Thursday, 29 December 2016

2016: an Alphabet of Authors

You know, sitting here with a streaming cold that takes rapid, arbitrary dashes into 'flu, and able to do not much else other than read, certainly not walk in the Mourne Mountains, travel down to Dublin Zoo for the day and stay over at the Red Cow so we can go to the National Gallery the next morning, stroll round the new C S Lewis Sculpture Park with one of today's free guided tours, or even just mooch about my favourite go-to of the Ulster Museum bribing boys with cupcakes and the shop, if they would just brave the dinosaur bones and ensconce themselves in the bird hide...

Sitting here with an ocean of nose and a thumping head, I'm very glad that I got through 26 authors in alphabetical order- as I can't for the life of me think what else I did this year! So here are my twenty-six books of 2016. For my own records and reward. It's definitely good to have something to show for another twelve months on the round! (Forgive the gaps in memory- I'll plug them as they offer themselves back from the mire...)

Jane Austen: Sense and Sensibility
Saul Bellow: Him With His Foot in His Mouth
Chris Cleave: The Other Hand
Vanessa Diffenbaugh: The Language of Flowers
Umberto Eco: The Prague Cemetery
Helen Fielding: Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason
Nina George: The Little Paris Bookshop
Ernest Hemingway: For Whom the Bell Tolls
Eva Ibbotson: The Secret Countess (or A Countess Below Stairs?)
Henry James: What Maisie Knew
Franz Kafka: The Metamorphosis
Harper Lee: To Kill a Mockingbird
David Nicholls: Us
Maggie O'Farrell: After You'd Gone
Barbara Pym: Quartet in Autumn
Matthew Quick: The Silver Linings Playbook
Marilynne Robinson: Home
Ali Smith: How To Be Both
Colm Toibin: Nora Webster
Rachel Urquhart: The Visionist
Voltaire: Candide
Virginia Woolf: Mrs Dalloway
Xintan: Sky Burial
Yeats: New Poems, 1938
Markus Zusak: The Book Thief

Best: Bellow, Lee and Hemingway- For Whom The Bell Tolls is now my touchstone of the perfect novel, and that surprised me: Hemingway not being all about bulls and testosterone. An all American top three!

Worst: do not read The Prague Cemetery

Authors I'll read more of now: Bellow and Xintan, possibly starting with Xintan, though first I'm going to find out just what has happened in Tibet...

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Advent Ending

My Advent began with a huge sense of expectation. What did I want God to do for me? Do for me this Advent? That turned into a greater sense of chastising challenge when the nothing transpired within the usual time-frame from an application that I had made. Was God my Father Christmas to deliver a list? I could only offer myself, like Mary, as a servant. Still believing that nothing is impossible for God, but thinking not this time. Then mid-week mid-Advent, an email came, followed by an interview, following by an offer.So, my Advent ending is a happy one, full of wonder that actually God heard the deepest desire of my heart, and blessed me.

This is Prince Charming's favourite Christmas song to sing, and he does sing it beautifully. There is a short burst of him on farcebook! (His band is called North.) I have been crocheting a snowflake for every day in December: some I give away, some I use on present wrapping, the rest are yarnbombing my Jacob's ladder- shall try to get it looking respectable enough to post! Snow is a bit of a theme- all wishful thinking thus far, with crisp frost giving way to cold rain this afternoon!

Meanwhile- may your Advent ending be a happy one, full of wonder and blessing.

Sunday, 4 December 2016

Then December begins as well

It is an odd one, isn't it? Advent starts on the first of the four Sundays before Christmas day, but we get the Advent calendars, and the chocolate, out on 1st December. We do too. We have a fabric calendar, with twenty-four pockets, which are a bit tight for this year's generously proportioned H%r&e$.

