Sunday, 13 December 2020

Second weekend in December is the third weekend in Advent

I forgot that last weekend was Hurricane Tree update weekend. It was completely bare at the start of November so it's still waving gloriously naked branches to the thrill of the cold air, and will be doing just that for quite some merry time. We've been doing much the same thing in our swimming group, and will be doing just that for quite some merry time! My house has to go into sELF isolation for two weeks over Christmas and the New Year before a little hospital thing I have to do, so that could be the end of my winter sea adventures - not sure my courage will survive so much de-acclimatisation!
So what I'm doing does still involve as much swimming as I can fit in. Yes, it's really cold now! But the exhilaration is more than worth it. The loving acceptance of this group is pretty huge too. That has quite unexpectedly become as important as the swimming. 
What I'm also doing is being utterly absorbed in the world of sons. Their difficulties at school are myriad this year, and thankfully they are coping valiantly, most of the time. I'm finding that my coping strategies are as simple as they are difficult. Remembering to breathe very deeply at difficult times, making myself get outside to walk, and praying. Also, deliberately finding things in which to rejoice and for which to be thankful. 
I was "chatting" virtually to two very good friends last week about how you can get through most days by just doing the next thing. But, and this is my tenuous link to today's Gaudete Sunday, life is so much better if I can make the next thing, the simplest possible next thing, as beautiful and enjoyable and joyful as I can. And we've had a gorgeous weekend, with lots of simple joys. Gingerbread and candles have dominated today!
So that's what I'm doing in December: swimming for the next two weeks, finding joy in the small things, and praying as thankfully as this small human mind can. Waving my bare branches with as much exhilaration as I can!
Here's the maple that was still so gloriously clothed in at the start of November. What I'm reading, just to keep my little archive is Ali Smith's Winter (have just finished Autumn), the annual Christmas Mystery, a wee Agatha Christie sneeky short story from Mattman's Midwinter Murders anthology when he's not looking, and I'll be escaping into Winter Solstice anytime soon! Getting to the end of the Psalms. I'll miss them.
And what I'm making is still Cushla's Comfort Blanket, though it definitely at least feels like a blanket now. I'll miss it too when it's done! I gave up on the baubles for work colleagues - I'm leaving a box of oranges with a chocolate orange on the staff table instead! And I finally made the two zipped pouches - hoorah! They are all bagged up ready for my Santa run this week. I'm going to deliver everything I need to this week so that we can have our hibernation with all jobs done. 

 I do hope you've all seen our Emmanuel God and his hope, peace and joy in this Advent. And I wish you all great love as our journey to Bethlehem gets closer to its destination. Exciting! And just because our Advent season seems to be all about the videos this year, here's one I was asked to do for church!

Thursday, 10 December 2020

Christmas hygge

 At our Hookery Zoom last night (doesn't that have speedy and artisan connotations? Balls of yarn flying with abandon through the cold dark skies) we were making plans for our virtual Christmas party on 23rd December. Which turns out to be the night before the night before Christmas, or Christmas Eve Eve, or Christmas Adam (because Adam came before Eve*) or in fact Little Christmas, if you live in Denmark! Which we don't. Although the joys of Zoom do allow us to be in Newtownabbey and Glasgow all at the same time. 

So, Sun One came along just as I was Googling a nice picture to go alongside the Hookery facebook invitation to our Little Christmas Party (you can see how we love a pun), and to my wonder and astonishment he had never heard of hygge. What have we been doing in this house? Half an hour later, after hundreds of unbearably beautiful Scandi images, he decided that it was a middle-aged woman thing, based loosely on gnomes. I was appalled. Thankfully, as we went through the front door this morning and I declared that no, hygge wasn't a thing like the windowsill tomte or the door wreath, he did manage to grasp the abstract noun idea of a feeling or a lifestyle. Why didn't you just say that last night, he asked. I'm pretty sure I did.

