Sunday, 7 August 2016

My friend, Niqi, and two lemon cakes

I have a very talented friend called Niqi. Only one her most recent accomplishments, meaning those accomplished in the last week, can be seen here. This is a shot from a week or so ago of Niqi working on said shawl. She is surrounded by some of my most recent works in on-going and interminable progress. In the time it has taken her to finish the shawl- completed yesterday just as I arrived for a well needed cuppa, I have made zero, none, absolutely nothing in the way of progress on any of them.

In the time that it has taken her to complete her shawl I have admittedly been away on my parents' annual holiday week. Six of us to be fed, managed and entertained. It was a harder week this week than the last two years. I have decided that the deciding factor is the fact that I am older!

When I arrived chez elle hier for a much needed cuppa, Niqi had bone china cuppas, a pot of Lady Grey, and a plate of Niqi's Non-Grandmother-In-Law's Crunchy Lemon Drizzle Cake. She got the recipe from the grandmother of an ex-boyfriend. This lady liked her so much, and Niqi liked her Crunchy Lemon Drizzle so much, that the lovely lady bestowed upon Niq the recipe. I don't know what happened to the ex-boyfriend. Maybe Niqi will tell us in a comment...

Anyway, Niqi told me the recipe yesterday because, when Niqi makes it, this is the best lemon drizzle cake that you will eat. And because she likes me. So I have this evening attempted Niqi's Non-Grandmother-In-Law's Crunchy Lemon Drizzle Cake. It is not going to be the best lemon drizzle cake you will eat. I think, in fact, that I can guarantee that you will not be eating it, and the non-eating will have nothing at all to do with geography.

Niqi says she doesn't time or skewer a cake. She listens. Now that should have been my warning sign. Only the truly accomplished can listen to a cake. In much the same way as only the truly accomplished whisper to a horse. (Niqi did do dog-whispering when training Blanco.) I cannot listen to a cake. When the cake stops making noises, Niqi says, it is cooked. I couldn't hear my cake over the fan oven, but when I took it out to have a listen the centre caved. So I baked it some more.

It is making noises now- it is hugely noisy now that all the lemon drizzle has gone on and through. And I can smell it now too. For me that is the sign that something is cooked. You can smell it. Excuse me then, as I must cut this rivetting post short and race back to the kitchen. Perhaps I shall brew some Lady Grey...

Tuesday, 28 June 2016

End of an era

 I have been thinking that, apart from the working five days a week thing, and the looking after children and parents thing, and the being as lazy as get out thing, one of the reasons I have rarely blogged for a long while now is because I have allowed my mind to be ruined, ruined utterly, by a dependence on short, preferably witty sentences or sub-titles that require little effort and less thought, and which are usually found on facebook.

But this afternoon, writing this year's series of thank-you cards with my shining suns, it struck me that the place I really wanted to be documenting what is a big milestone for us here in the Meadowplace wasn't facebook at all. Despite the fact that blogs are much more open than social media with their supposed privacy settings, there is in blogging an atmosphere of intimacy and understanding that doesn't exist there. Here in the small nest of sympathetic readers is a small, precious space to lay down a little egg!
 Tomorrow Jo will leave Primary School. He will surge out of the red doors at 12.15 and bounce around for a while with all his friends, high on life and loud as a hoarse-from-a-morning-of-shouting thing can be. I think I started blogging in 2008, when Jo was about to start his nursery year. I was certainly blogging when he started school. He had seven years of hearing that school bell ring, running up and down that playground, doing homeworks, going on trips, walking/scooting/cycling down and up the hill, learning to play violin and protesting his hatred thereof at every pluck of every string! For most of that I was blogging cakes, books, trips, Wind in the Willows, walking down and up the hill- I'm not at all sure what!
I know that I did come to feel that I was eventually blogging all the same things at all the same times of the year. That did make me feel slightly boring! But what is life if not Autumn cosiness, winter lights, Spring emersions into the fresh air, and solo summer surviving when you have two suns and their high octane energy to channel and Prince Charming is safe in work!