We aren't organised, or consistent, enough to sign up for the on-line Advent Challenges, but we do steal their ideas! Last year I wrote out twenty-four challenges and stowed them away with the chocolate. This year I decided that we could jolly well come up with six each. So, on Wednesday night no-one got to leave the dinner table until everyone had written out their challenges. I was impressed! If all goes to plan the gerbils will be too- their care features high on some of the directives, and I didn't even write those!

So far the said gerbils have had half an hour of conversation, everyone in the family has had a great big hug, there is an anonymous Christmas card written and ready to be deposited on a desk in a school tomorrow, and someone has yet to ring the bell to pray at dinner. (We ring a bell to say grace, inspired by the constant thankfulness of the Sandras.) The strawberries take it all in very good heart.

I am taking it all in a very perplexed heart this week. The events of the week have made me think about what I expect when I come to God with answers to his question, "What do you want me to do for you?" Am I really expecting him, like PC and me I suppose at this time of the year, to give his child everything on their Christmas list? Am I really expecting the God of all Creation to be my personal Santa?

Prince Charming is once again leading worship at the cafe church that our church runs for three weeks of Advent.This morning's speaker looked at Mary, and stopped me in my thinking tracks. "'I am the Lord's servant,' Mary answered. 'May it be to me as you have said.'" Nothing is impossible with God.

Prince Charming was also leading carols at our Assembly Buildings at Stormont last night. The benediction was that lovely one, along the lines of wishing for us the unbridled joy of the angels, the perplexed curiosity of the shepherds, the unsettling peace of the Christ-child. PC sang this Ash song as one of his solo pieces- this is a version by Duke Special, a very distinctive Belfast musician, singer, songwriter, and man of faith. It's dedicated to MK, who saw Prince Charming's video on farcebook and wanted a bit more Norn Irish accent!

Sunday, 27 November 2016

The Adventure begins

You might know that every year a few of us organise a Preparing for Advent morning about now. Some craft, some cookery, some reflections- space really, to raise your altar before the madness begins.
Well, this year we are all just a bit wrecked for lots of different reasons, good and bad. The plan was to take a break completely, but the wonderful Catherine, about whom I often eulogise, decided, "Let's make Christmas wreaths. In your house."
So, we did! Just a very few of us. With very little preparation on my part. Actually no preparation on my part. Catherine brought fabulous cinnamon buns, Rosemary brought fabulous poetry, and everyone brought boughs and berries and great generosity of spirit.
It was lovely. Marking the start of the season ready to light the light as each week passes, and the road to Bethlehem winds on.
My Jo nipped in after his two hour revision session with Prince Charming in the room next door. He is my creative guru. These are our Advent wreaths.
I cannot tell you how it pleased my heart when he not only wore Catherine's wreath on demand, but also knew that he looked just like the Ghost of Christmas Present- and he is even wearing that jolly man's green! That tiny baby in the photo behind him is him, nearly exactly twelve years ago.
Jo's sweatshirt says "Adventure begins", and I thought how very appropriate. In the midst of all the stresses and strains to catch the joy in the journey that opens up now. In October I was floored by the last question on our church's retreat day:
I feel today, at the start of this Advent that I will raise Ebenezers this year, remembering all that God has done for me, all that He has done for me, and be bold enough to ask Him for what I want him to do for me again.

Sunday, 13 November 2016

For Your Tomorrow...

 Now, let me make my poppy position clear. As with all else in Northern Ireland, it becomes as divisive as the way you pronounce the letter "h" or as the way you answer the question, "Where did you go to school?" With this year being the centenary of both the Somme and the Easter Rising, you can imagine which event was claimed by each set of hard-line defenders of culture, heritage and identity. And I'm not particularly interested in belonging to either one of them, thank you very much. I find this day and these rememberings just as painfully poignant as anyone else. I have, with my army childhood rooted in The Troubles, just as many reservations about our dealing with the past as the next forty-something Northern Irish native. As a mother, I work hard at discussing all of it with as much good sense and faith perspective as I can muster.