All this to explain why I came across this hygge webpage this afternoon - Christmas hygge being still in the search bar and dinner being not quite ready to be cooked. It is the opening quote that I'm really very struck by this evening:

“I hope you find some time this week to get really, really quiet.  To curl up in a big cozy chair and watch a movie you’ve seen a million times before.  To hug people you love.  To wrap up in a warm blanket and read a good book. To drink hot cocoa from a Christmas mug.  To stand outside in the crisp night air and marvel at the stars. I hope you find the time this week to sit silently in front of your life and contemplate how magical it really is, before we turn the page and greet a New Year.” – Mandy Hale 

What a wonderful thing to stop and sit silently and contemplate the magic of our lives. To find joy in the small things, and the big. And to be thankful. I seem to be spending weeks drifting from one thing to the next, but I'm going to stop now, and sit silently. Just as soon as dinner is cooked...

*All credit to Hookery Miranda for the Christmas Adam. She's very clever!

Tuesday, 8 December 2020

Advent's second week

These first two Sundays in Advent, hope and peace, I know that they should lead on to each other, the first enabling the second. But these last weeks have been difficult where we are, and I spend a lot of time trying to still myself at all. There is such beauty in the November skies, such colour some evenings this week. There is such stark loveliness in the seed heads in the garden. There is such comfort in home and the lights and the warmth. There is such startling vitality in the skin's reaction to the Lough's now burningly cold waters! But hope and peace? I'm finding the word "faith" to be my focus this year.

Our church has folk reading a sort of advent calendar every day. (Not at all like The Christmas Mystery though!) A major character from the narrative of the Bible from Adam all the way to Christmas. Prince Charming read on 2nd December: Noah and his big boat. It was such a comforting account of the story. Noah gathering his family safely aboard and out of the way of the mean people around. If only we could do exactly that. Sail forty days and forty nights on dark waters, and send out our hope to the skies at the end. Maybe that's what this time will be this year. Battening our doors against the dangers outside, a microcosm of all we are and all we have. (A noisy and smelly microcosm - with two teenage boys this is probably accurate enough.)

Here's PC and Noah, if you need a bedtime story! And the link to all the rest is here, if you'd like to catch up x

Monday, 30 November 2020

Preparing for Advent 2020

 Every now and again I go on to Instagram to check in on my sons' virtual worlds! I had a browse this afternoon, pretending to myself that I was putting parenting before dishes and not just surfing the waves of procrastination. One of them had posted a picture of our Christmas tree, stating the location as Lapland, North Pole, and announcing, "Here we go again!" I'm not sure if that was typed in a tone of excitement or resignation, but I'm hoping it was more enthusiastic than prematurely cynical! I'm too afraid to ask him.

Now, I know that we have always been very strict about 1st December being the only acceptable first mention of all things Christmas related. This year, however, we have been switching the lights on for days. I think the whole nation feels the need to be at least bright, if jolly is too ambitious. 

We went ahead with our Preparing for Advent morning on Saturday. We put the usual reflection and cookery on to this youtube playlist, but kind and talented folk also gave us musical and skincare videos, and the schools SU worker for our area made us a video about her work. And then we zoomed. Are you feeling jaded with zoom? I don't do more than one a week usually, so the opportunity to connect is still manageable. I was still amazed by this zoom though. Everyone was so open and honest that it felt as if we nearly were all sitting in our circle, listening supportively. It was such a blessing. 

We're not trying to find new ways to do many other traditional things at all. We are going to take a year off planning and parties and panic, and sit as quietly and attentively as we can in this Advent journey to a Covid Christmas. We're grateful for the hope of a vaccine that could mean that it will be just this one bare year. This is the video that I put up. Dedicated to Mary Kathryn, to whom I always mean to send my little Northern Irish accent!

Sunday, 1 November 2020

First weekend in November

The hurricane tree lost its last leaves sometime in the middle of the week. I had been watching them carefully, but then they were suddenly all gone even before Storm Aidan blasted through this weekend. The skies are steely, the days are getting dark, and it's now November so, while it's not really cold enough yet, I suppose I'll have to start getting ready for Winter!