Thankfully, regardless of his increasing propensity for teenage attributes, Jo has the living room floor covered in train track. Schools may change, height may change (that's definitely them rather than me), seasons may change- but some things remain to litter the nest a while yet!

Tomorrow our Primary days end, another holiday kicks off, and all will be well in the world x

Thursday, 5 May 2016

Here, where I type

I have no camera at all with me here, where I type. This here is just an anywhere here. It has a keyboard and a connection and a warm radiator at my feet with an open window at my chin. So I have comfortable heat and the benefit of uncold Spring air! Not my heating system in this particular here, so I shan't worry about the fossil fuels...

Here, where I type, there is a gentle buzz of voices and very soon I will cross the wide room to bring this week's order to shelves of novels. Here, where I type, if you could listen with that particular ear, you would hear voices of countries and characters and journeys from far and near. Although what is near to me here, where I type, may be far from you there, where you read. And what is far to me here, where I type, may be near to you. I'll think of that as I move the author beginning with S from the shelf beginning with D. They've probably had more than enough of Twits and Witches by now anyway.

So far today in my here I have been reading and scribing and encouraging and discussing and supervising and emailing and preparing, so this is a little hiatus of gentle buzz and gentle air before I order and tidy and then spend the afternoon downstairs in another wide room. There will be colour and fun and chat and the subliminal push to stay on target but to do it in so jolly a way that you will hopefully not notice that you are working at all.

And then another week will come to its abrupt end with a bell and a rush and a push and a drive home along the coast road listening to professional gardeners advising amateur gardeners on matters completely too hard for me, but their words will announce two days to me of not here, but there.

Tuesday, 29 March 2016

An Alphabet of Authors: A to E

I have been reading since January. This is more of an achievement than it sounds! I have obviously been reading for quite some time. Not quite since prodigal pre-Primary education days but when I tell it to the suns I do resemble Matilda toddling off to the library all by myself. It was the only place to which I was allowed to go all by myself in 1970s Belfast. I did not have a small red cart, and I could not make things move. I still can't. Except biscuits. Not only can I make them move; I can make them disappear, but I have already complained about that in a recent post...

So, back to the Alphabet of Authors. Inspired by my Heather-Boss who last year read those 52 books in 52 weeks, and has the list to prove it, I thought that 26 would better my chances of success. A fortnight per book, and has the novelty of matching the alphabet. So far so mostly good!

Most of January was taken up with Sense and Sensibility, made more poignant by the fact that Colonel Brandon Alan Rickman died as I was reading. Jane Austen's work really does remain incredibly fresh in its wit and observations and truth. It was a delight to be working slowly through the stories of the sisters and the families and the angst and the patience and to be thinking about what we value in society and what we seek in love. I wanted to start right back at the beginning as soon as I got to the end.

But on, to the new-to-me Saul Bellow and Him with his Foot in his Mouth. Get it now! Read it now! I only found it because before Christmas a friend asked me to read The Day the Machine Stopped by E. M. Forster. So, I did, and realised that here was the short story I'd read a teenager in a science-fiction collection that I hadn't kept because I don't like science-fiction, the disposal of which I subsequently and deeply regretted because I could never after find this story which is arguably the most frightening depiction of what is becoming us in this virtual social sphere in which we sit at keyboards. However, as I was ordering the little book on Amazon, said book-seller recommended Saul Bellow's book, and he began with B.

Fabulous. Hilarious, sad, recognisable, wholly alien. It was everything. I loved it. I suppose it most reminded me of Gilead, in that here you meet an old gentleman looking back over his life, it achievements and perceived failures, but this time with great pathos. It is a little gem of a book. I wanted to start right back at the beginning as soon as I got to the end!

In February I looked along the bookshelves and found a book by Chris Cleave that had been a Christmas present a while ago and that I thought I hadn't read. I was wrong. With every page enough was familiar to convince me that I had read it already, but not enough was familiar for me to know what would happen next. It was like watching Agatha Christie films at Christmas. The Other Hand is a moving account of life as a refugee, of the horrendously corrupt systems that throw them from their countries, and is a topical read as our world descends into migratory hell. The development of the flawed narrators is cleverly done. Cleave manipulates his reader well. I didn't want to start right back at the beginning though; I wanted this time to remember that I had read it at all.

