pour on us a cleaner word
That cuts to bone and marrow all we’ve heard
Fill and spill in us ‘til we overflow
And your sweet way in us we thereby show

Saturday, December 15, 2018

God's Two Books

It seems that with the cold weather, and the discovery that my new trainers are not waterproof, I’m less inclined to go outside. The steps monitor on the Fitbit watch barely reaches half of the ten thousand steps I am supposed to be doing. The Scottish Waterways Trust to the rescue!

I have taken part in some of their activities in the past – a three week storytelling workshop meeting in an entirely unique barge tethered near the swing bridge, and a climb up to the woods to sit around a campfire listening to tall tales in the dark. This time it was a couple of afternoons spent with their Highland Canal Officers.

Their “Nature Walks for Wellbeing offer the perfect opportunity to get outdoors, enjoy nature and socialise, with the added bonus of a hot drink to keep the cold out! “

“Spending time outdoors and connecting to nature is very beneficial for both our physical and mental health, so don't let the winter weather put you off - come along and join us!”

One of the things that has cropped up often in my quiet times is the solitary nature of life since I retired. I don’t feel lonely, and I have a hermit gene that I struggle with, and the writer within enjoys nothing more than closeting myself in with a cup of tea and composing poetry, so I have to kick myself outdoors.

This week we met bedside the swing bridge and headed off for a walk along the canal to the Lock House and the lock gates out to the Beauly Firth. No hills this time, but a biting wind that threatened to tug the hat from my head. Heads down, shoulders bunched up, gloved hands firmly pushed into pockets, we walked on.

The two lads from the waterways know stuff – like birds. Last week, a wee dot circling high above us was identified as a red kite. It’s all the tail feathers, apparently. This time it was an obscure species of duck that spent lots of time swimming under water catching fish. I looked and saw just ripples. There were also finches hopping around the empty branches of a nearby bush.

There is always a focus to the walk. Last week we had a list of things to scavenge – leaves, pinecones, straight bits of wood, fluffy things and interesting stuff. This time we were encouraged to make a wreath with ivy and other bits of winter foliage. It’s an opt-in-opt-out thing. I opted in and looked at the hedges for bits to decorate my wreath. It wasn’t quite big enough to wear on my head as some of the other ones were.

There is something vaguely reminiscent of my Geography filed trip about these walks. Whether I start at the front walking with the officers, or in the middle of the line trying just to keep breathing as we climb a hill. I always end up at the back. I just walk slower than most people. I have shorter legs than most people. I amble. There’s always a man to keep up the rear. I feel well looked after.

There is a tea stop along the way. One of the lads makes a fire and boils a kettle and the other lad hands out flapjack, a little burnt at the edges. There is something about that cup of tea that makes it taste so good. That’s when the meaningful conversations begin.

I have had a number of “God” conversations. I mention that I’m newly retired. They ask about the job I used to do. I tell them I was a teacher. They ask what subject. I say, “Religious Education”. They ask whether I believe in God. I say “Yes”. And then the conversation opens up. One man had a very Buddhist philosophy of causing no harm. He is not out there to be preached at, so I don’t preach. I talk about how essential God is to my life and how I try to allow Him space to direct my way. It’s a very casual conversation.

Nature is amazing. Most of us know too little about the world around us. It has been good to be taught stuff – about the red kites and their tail feathers, about molehills and clusters of ladybirds. It is good to be in the company of people that can tell you about the rare duck swimming under the water to catch fish.

Early theologians believed that God had two books - the Book of Nature and the Bible. Both books read together lead to a knowledge of God.

I’m reading both books!

Thursday, November 29, 2018

I Refuse

the thistles assemble
beside the back gate
significantly taller than
the rhubarb plant they surround
they browbeat the herbs
prickly customers
they have nothing nice to say to the dandelions
but spew thorns

I refuse to be intimidated
though they tower above me
I stamp down on
the spade between their roots
dragging one way then another
they sway a little
then surrender unwillingly
sucking hard on the soil before lifting

those eager for power
assemble in fortresses
vastly richer than the crowd
they deem to protect
they browbeat the downtrodden
stubborn leaders
they refuse to acknowledge another side
but spit invective

I refuse to be intimidated
though they wield power over me
my spade stamped down - 
words spoken or written
work held to ransom
waiting in a queue to vote
I draw my lines in the sand
arms crossed I wait for their surrender

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