Monday, January 29, 2018

Stamping on the Hermit Gene

There are a hundred websites dedicated to the art of conversation. I should have read the information on one of them before I went on a staff leaving do at the weekend. For years I battled with extreme shyness. I am still not comfortable in the presence of people. I was talking to a friend of mine about my approaching retirement. Right now I have to interact with people – soon, I won’t have to. The hermit gene will kick in and I will start hunting for an empty cave. God has told me that mine is not the role of the hermit – but my DNA feels wired that way.

Back to the website on conversation. An autopsy of the evening is probably not a good idea but I might learn how to be not such a dull dodo of the person sitting next to you the next time. This cones from a page highlighting six tips to a better conversation.

!. Lead with a compliment.

I didn’t do this. I thought about it twice. The people either side of me had poshed up for the occasion. I had changed my top for something brighter. We did compliment the food and the size of the portions. We had been led to expect something along the nouveau cuisine line with an emphasis on presentation rather than quantity. I’d planned a stop off at the chippy later.

Oh yes, I forgot to say that I had left my hearing aids behind. It wasn’t deliberate. I thought about going home to get them but I’m one of these must-arrive-early kind of people and there were roadworks everywhere. 

2. Embrace small talk.

“Small talk is what leads the way to deeper conversation, much in the way that a car must gradually accelerate to a certain speed rather than hitting 60 miles an hour instantaneously.” I don’t do small talk. Actually, I don’t talk, small or otherwise. I do silence and I do deep and nothing in between.

Did anyone talk about the weather? I don’t think so. The people around me were conversation experts and I was happy to nod and smile in what I thought were appropriate places. Remember I was without my hearing aids!

3. Ask lots of questions. 

This I did well. One of the ladies near me was a keen skier. I shared my skiing story with her – note the use of the singular rather than the plural. I tried it once, without lessons, and with a young lad trailing after me to pull me back to my feet when I fell over. I fell over often. 

She also has many American connections. What to say about President Trump can be a bit like walking on ice. To those who are Trump supporters her response is a chuckle and a “He’s a bit of a rascal.” To those who are not supporters she can be a little more direct. 

The lady on the other side of me was holding down a second job. She was being paid less than some of the younger staff and doing more work than them. They seemed to spend time, elbows on the counter, mobile phones in front of them if they weren’t serving someone. They could have been wiping tables or brushing floors or something more useful. 

You should be scouting the entire conversation for “tell me more” opportunities.” The people around me seemed quite happy being nudged into more talking. That’s not to say I didn’t say anything. Eyes almost popped out of heads at the news that I was one of six children, the boys topping over six feet and the girls barely scraping five feet nothing. Once upon a time I was four feet eleven inches – but I’ve shrunk a few inches. Was I going to keep shrinking? They seemed concerned.

4. Be nice
I really don’t know whether I come across as friendly. I’m not sure I do. Remember – I don’t have my hearing aids. Asking someone to repeat what they said could have been taken as me not paying attention, or me apparently not interested enough to listen. It’s me trying to hear in among the general noise of scuffed chairs, dropped cutlery and other restaurant noises.

Maybe my smile had taken on a manic look – me overcompensating for the lack of being able to hear!

5. Let the other person do the talking

Definitely happy with this one. I rarely dominate conversations. That’s an understatement if ever there was one. ”Try to keep the focus on them as much as possible.” This is where I come into my own in conversations.

I wouldn’t say that I live a boring life – but watching paint dry probably has more appeal! That’s not true. I think the problem is that I can’t bear for people to show too little interest in the things that float my boat. Or maybe it’s the potential of mockery. I don’t know many people who love poetry – the writing and the reading of it. To confess to being a poet feels like it is too far out of people’s experience. They don’t seem to realise that every song they listen to is poetry put to music. There is so much about what I do that I feel I have to justify doing it. People’s natural reaction to learning that I’m an RE teacher is to tell me that they didn’t like RE in school. And you needed to tell me that…why?

And of course, there’s God who floats my boat – in a world where He gets so little respect. 

6. Keep it light

The workplace had just gone through a mini inspection. I had escaped the experience because one of the people due to visit me was sick.  There was no complaining about the visits. No one has added any song and dance routines to appeal to the visitors. It was business as usual. No one really talked about the job and all the pressures at all.

I would have liked to have ordered dessert – but no one else did. I suppose I could have asked for extra spoons and allowed people to dig in. I didn’t think about it at the time and I do tend to be a little territorial where pudding is concerned. I settled for coffee.