What I'm still reading then this Winter: Psalms right up to Old Year's Night, and I'm in Psalm 119 now. I didn't know that it's an acrostic poem - every one of those intriguingly titled sections represents a letter in the Hebrew alphabet, and in the original every line of each section starts with that letter.  Also still reading Kierkegaard's Lilies and I should really read the last essays in my William Morris book. I think I'm not going to try to read anything else, except maybe Ali Smith's Autumn and Winter. Oh and I find I'm already looking forward to Rosamond Pilcher's Winter Solstice (I do love that Scottish house with its big Belfast sink). But mostly I'm finding it hard to settle my mind to reading. It was the same at the start of Lockdown - I just couldn't still myself. I feel some of the same unsettled fragility just now.

What I'll be making this Winter: up to Christmas it will be all about Cushla's Comfort blanket. PC helped me do some hard ratio sums today based on the seven out of 26 balls of yarn used thus far and I think it might turn out alright in the end. Still spending Wednesday Hookery zooms on my shawl. Still hoping to make the Harris Tweed Christmas presents pouches before Christmas! And would I be able to make ten crochet bauble covers for the ten teachers in my school department? We'll see...

What I'm doing: the course - first assignment submitted last week - and swimming. I was in the Lough this morning so that definitely feels like winter swimming if I got to November! Will I still be swimming in the first weekend in December? Oh, what an exciting question!

Here's the maple tree right outside our living room window. It's gloriously vibrantly defiantly red, during the day when we can see it glow. So it's my next leaf counting project.


Saturday, 31 October 2020


So apparently OWS doesn't stand for the little noises I have started making when I walk down the slipway over the last week. It stands for open-water swimming and it is a huge phenomenon here since Lockdown. I like swimming, with my feeble breast stroke, and I do prefer swimming in the sea, though I have only ever done that in summer and have usually had a wetsuit on in Irish waters.
Swimming was the only thing I started to miss a lot in Lockdown, so as soon as we were allowed to travel beyond our locality I would always take my swimming stuff. I had a few swims in the sea up on our north coast and one in the spectacular Blue Lough in our Mourne Mountains, but in August as lady from church invited me along to her swimming group, and I have been swimming with them as much as work allows ever since.

The main group is actually huge, and they swim in all sorts of places in our county, but I just swim with the local ladies who swim from an old slipway just beyond the park at the bottom of our hill. I park there and walk along with my little rucksack, my insulated mug of tea, and my very reassuring float. 
Everyone has asked from the start if it's cold. Honestly, the water has only started to feel cold this last week. Up until now, even if it wasn't a beautifully sunny day like this one at the start of the month, the water was very comfortable. This is Belfast Lough, on the east coast of Northern Ireland, at the end of a gloriously sunny Spring and Summer. I had swim shoes already, because I hate the feel of silt and plant life, but the recommended gloves help too. I suppose you're protecting the extremities. Since October folk are swimming with their hats on as well, but not wetsuits. This group swims in skins! So yes, now it's cold!

If it's not too rough, and if I know the tide is coming in, I'm confident to swim out to the big metal pole. When the tide is high the water gets deep quite quickly, but on low days we can mostly walk out to here. I'm a very careful swimmer, always needing to know I have the strength to get back!

And that's it. There is only one hard part - the getting out of bed for the early swims to catch the tide. After that, when you're all booked in to check that the number is below social distancing requirements for space available on the slipway to get changed, it becomes automatic. When people visit and we go to the beach I've always said that once you start walking towards the water you don't stop. So that's what I do, I just walk in until the water comes to my waist and then I swim. No hesitation, no thinking, just swimming. If the Lough is very calm, and again if I know the tide is coming in, I will swim back along the wall with the stronger swimmers. I've only braved it to the end and back once!