However, when our Hookery group was asked by the council to produce two installations to mark the Somme centenary in our local Mossley Mill and the council offices in Antrim, I did crochet my little heart out. Admittedly my thirteen poppies were but a small offering towards the 282 we needed to symbolise twice the 141 days of the Battle of the Somme. It was undeniably moving to watch the huge pile of individual poppies on the table come together into a collective whole, twice! All the different patterns and shades and textures becoming on vibrant flower, twice. For me it represented more even than the 420,000 individual lives lost in one huge and bloody whole. On a much smaller, but more hopeful, scale it depicted what our Hookery group is for me. Individual women coming together with their different ages, stages, worries, joys, stories, and forming one very warm, very lovely, very supportive whole.

Heather Boss' account of the poppies is over on the Hookery blog. The two pieces are called: For Your Tomorrow and They Gave Their Today. I am so sorry to all who have and to all who do and to all who will.  That we should live in such a world as this.

Sunday, 30 October 2016

When Sandras Came: part one of four parts

When Sandra came to stay with Sandra in September, we had such a fine time, and such fine weather too! They came by train from their main Dublin stay- arriving late one Saturday morning and heading back there early on Monday. It was wonderful. It is such a privileged thing to meet in your real life someone whose words and wisdom mean so much in your reading life. And Sandra 2, an artist, well, we were all slightly in awe!

Sandra 1 had asked to see the C S Lewis statue: that was her one criteria. Now, usually that would be an easy thing, standing as it does outside the library in his home area of Belfast. However, PC had warned me of much road redesign and of fences and protective covers. In the end we found him merely out of bounds because of the building work around him. In a few weeks a new C S Lewis sculpture park is being opened behind the library- book your bed here soon!

Let it be known that there is neither fence nor man that will stand between S1 and C S Lewis! Before I could spell "arrested" she had a young dad temporarily issued from the library and the fence moved. No-one complained! So, here are photos of the statue, named "The Searcher", of lunch in the Lamppost cafe, the real lamppost in the grounds of Campbell College and the fabulous gem of a little exhibition in Belmont Church Tower. The rest you can Google...

Saturday, 29 October 2016

A prayer for bloggistes

I've been going to a home group in church for maybe most of a year now. I don't go every time, but Prince Charming is quite good at getting me out the door when I have no excuses left! The discussion book this term is Bold I Approach, and it is a very good study on prayer.

This week we were looking at what happens in prayer, and at one point we looked at Paul's just incredible prayers for new believers at the start of Ephesians, Philippians and Colossians. At the same time I suppose I have been thinking a lot about blogging, and looking back at the things I wrote about when I started. So, here are some of Paul's prayers for the church in Colosse, because when I think of all the strong encouragement I have received from women all over the world through this very screen, these words seem beautiful for you too x

"For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you and asking God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding. And we pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, and joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light."

Happy last weekend in October, blog friends and saints x

Monday, 24 October 2016

Thanksgiving (early)

My goodness, at the risk of boring you: look, it's me. AGAIN! I was thinking about Ann Voskamp the other day. It probably began with the thought of all the Christian books I never finish, hers included. This is not a criticism of the book, quite the opposite. I'll start a really good Christian book, get to the end of the first chapter and worthily think that I need to put what I've read into practice before I can read on. And that's it for another dusty addition to the unread pile.

Talking of dusty unread piles of books, I am worryingly behind on my Alphabet of Authors with an exciting dash to come before this year's end! I have, however, read some fabulous things. I digress.

Ann Voskamp. I loved reading her blog. It was one of the first blogs I followed. And for a while I did try to post on Mondays a list of things for which I was grateful that week and generally. I have just checked. I got to 834 out of the target 1000 on 1st July 2013. That's more than three years ago. I wonder can I get through 166 before this year's end...

835 Three years and three days ago I went back to work five days a week for the first time in six years. Working as a classroom assistant was supposed to be an experiment in getting back to full-time work, but 836 it has been an easy and very family-friendly post and I am still there.

