Tuesday, 17 March 2020

Patrick the self-isolater (and Lent #3)

 Happy St Patrick's Day! He didn't get any mad parades and green Guinness either. And no, he didn't have a government telling him to stay in for a few months, but he did have Irish slave traders who grabbed him and sold him to Miliucc who condemned him to six long, cold, lonely years on a very rocky and uncomfortable bump of a hill not too far from here.

It's interesting to us in these days especially, I think, to imagine how Patrick chose to spend his time. He would have been entirely dependant on God and presumably others to feed him. He would have been devoid of all stimulation and entertainment. He records later that what he did was pray, all day and all night. One hundred times in daytime. One hundred times at night. We worked this out at our little Scripture Union in school last week: that's one pray every seven minutes.

Prayer is definitely becoming my theme for Lent. And Lent seems to be becoming C-time for us all. I often complain to myself, make excuses to myself, that I haven't time to read my Bible, or sit for a decent time meditating on that reading, listening to the God who loves me extravagantly. Well, aren't we getting more time than we've ever had? I sincerely hope that we won't have six years to combat loneliness and deprivation, but I do also sincerely pray that we'll look back on these weeks of self-isolation with recognition of how they brought us closer to God.

I even think that these weeks will bring us closer to others as well. We can, as so many are saying now, use our multitudinous communication technologies to communicate with each other. So, a very happy St Patrick's day to you all. I wish you lots of prayer time! We'll be reading this book, and praying these words of Patrick's too,

I bind unto myself today
The power of God to hold and lead,
His eye to watch, his might to stay,
His ear to hearken to my need.
The wisdom of my God to teach,
His hand to guide, His shield to ward,
The word of God to give me speech,
His heavenly host to be my guard.

Monday, 9 March 2020

Lent #2

(Another wonderful image from the wonderful Mackesy book that will be first in my March books!)

The storms continue Outside. but there has been blessed relief this week Inside. (I refuse to class C whatsit as a storm just yet, despite the fact that I anticipate half of my grocery order not arriving tomorrow afternoon because of C whatsit panic.)

So, I seem to have set myself the target of this over Lent: pray without ceasing, thank without flinching, and remember without doubting. That's easier to do when storms abate, undoubtedly.

I read an interesting thing about prayer yesterday. Gretchen Joanna and I sort of met when she and I were both skirting around the idea of reading Kierkegaard most of ten years ago. (Really, GJ? Really most of ten years ago?!) So we have finally started, and are joint reading The Lily of the Field and the Bird of the Air. This week we're both aiming to share what we have made of it all thus far.

Suffice to say at this point, that the First Discourse has led me on in an interesting way from last Sunday's aspiration.

He became silent... He had thought that to pray was to talk; he learned that to pray is not only to keep silent, but to listen.

As I pray, thank, remember this Lent, there must also be silence and listening. First of all I'll only hear the stormy wind. And I might hear the lamentations once more of men. If I don't avoid social media I'll hear panic and fear. These storms will pass: And after the fire came a gentle whisper.

Another lesson I'm taking from the lily and the bird is not to worry about toilet roll, Calpol and paracetamol. The Lord provides. And there are still tulips.

Friday, 6 March 2020

World Book Day

I have been really interested in all the talk around World Book Day this year. From my little spot in the social media circle it seems to have come from folk called The Curiosity Approach and they had these excellent words earlier in the week.

I certainly remember all sorts of "mummy homework" when the boys were at primary school. I usually heard about them the night before the sock puppet/Christmas angel/pirate outfit/book day costume was required, although my particular brand of Life with Boys acknowledges that said homework could have been a long established requirement! Nonetheless, for us, World Book Day was definitely more of a dressing up stress than a celebration of story. Bravo to anyone who pulls it back to its roots.

Apparently its roots lie under the mighty UNESCO oak. They wanted to "promote reading and a love of books". The Curiosity Approach's article also cites research that describes one in eleven UK children who do not own one single book of their own at home. In a school like the one where I work, that number would be one in eight. What shocked me even more was the idea that children who did have at least one book at home had in fact, on average, 51 books. That's some jump.