The Language of Flowers is a narrative. My favourite sections of the book were definitely those where the discussion of the flowers' symbolism was paramount. The idea of a relationship built on communication through flowers was wonderful. At times though I did find the protagonist dubious. I work with some very troubled children, and while I would love to think that one day some deus ex machina will make it all go away, I'm not so sure. I did like the portrayal of early post-partum life with a baby. I was nonetheless happy to be at the end and be done.

This month has been all about the Prague Cemetery. Oh my goodness. Now, know that I love The Name of the Rose and have read it many times. Yes, I liked the film too. However I tried, and failed, three times to read The Island of the Day Before. This should have confirmed to me my colleague's warning that PC is a hard read. But Umberto Eco is an E, and on I went. I finished it this evening. I did not read every single word. I skimmed whole passages. Reader, I skimmed whole pages. I was upset that now Eco had died while I was reading. If you want an epic read where the fictional main character takes part in real and devastating world events, read Louis de Bernieres. His mandolin-playing army officer and young friends with bird whistles will become beloved figures over whom you will happily sob in the last ten chapters. If you want a main character who will play an active if incredible role in every world event during his lifetime, read The One Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared. You will laugh heartily, freely suspend your disbelief and savour every outrageous word. If you want a disturbing history with pre-Holocaust references, steel yourself for The Book of Samson by David Maine. Uncomfortable, bloody, and consuming. If you really must fill your head with conspiracy theory read The Men who Stare at Goats by Jon Ronson. It is ridiculous enough to be believable, and sadly so.

If you want Umberto Eco, be cleverer far than me or stick with the accessible Name of the Rose. If Prague Cemetery explains how the Holocaust could happen, it does so with no sympathy. If it presents an allegory of how our religious suspicion becomes persecution at every strata of society, it loses itself too often in perniciously detailed historical pedantry. If it condemns governments and their hypocrisy, it exhausts the reader to the point of apathy. Did I want to start right back at the beginning as soon as I got to the end? No.

And my F? No idea. Jane Brocket cites The Home-Maker by Jane Canfield Fisher as an inspiration. As a former librarian I am aware that this would not be shelved under F, but it may just be a much needed antidote to E.

Monday, 29 February 2016

The weekend, a pause in Lent and a pause in life

We had a glorious weekend. The sun shone, and we realised that we were fully out in the world of Spring, fully out of hibernation! On Saturday we finally made it back to Castle Espie, lured by the prospect of a Lego Trail.
Castle Espie lies on the banks of Strangford Lough, and is managed by the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust, who keep safe an important stretch of land for the migrating flocks who refuel here in Northern Ireland every year.
 However, for high octane suns, the Secret Swamp with its fairy doors, wishing tree, mud submerged tightrope, and indeed zipline were the icing on the Lego cake.
There were huge Lego birds and creatures in abundance, at strategically distanced points around the domaine, and there was music in the woods..
 .. but we did actually stop to admire the live things as well! 
Then on Sunday we had an evangelist from an Irish organisation called Crown Jesus Ministries who came to speak in church. His passage was II Corinthians 2:14 - 3:6. It was an interesting time. In work we are feeling a strong call to a clear witness, and there was much in the talk to inspire and challenge. But, in the context of a super few days with all my men, and with lots of friends who passed through the house as well, I thought about our domestic spheres and about the legacy we leave in the hearts of those we know. I thought about our suns, and hoped that I might be able one day to say,

You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everybody. You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of human hearts.

I say this in gratitude to those who nurtured me. Despite all the ridiculously awful things that I have done, and that are heavy on my mind this week, I can be sure of grace and hope. So I hope that despite all the ridiculously awful things my boys tell me they have done, and that are heavy on my mind every week!, they will one day be a letter of Jesus to their spheres.

Tuesday, 23 February 2016

The last time I looked down and couldn't see my feet I was pregnant with a boy. This time I am not pregnant. I am a middle-aged, biscuit guzzling mother of two boys and daughter of two parents who works five days a week- school hours and term-time only- and who is hungry all the time. The disappearing feet were nonetheless a disconcerting discovery one morning this week in the shower.