I remembered it was Friday and putting two coherent thoughts together on a Friday evening is a challenge. I wasn’t wanting to be the first to leave – but neither did anyone else want to be. Someone has got to be the first. I left first. I didn’t stop off at the chippy.

I wish I found being sociable easier. I am reminded of something Elizabeth Bennet says to Darcy in “Pride and Prejudice” about being sociable – one needs to practice.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Ness Book Fest Poetry

The event was a poetry workshop, part of the Ness Book Fest and celebrating all things books and some things Burns. I had almost persuaded myself to give it a miss but poetry and I just can’t keep our distance. We stalk each other through books and workshops.

The venue was Leakey’s bookshop. A second hand bookshop housed in a de-commissioned church, shelves from top to bottom and piles of books not yet assigned a space cluttering the floor – a perfect place for a penning poems. Upstairs used to be a cafĂ© that served obscure versions of soup. There are a couple of sofas, and a circle of chairs.

I had sorted out my hearing aids and thought they were in the bag. It turned out that I had left them in the front room. It’s always a bad move to forget the hearing aids. I sat as close as possible to the tutor - a friend of mine who works harder than I do at her poetry, who submits things to magazines and wins prizes. A teacher, she knew how to talk loudly. The various writers in the circle of chairs were not so loud. Maybe there’s a thing that when you read poetry and it’s not something you really do often, and you are not so confident of what you’ve written that you speak softly. Only the man sitting opposite me was loud enough for me to hear.

The warming up exercises were 60 second blasts with a title for a prompt. It was important to write for every second and not lose yourself in too much thinking.

The Special Occasion

Hitting sixty this year.  I try to tell myself I’m happy to slide into seniority quietly, but deep down I want a party. I would rather not have to dress up but…

I really am hitting sixty. My husband talked about arranging a party. Not him exactly, but one of my sisters. And for the party to be down in their neck of the woods so they have no excuse not to come.
We thought about flights rather than driving down but with all the birthday presents we might need the boot of the car to take things home. I thought about a money only rule for practical reasons but I like wrapping paper and bows.

The second warm up made use of post its. The small green stripy one was for listing six everyday objects like cushions and carpets. The larger orange stripy one was for definitions of the objects, not detailed but just a phrase or a short sentence. We passed the definitions sheets around the circle to see if we could match up someone else’s definition to one of our objects.

My “letter” matched quite sensibly with someone else’s “means of communication” and a more creative link with “method of shutting a door”. I have written more than my fair share of letters which did damage to relationships. Saying it as it is, without an ounce of grace – I used to be an expert. I have softened over the years.

My favourite connection was my “carpet” fitting perfectly with someone else’s “transport for some people.” It conjured up all sorts of adventures.

The main part of the workshop was, of course, writing a poem. If you could imagine someone you know as a book what kind of a book would they be? Who would be listed in the acknowledgments page? What would be in the contents page? Would there be footnotes? What kind of cover would there be? What kind of pages? The font?

I’d like to say that I can’t believe her poem, my tutor friend’s poem, wasn’t one of the Blue Peter “here’s one I made earlier” things. But it wasn’t. She had the same title as us, the same list of things to think about and the same amount of time to write it as the rest of us. This is where her hard work and submitting things to poetry competitions and winning all came into being. She had written a wonderful poem about her mother-in-law. It was so full of rich pictures of this woman – perhaps a little intimidatingly competent.

Here’s mine. No prizes for guessing who it is. The first couple of lines give the identity away.

A book made in Glasgow
Not far from Parkhead
Yearns to be handled
To be held, to be read
The faint whiff of curry
Touches each page
There’s snippets of history
From birth to old age
The paper looks fragile
But really it’s strong
The stories look short
But really they’re long

And that was it. My time in the carpark the other side of the alley was all used up. I felt like Cinderella leaving the ball early.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

A Curious Turn

“A Curious Turn” could refer to what happens when I get up too quickly from sitting down. The head spins a little bit sometimes.  It’s the name of the exhibition currently on at the Inverness Museum and Art Gallery - “A Curious Turn - Moving, Mechanical Sculpture”.

“In this exhibition, automata sculptures are brought magically to life through a sequence of cogs, cams, cranks and levers.” The cogs, cams, cranks and levers from the most part were hidden from sight. I walked around the exhibition quite amazed at the workmanship – but nothing moved. I hadn’t realised until I was half way around the room that there were buttons to push and levers to turn. It was interactive, but I didn’t know. I had been walking around looking at the sculptures thinking ti would be so much more effective if things moved!

“Visitors will be able to turn, push and crank to see many of the pieces in action” – I don’t always read the instructions!