837 Despite the stormy seas, or should I say skies, of Alan's aerospace company, he is also still there, and for that we are all most thankful.

838 In the last three years both boys have moved from Primary to Secondary school, the same one- for which I am very thankful! Not sure how much Jo likes being accosted all the time with people asking if he is Mattman's brother...

839 Mattman has had a difficult time with bullies, but continues to grow in resilience and confidence. We have recently been praying out of Daniel 3 that there will be no smell of fire on him, no scars seen or unseen.

840 My parents have moved from their top of the hill, snowed in twice a winter house to a seaside apartment at the bottom of the hill. 841 My mother continues to cope brilliantly and stoically with the aftermath of a severe stroke, and 842 my father is still well enough to ensure that they can continue living independantly.

843 My brother is an absolute star; without each other's support the care of our parents would be a more stressful thing.

844 We moved back to a Presbyterian church around three years ago after six years of Prince Charming leading worship in a local Anglican-Methodist united congregation. We have been welcomed and loved and gathered into a wonderful circle of friends and fellowship.

845 Jo has lots of his research done for his Albert Einstein presentation, and 846 we are getting to the end of a fortnight of horrendously hard homework deadlines. But now he needs the computer. 154 to go. Might need some of 2017 too!

Sunday, 23 October 2016

A Secret Irish Scones Challenge

 Every year we have open house Mince Pies and Mulled Stuff on a Sunday afternoon, which is really our way of not sending Christmas cards. The larger than life Martin Edwards (not the crime writer) always brought Christmas scones, but would never tell us the recipe. Goodness, these scones were amazing. Dried fruit steeped in Christmas spirit and added to his scone mixture. Finally two of us wore him down and he relented. Anne has been making them ever since- the cinnamon ones too. I finally got around to it on Friday night, inspired by Simone's Friday Cake Bake which is back and which is one of my (many) favourite things in Blogtopia.
Now, in celebration of two posts in one month, I am going to share the secret Irish scone recipe with you, but keep it under your hand-crocheted hat. The hard thing about these scones, and believe me, this is hard, is that you have to work fast. Jo and I were ready. We had absolutely everything all lined up and ready to go. He even had a stopwatch to time the tricky part. So, here it is- word for word as I wrote it down that day on the first scrap of paper that came hastily to hand.

 In a "dry" bowl you need 2 lbs of soda bread flour and then an extra 1/4 lb. (These are Irish scones and I don't know how you're going to get soda bread flour.) This bowl also has 4 oz of sugar and an extra oz. In a "wet" bowl you have 3 eggs, beaten, and a pint of buttermilk. (These are Irish scones and I don't know how you are going to get buttermilk.)
 THIS IS THE HARD BIT: you quickly dump the wet bowl into the dry and from this point on you have three minutes to get the scones in the oven- which has been pre-heated to 220 degrees C. My fan oven needs slightly more than 20 lower than that.
 Fold the wet mixture in to the dry mixture and stir in 4 oz melted margarine. Quick, quick, quick.
 At this point you will be confidently putting the scone mixture on to your floured surface. At this point, I realized that because I had halved the mixture, having used some of the buttermilk last week, something in my calculations had gone unfortunately awry.
 So handful after handful of flour was thrown and whipped into my mixture until it resembled anything capable of being dolloped on to the floured surface instead of drooling all over the floor. Jo is jumping up and down in time-keeping panic behind the camera.
 So, as I said, put the scone mixture on to your floured surface and sprinkle flour on top. If this extra flour isn't the extra 1/4 lb of flour then I don't actually know what that extra flour is for. Nor can I help with the extra oz of sugar!
 Flatten mixture with hands to 1 inch. Cut into scones and re-squish. Cook for 10-12 minutes. Martin used a midwife analogy: if you roll the belly of the scones and it moves, it is not ready. Hmm.
 I was convinced that our scones would be inedible. They were not. After disastrous amounts and very dubious tummy rolling, they came out perfectly. We were both delighted- as was everyone else. Our half mixture made a large tin full of scones that gave us supper on Friday, snack on Saturday morning and afternoon tea with friends on Saturday afternoon.
I think I'll make full dose next time and try the cinnamon scones with the rest: when the mixture is rolled flat to 1 inch, sprinkle 2/3 with cinnamon and brown sugar, currants and squares of melted (?) butter. Swiss roll it, cut into 1 inch chunks, lay flat in baking tray. Freeze after cooking if desired. Other variations were 4 oz grated cheese/ generous handful Christmas fruit/basil and sun-dried tomatoes added to original 3 minutes mixture.