For a few Lents I have deactivated my Facebook account. This is very easy and very, very effective. That is time you can tangibly retrieve and put to prayer or Bible reading. For another few Lents I have tried to deactivate my gorging on junk food to get me through the next chunk of the day. This has never been successful! I suppose endeavouring to put a spiritual slant on the fact that your clothes don't fit anymore is just not the right motivation.

I wish it was though. Those of us born into first world places and kind families push through into our earthly life with all good things on our side. And what do I end up doing? Bemoaning the first world problem that too much food in my belly means that none of the many clothes hanging in my wardrobe hang on me quite as roomily as they did two years ago. Clearly the fact that I now drive everywhere around my five square miles existence burning significantly more fossil fuels than I do bodily energy is not helping.

Before I went back to working five days I walked to and from their school with the boys, and cycled or walked to my evening library job. I did a little bit of housework everyday instead of collapsing onto the sofa at any given opportunity. I did spend some mornings praying and Bible reading too. I used to say that I didn't believe in exercise, but in an active lifestyle. It all seems very halcyon now!

I clearly need to practise some self-discipline. It makes me think of the verse in Hebrews, which I'd only ever considered as a rebuke to children or wrong-doers:

No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it. (Hebrews 12:11)

I think that the way I'm living now is a form of wrong-doing. I am not respecting the body God has given me; I am not respecting the privileged position I am in with first world abundance of food and fuel. I think that if I lived more gratitude and generosity I certainly wouldn't eat my way through the biscuit tin every afternoon after school, and I would get us out of the car a bit more. 

I just think that I'd manage that if I was more worried about the world, than about my girth. And I'm not sure I'd deserve any righteousness and peace that came out of dropping a dress size!

Tuesday, 16 February 2016

I like Lent. It's not much of a part of my Presbyterian heritage, and I'm not sure how I came to be such an admirer. I think I was in Belfast's big Christian bookshop one year wondering about Lent and picking up Delia's Feast for Lent, and there I was. Lentenised!

Six years in Anglicanism while Prince Charming led worship there helped, and now we do try in our own very small way to follow Jesus through forty days and forty nights of God. Certainly it has always been my experience that I have but to stop and find God rush to meet me. Father hurrying down the lane to take back the prodigal before words are even formed on lips.

It's half-term here this week, and I was struck yesterday morning by my reading of Jesus Himself getting up early or withdrawing to lonely places to pray. This time two years ago, on half-term, we had sold our house, discovered that the house we thought we were buying had been strangely sold to someone else, and were potentially homeless! There was nothing else on the market in the area that we could afford. Uncharacteristically, instead of weeping and wailing, I decided that I would get up early every morning of half-term and throw ourselves at God. Every morning that week I read about the importance of not worrying, of the birds of the air, read in Psalm 37,

Trust in the Lord and do good;
    dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture.
Take delight in the Lord,
    and he will give you the desires of your heart.

By Tuesday afternoon the local godly estate agent rang me and told me to view a house that night. He told me that it was the answer to my prayers. It was. And six weeks later we were here. God moves. (He moves houses.) He moves mightily and every Lent reminds me of the great, good things He still does for us. 

This year on Shrove Tuesday Jo and I stood beside the book stall in our church halls. It happens to be outside the kitchen, and we were waiting to go in and judge the BB pancake-making competition. On impulse I took this booklet home:

This is our Lent time with Jesus this year. For just five minutes over dinner we read the passage and all have a little pray- out loud or not. And do you know, God has come rushing down the lane to meet us. This week the reading are all from Acts- the disciples about to go out and preach but first waiting for the Holy Spirit and His tongues of fire. I am thinking about work and our need to be overt in our witness there, Mattman is thinking about all the new languages he's learning at school this year, and all around us we have passages from Acts in church and even on the billboard opposite our GP yesterday. Jo asked why Acts was everywhere suddenly and I said that God had lots to tell us from Acts just now.
God speaks, and loudly, but it is very often in Lent for me, when I find Him rushing down the lane.