On Thursday (World Book Day) the small group of 16 year-old boys who are in my English class got their January exam results. They are all boys with a history of failing in English. Most of them went up two or even three grades from their summer result. Do not take this as a sign of my teaching prowess: for only three of them was this enough to get them over the pass line. We're pushing on hard to the final exam this summer.

I took them cake on Thursday and a huge bag of books from our shelves. I think we have safely more than 51 books in this house. I think I can safely guess that my school boys do not. I took all our picture and short story books that were not babyish. We ate cake and read. One of them apparently said that he had just read his first book. I had this picture up on the screen. It's from this quite fabulous book. "If at first you don't succeed, have some cake." Hopefully it will work every time! All prayers for them (and me!) would be greatly appreciated!

Sunday, 1 March 2020

Lent #1

Ang is hosting Lenten thinkers again this year. A few Lents ago I really felt, even after years of professing faith, that I didn't have any true understanding of Easter. Outside of the story and the theology, I mean. I wanted it to be real to me. What was it about? By Easter I knew that it was about me. About you. About all of us. Laying it all down at that horrific cross, because that's where our love and life start.

I think that year was the one after That was the same year I did Outside Tea in Lent where I drank a cup of tea outside (nearly) every day in Lent and spent Easter on strong antibiotics against an absolutely miserable chest infection!

Then there was the Lent of Rend music. That was a good one.

So: I have been wondering about Lent this year. I always love reading Dormouse's challenges, and I'm trying to keep abreast of those through her. But I'm grateful for Ang's words too this year, the "benefit of Lent is that it gives a person time to reflect on their lifestyle, and consider what changes would be good and right for them. For 40 days - or maybe for ever after."

You know me; Ebenezers are the thing. The big stone raised up by Samuel to remember that, "Thus far the Lord has helped us". So I'm raising Ebenezers, because the stormy weather here shows no sign of abating and neither do the storms of Life with Boys and the rest, so I want to pray my way through Lent, pray without ceasing, thank without flinching, and remember without doubting. That's what I would like to do for 40 days, and maybe for ever after.

I'm also going to eat lots of hot cross buns, and buy lots of tulips. Because those are my two favourite things at this time of year. And you can still do those when Outside and Inside are blowing a gale. Here's hoping that March really will come in like a lion and out like a (paschal) lamb.

Lenten blessings be yours (with hot cross buns and tulips) x

Saturday, 29 February 2020

February books and trying something very new

I finished la Peste this month. Every time I hear about this current virus I think of Camus' beautiful portrayal of the human spirit at such a time. This is one of the texts I studied for my Masters dissertation, and in it I tried to look at the portrayal of Christianity in Camus' work. One of his life-long friends was a priest and he spent long times with him. Sartre accused Camus of expelling Christ from the front door of the house, only to let him in at the back. I think this sums up Camus' respect for people of faith. But then Camus just respects all people, all the time, with all love and compassion. He certainly captures all the stages of illness and its accompanying fear that we're experiencing now. 
 Staying with the French theme this month, I reread Cyrano because I was very much hoping to get to one of those theatre to cinemas link-ups that you can do now. James McAvoy is currently playing Cyrano, in what looks an intriguingly edgy interpretation of Rostand's play, in the National Theatre in London. Our QFT (goergeous arty university cinema) was showing the link on the Thursday of half-term. Did I mange to book tickets before they sold out? No. Is the next and final showing on the same night as Jo's Spring Concert, now that he has finally joined the school choir? Yes.

I love this play. I love Gerard Depardieu's movie of it. I love Steve Martin's Roxanne, and we all watched it over half-term. Thankfully Mattman laughed in all the right places, and forgave us for making him sit down with us! Sadly, I will not be loving James McAvoy's version any time soon!
And then came this special gift of a day, when I think you should always do something special, because it's a free day! A once in four years opportunity to have a whole 24 hours extra!  So, today I spent the whole day at a sewing class. Not just slightly wonky sewing to line a little crochet project. Not travelling to Glasgow so that your accomplished chum can sew your curtains for you. This was real live me at my machine all day with expert tuition and a very nearly finished real live "simple" skirt at the end of it. A garment! I think making a garment is a very good thing to be able to do! 