My favourite exhibit was a row if old men, carved in wood, sitting behind a long desk with little sheets of paper in front of them. Pushing the button they all began to move. One man was yawning, another smoking a cigarette, another scratching his head and so on.  It was very inventive. Long before the cinema took over as entertainment these little mechanical pieces were all the rage.

Push the button or turn the lever and there is an intended action.  For the exhibits there was just the one action. The man smoking didn’t suddenly begin to scratch his head.  The man appearing to write something on the paper didn’t suddenly lean back and begin to yawn. Their individual actions were down to the cogs and cams and cranks assigned to them. They didn’t get to choose how they behaved.

As I was walking around, pushing buttons, turning levers the thought came to mind “Just who is pushing my buttons and turning my levers?”

As much as we say we are free to act as we wish, that’s not always the way it works out. We have accumulated a whole set of prescribed actions in response to various stimuli. Someone insults us? We retaliate. Someone parks in what we consider to be out space in the carpark at work and we grumble. We have our buttons that people push and we have our actions that happen as a result.

“So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” John 8:36

I am not like the automata. I am not wired up to cogs and levers. I am free to choose how to react when someone pushes my buttons. 

The freedom I have isn’t about being given permission to do what I like.  He has dismantled the lever and the buttons, with my cooperation to be released to love and to serve Him, not to love and serve my own interests.  When I choose to misuse the freedom given me, too often I end up binding myself again to the buttons and levers that I was released from in the first place.

“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.”  (Gal 5:1)

Tuesday, January 16, 2018


Cold wind murmurs a gentle melody
Through skeleton trees
Snow beats a soft staccato
On grass and concrete
Stars pulse in the winter sky
Diamond beads on black velvet
I drag the blanket up to my chin and
Listen to the lullaby
Breathing slows and deepens
I sleep and dream of spring

Monday, January 01, 2018

Speaking to the Wolf and the Lamb

“In that day the wolf and the lamb will live together; the leopard will lie down with the baby goat. The calf and the yearling will be safe with the lion, and a little child will lead them all.” Isaiah 11:6

I suppose I have always thought of the wolf lying down with the lamb not in a literal sense. I have tended to see in as the church family with all its personalities, getting on together, showing unity and working hard to submit the tendency to dominate or terrorise others, to God. I have known too may wolves in the church family and too many lambs. Sad to say, I might have given up any utopian vision of a world living in peace and harmony.

There must have been a time before the Fall, before the serpent, Eve and the fruit eating event when the hunter and hunted didn’t exist. There was a time when there was no eat or be eaten mind-set in animals or in people. Venus fly traps didn’t trap flies once upon a time. Spiders wove webs to show off their creativity, not to catch insects.

I’ve also thought about seeing it as all the complex bits of a single person living in peace and harmony with themselves. I love the word “integrity”. A dictionary defines it as “the state of being whole and undivided.” When all the bits of me fit together properly, and there are not broken bits or drifting bits, just a single whole – that’s what I would like to be. It’s a challenge for any single individual or a community or a nation – to be whole and unified, not broken into bits.

Malcom Guite’s advent anthology “Waiting on the Word” contains a poem by David Greive - “Advent Good Wishes”. The poet speaks to the wolf and the lamb. The wolf is told not to stop roaring but to roar about thing that matter like justice for the poor. The lamb is told not to fear because the Messiah is on their side.

Part of our problem, as individuals or communities, lies in not saying anything to the wolf or the lamb at all. We don’t tell the wolf to change its roar direction. We don’t tell the lamb that there’s someone on its side. We don’t speak at all and our silence gives approval to whatever injustices are there. The wolf keeps eating the lamb and the lambs keep living in fear and no one tells them there’s a different way to live. We accept as normal the things that were never meant to be so.

What is the wolf in me that I am not telling it to turn its roar into a cry for justice for the poor? I want things my way. I want my advantages. Sometimes I roar at the wrong people to get what I want.

What is the lamb in me that I’m not reminding it about God’s converting grace and the Messiah that saves me from jeopardy? I allow myself to be terrorised by the people with all the power. I flinch when I should be facing up to people and situations that make me cower.

I was looking out of the window not so long ago. The day had been bright and sunny. The afternoon had clouded over.  Evening had darkened. The half-glass-empty bit of me wondered if in one day I had glimpsed what my year might look like. A beginning followed by a clouding over and ending in darkness. I’m not up for that.

It is time to start talking to the wolves and the lambs and the leopards and the goats. I’m not that clear yet on what we ought to be telling them but silence won’t do.

To the wolf in me
I say roar at injustice
And not at the lamb

To the lamb in me
I say God is on your side
And roar with the wolf