I have lived along this shoreline my whole life. I bussed along it to school. I walked this park with an aunt who lived in the area long before I moved here from the city. I ambled through it with two boyfriends, and with the one I married. I have beach-combed here with small sons, cycled here with bigger sons, and sat here often when I was getting over the very little very successful cancer procedure I had last year. It is a wonderful thing to me that at a time when the world seems so constrained and constricted I can do something new, meet people new and get a wholly new physical perspective on a landscape I thought I knew intimately. I know that these are difficult times with unprecedented challenges for our lifetimes, but I do firmly believe that we can make the most of them for ourselves and our families. This may well have the potential to be a terrible winter of our discontent, but I am thankful that God can still come in to our houses and our lives, and stay with us with no distance, no sanitising, no mask. Thus far has the Lord helped us x

(Thanks to PC for coming with me one afternoon when the sun was shining and there were no organised after-school swims! He took the photos and kept an eye on me - cold water swimming is not one of his many, many, many interests!)

Thursday, 29 October 2020

Pumpkin Pie in a Glass


My crochet (and knitting and many other things) group, Hookery, has been meeting on Zoom since just before the Lockdown in Spring. We're all of us carers or vulnerable, or both, so the opportunity to continue in virtual togetherness has worked well. There are lots of advantages: reduced driving around and burning petrol, faraway folk being able to join in, and now and not very often again you can have something more alcoholic than tea! Last night we decided to have a party night with the optional components of suitable attire and pumpkin cocktails. I found this website, obviously from the US where the Great Pumpkin has its rightful place, and decided to follow some of its ingredients to recreate pumpkin pie in a glass. So here, with all credit to Eater website, is a rare recipe from fraise:

I carved out a very little pumpkin and steamed the flesh until it was soft.

While the pumpkin was steaming I whisked the white of one egg until it was stiff, and whisked in 2 dessert spoons of caster sugar until it was all the consistency of uncooked meringues. Then I whisked in half a teaspoon each of ground nutmeg and cinnamon.

I blended the pumpkin flesh with a generous dollop of maple syrup and enough apple juice to make the mixture drinkable but still very thick. You could stop right here, but I did admittedly add 25cl of spiced rum. (Other brands are surely available, but this is Prince Charming's bottle from the special cupboard.) I'm not at all a rum drinker, but it did go perfectly with the maple syrup and spices.

I kept the egg and pumpkin mixtures separately in the fridge while I scurried off to find a black dress and red lipstick for the first time in seven months. I lit my string of pumpkin lights, lit my little pumpkin, and assembled my cocktail with the pumpkin mixture oozing first into the glass, then the egg white mixture resting deliciously on top. I did have a straw, but ended up slurping it with a silver spoon. This is an incredible treat for pumpkin times, and would be a very lovely little dessert in cups or small glasses at the weekend. It tastes just like pumpkin pie, and since we're about to carve our two Great Pumpkins I think that's what I might just make next.

Sunday, 25 October 2020

Lilies for Gretchen, fearful ones for the end of October


Dear Gretchen,

This is a painful section to write about because I am extremely afraid of a great many things at the minute. I am disappointed in how cripplingly afraid I am just now. I read this week, in my Psalms book, that the fear of the Lord drives out all other fears, but while I believe that in my head, I am like the Poet who shakes his head despairingly at his inability to live it out and goes on feeling sorry for himself.

So here is Kierkegaard writing about the silence we learn from the natural world which retains silence, despite the whispering of the noises it may make. This silence is not my starting point; I work back to silence from my starting point of prayers, even fervent ones. And when I find myself in fear and trembling before God, my voice falls mute.

Now what I can understand is that Kierkegaard says that this kind of silence is the first place to seek the Kingdom of God, not in all the "shall I do this?" or "shall I do that" questions we ask ourselves about doing God's will. What I find difficult to accept is Kierkegaard's idea that human beings and God "cannot very well talk with one another". This appalled me, after years of being taught that God is always near me, hearing what I say. But I think I do know that all my prattling belittles an unbelittle-able God and that indeed "only in much fear and trembling" should I come with awe before Almighty God. Or might we at this point disagree with even Kierkegaard? Can we come with great respect, but also very well talk with one another?