I can't claim to have done that yet, mind you. I still have to hand sew the top of the waistband and run a seam around the hem. I might have done all this tonight, but I've just got back from watching Emma with some friends from church. What a visual treat that was, and it certainly puts a "simple" skirt into perspective! I don't think I'll be embarking on any of those yellow coats, blue waistcoats, or floaty gowns any time soon, or indeed ever at all!

Monday, 24 February 2020

Donna and Mags do afternoon tea #1

 Everybody needs a partner in crime, metaphorically speaking. I realise that I am very blessed to have many co-conspirators, and here is one the best! Donna and I met when our older boys were great friends at the start of primary school, and here we still are: deciding to work our way through 2020 with a tour of local afternoon teas. Sandra, I don't think we'll top your Titanic experience, but we'll have a good go!
On Saturday, we braved the elements and headed slightly north of our little suburb to Carrickfergus. The most important thing you can do in Carrickfergus is visit what is possibly the UK's finest example of a Norman Castle. Apparently the quirkiest thing to do in Carrickfergus is visit the old gas works museum, but I've not done that... yet. We, however, headed to the Loughshore Hotel which is a huge monstrosity of a place on the outskirts of the town, beside a much nicer little M&S food hall. We were hoping not to judge this book by ts cover.
The food was lovely. Tiny warm quiches that were delicious. Sandwiches with generous, if extremely plain fillings, and very small scones. My appreciation is in descending order.

The little scones were delicious, and there was certainly an enormous amount of cream available, but I think that they should have had full sized, adult scones, given that the sandwiches were just a tad uninspiring. What was great, however, was the amount of fresh strawberries.Overall the bottom layer of a savoury course was a bit too meagre for me. We booked for 2pm, and my morning bowl of porridge was well digested by then, so I would have liked a slightly more substantial "real" food offering before devouring the desserts!  
The toffee profiterole didn't last long enough to be photographed, but here are the other desserts. Possibly defrosted and therefore a bit too soft? Not the macarons though; they were wonderful, as macarons always are. Then there was a top layer of too many chocolates. Perhaps you feel that there can never be too many chocolates. It is a standing joke in this house (and my place of work) that I don't like chocolate. I don't, particularly. Certainly by the time we had eaten absolutely everything (including all the chocolates), I did feel that I had overdosed on sugar, but would still have been able to eat something tasty and filling and scone-like, with some of that left-over cream.
What put me off the most though, was indeed the setting. There is a very interesting frieze of Belfast in the entrance hall, but the tea itself was served in the main restaurant. This felt a bit odd, because lots of families were finishing their carvery lunches, and when they had all been and gone, we were left with the good folk clearing away counters and dishes. We did feel out of place. We moved out to the seating area at the front of the hotel with our tea and glasses of fizz, and there was much more of a relaxed atmosphere there. We could even watch a lovely wedding unfold!
Lessons learned:
Brush your hair before letting anyone take your picture.
£15 is very good value when it includes a glass of fizz, but you can't drink the fizz if you're driving so look for something that might cost the same, without the fizz, and give you more on the cake stand.
Look for somewhere that can let you sit in a nice, relaxed coffee area, or somewhere with a nice view from the window, or plants.

And finally, marks out of ten? Well, Donna would have gone to 6 but I think I might stop at 5. It was super fun being out with a good friend, with hours to sit and catch up, and the food was lovely. They did also very happily refill my pot of peppermint tea. I think however that the setting could have been made nicer, and I am looking forward to more interesting sandwiches and bigger scones next time. Donna, diaries out...

Sunday, 23 February 2020

The silence of snow

 I am yearning, groaning, longing for the silence of snow! It's the end of our half-term break and I am, for the first time ever, relieved. We have had incessant storms all week, making the very idea of leaving the house abhorrent. Every day had been full of noisy, noisy weather: boom banging of the house all night long for days with Storms Ciara and Dennis, then lashings of torrents of rain on every window and roof tile. Hibernation continues here at the Meadowplace!