Tuesday, 18 October 2016

To autumn around Belfast

What if "autumn" was a verb as well as a noun? If I talked about "springing" around Belfast that would have all sorts of energetic, full of life connotations that would not be inappropriate at all.
Well, despite the much lamented by me lack of blogging,we have been autumning around the city since last I typed, and it has all generally been very nice. We manged to get to the David Hockney exhibition before it closed, although I think the (three) boys were most impressed by the view of St Anne's Square from inside the Mac. That is actually my favourite part too!

Hockney has very special significance for me. I'm afraid it's less to do with his undoubted genius and more to do with the weeks my aunt and godmother summered me round London and its exhibitions. It was also very, very lovely to see some of the iPad work that Catherine and I saw on our Utter Jolly to Biarritz and the Guggenheim, Bilbao a few years ago.

Is this Hockney's mother? I very much identified with the slightly slumped resignation. Maybe the good lady wasn't feeling a bit weary, but as the autumn pulls on the rope towards dark and cold, I am certainly starting to flag!
 Last week at Hookery we had a very special night, because of an on-going and hitherto top secret special project. I didn't get much further than the chaise longue!

And so to last weekend. Brisk and bracing walk along Belfast Lough. The engineer inspects the machinations of a new fountain installation.

The boys carried their penny boards (penny boards?) in between places of sufficiently smooth, flat surfaces for a decent whatever the word would be. Look at the height of those boys!

I wondered if Sandra will be able to spot her wind turbines on the other side of the Lough? It should certainly be a familiar sight to Kezzie! I'm afraid I've only ever sailed it on a car ferry, and not on one of the luxurious cruise liners that still make us smile wryly at the benefits of The Peace.

This is Hazelbank Park- which has a little avenue of fruit trees: apples and pears. The boys were most disgruntled at finding traces of fermenting fruit under their feet. I am sure that this attention to new shoes will not last.
Prince Charming did some foraging, and we'd need to get some stewing done before we have some fermenting of our own. Not that would necessarily be a bad thing either...

And that is probably the height of it- except of course that the main event has not yet been covered. I keep waiting for the perfect moment to overwhelm me, but it never comes. So, Sandra's wonderful, lovely jaunt North as part of her recent trip to Ireland will have to push its way through the domestic mire very soon. What a fabulous weekend it was!

And so there we go. Mise had a truly beautiful piece on how much less blogging there is around now. I wish I was still blogging lots and lots. There is just so very little of interest here to share. It's all two boys at Big School now and the homework that it entails, and it entails a lot. It's having to have a list to remind you of what laundry to do when, and what nights to think about PE kit, Games kit, violin, guitar, Drama. It's always knowing that there is so much more you could be doing for x and y and z. It's about never ever ever getting around to making more leaves for the autumn garland, tidying my room, or applying more moisturiser!

It's mundane and it's domestic and it's so non-photogenic! That's how I autumn just now! You'll have to imagine the gorgeous golden light in the gorgeous golden trees and the gorgeous golden heads of my boys busying away on the floor, because Mum is at the desk.

Happy October!

Happy St Patrick's Day!

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