I think though that we have no chance of snow this year at all now. There has been sleet and hail, hard, hammering hail, but no gentle, enveloping, silent snow. I t would be lovely to have a blanket of white to make all things new, for a while! I was amazed to find snowdrops in the garden earlier in the week. It seemed inconceivable that anything would have survived the storms, but there they were. Brave and resilient despite being so small.

I've been thinking about Elijah on his runaway mountain. Hiding in his cave from all the pounding elements, and waiting for the still, small voice of God. It has been good today to read Ang's prayer response about Jesus stilling the storms; and to read of the importance and beauty of stormy days over at Gretchen Joanna's.

We'll just have to keep going with the brave and resilient for another while.

Thursday, 6 February 2020


It's definitely still Winter here in the Frozen North, though I am bizarrely insulated from the cold most days by this particular chapter of my life that seems to come with built in, if somewhat erratic, central heating. However, in the afternoon there is a glorious hour or so of full sunlight, with no shadow of dusk. So, with the resolutely cheerful flowers that someone gave me on Sunday and the first ever St Brigid's cross I've made myself, I look forward to Spring!

So far this year I've finished three books and started a fourth. I suppose that, having absolutely nothing else to share with Blogland, I could talk about that! Bedtime reading snuggled deep down under my quilt listening to stormy winds outside is as close to hibernation as I'll get just now!

 I am going to buy everyone on my list "Christmas Days" for Christmas next year. It's a beautiful collection: a story and a recipe with an anecdote for every one of the twelve days of Christmas. The perfect gift! The stories are appropriately spooky and explore Christmas from lots of quirky perspectives. Lots of twists and turns. Winterson is so warm and gentle and generous and honest throughout, especially about her life with her family, wife and friends.
 I didn't mean to spend January with short stories, but I'd bought Prince Charming Tom Hanks' collection for Christmas because I'd been wanting to read it for ages and filling PC's Christmas stocking seemed a good excuse at the time. Obviously PC saw through it not immediately but certainly as soon as I spent two weeks guffawing through it when he was trying to get to sleep. (Note to self: don't buy PC "Christmas Days".) This book is genius. There really is a typewriter in every story: it's like an erudite Where's Wally. The stories are brilliant, just brilliant. Mostly unconnected, but there is a group of four friends who do pop up throughout with another instalment of their misadventures. I might like the space one best, or the girl typing at the window...
Now, "Olive Kitteridge" is not, I think, a collection of short stories in the purest sense. It is the coherent story of one place, and though it took me a while to work out why she claims the book's title, it is the story of Olive Kitteridge. But Olive is a bit like the typewriters in Uncommon Type, isn't she? Sometimes the chapters are all hers, but mostly she appears in the background to a greater or lesser degree depending on how well the chapter's protagonist knew her. It's a very clever book. I loved her husband. I was terribly disturbed by her. She made me fear for my future relationship with my sons. She made me fear for me. This was a book that seemed to be gentle, but was in fact harrowing.
And just now I'm re-reading la Peste; what else could you read during this Coronavirus? Here is a book that seems to be harrowing, but is in fact gentle. That's why I love Camus. I love his love of life, his enjoyment of the simple things, his respect for people and his faith in them. My Masters dissertation was about "le Christ de Camus", because of his respect for faith and those who chose it. The most poignant thing, thus far, in la Peste is the sadness of separation for those whose loved ones are outside the quarantine. I was shocked that when I wrote about it nearly twenty years ago I didn't actually twig that the plague in the book symbolises Nazism and its taking of Paris, where Camus was stranded when France fell. Not that shocked actually; my preparation for that dissertation was nothing if not desultory!
 By the way, did you know that St Brigid is buried with Columcille and Patrick here on the hill beside the cathedral in Downpatrick? This is the big stone that marks their grave. It's a very lovely spot, looking out to the Mourne Mountains, with a bench just behind the camera where you can sit and think awhile. Brigid apparently wove her cross from reeds that she plucked as she sat telling a dying Irish chieftain about Jesus. He came to faith, and her cross is still made on 1st February all over Ireland as people look forward to Spring. Until then, I'll be hibernating and reading!