However, coming back to the fear. This process of becoming silent is the beginning of the fear of God (which could drive out all my other fears), and this is the beginning of wisdom. And I could do with a whole truck-load of that right now.

This prayer, this "art in the ability to keep silent", enables us to listen. I'll admit that at this point all my warning bells are ringing because here comes another fear of mine, on top of all the other ones, that I may think I'm listening and hearing, but I'm remembering all the things I've done based on things I have thought I've heard, and look how they turned out? But, Kierkegaard says the bird keeps silent and waits. It waits for the moment, and it needs to stay really quiet because the moment comes and goes without herald or clamour, and the moment rarely comes for us because we can't keep silent to know it or make use of it.

But the bird knows that the moment will come at the right time and its silence shows that it believes this. And when it sees the moment come, it makes use of it, and "is never put to shame". "Only in silence is the moment." This is a very frightening thought. That it is so easy, and so common, for us to miss the moment. There's another fear then, for then we presumably are put to shame. But Gretchen, there's more: here's the next section, "The bird keeps silent and suffers"...

That's as far as I'm going this week. This is why I rarely finish a Christian book. I get to the end of the first chapter and think I can't seriously read on until I've put that into practice. And of course I never do. So, with all hope that I will continue, I am going to see if I can work back to the beginning now. To enter this winter of what seems to be global discontent with a working back from even fervent prayers to silence. Hoping to begin a holy fear that might chase out all other fears, and from there to listen, but to listen and hear aright. And yes, like the bird, I will be keeping silent and suffering. Until the moment comes, if I realise it.

I do actually need to read on from that!

Monday, 19 October 2020

Lilies for Gretchen

 Dear Gretchen,

How many years is it since we shared an interest in Kirkegaard? I was working two evenings a week in the library of the university close to where we live. Every now and again I would borrow books myself that jumped, not physically, off the shelves when I was doing my night's shelving. This was how I discovered Barbara Pym, and this was how I came face to face with a name I'd only ever seen quoted in devotional or theological books - Kirkegaard.

So the book that I borrowed at that stage was a biography, because I thought that I would understand his actual works better if I knew his story. I suppose, in retrospect, that was an avoidance tactic, but I certainly didn't expect to find myself still embroiled in avoidance most of ten years later! You however, with the genteel erudition that I adore in you, got straight down to the words themselves. Certainly a lot straighter than my circuitous meandering has been.

I know that we decided to read this one together, relatively recently, and I really did start off with great gusto. But as soon as I met the Poet my reading became slower and slower and that first attempt struggled to get even close to the end of the first section! So this is what I've decided:

Every Sunday (though it's technically Monday here now...) I'll tell you what I've read thus far.

This is the perfect book for Lockdowns, and right now we are into Lockdown: the Sequel in Northern Ireland. Kirkegaard promises that we will learn what we need to be human, and this will be something impossible to learn or be remembered in the throng. We need silence, obedience, and joy. All three of these have already been topics for consideration since March for me, as has the command not to worry about having what we need. So, the opening of the book has been very exciting, twice.

The Poet floored me. On my first reading I began to feel that Lockdown (or perhaps Menopause, or indeed both) had robbed me of all ability to read intelligent prose.This time I have been reading the book out loud to myself, deliberately imagining myself reading a story like a mother to a child. Taking the words slowly has helped, as has the implication to myself that this story is rich and worth following. 

And so I found myself finding myself in the Poet at exactly the same time as I found him deplorable. This self-pitying person who nonetheless took pleasure and attention from their self-pitying. This believer who believed for a glorious moment but not in any way sustainable enough for the belief to be allowed to make a change. This professed seeker who fooled the earnest, but found nothing.

I want very much to be like the child, but I want my wanting not to be the transitory wanting of the Poet. I want honestly to be like the child who wastes no time in doubt or disobedience, but who accepts what is presented to them, and can then move on having all other time "for play, for enjoyment, and the like". There are issues just now that are frightening to me, and I want my faith not to be the self-pitying, attention-seeking, short-lived faith of the Poet, but the trusting, simple faith of the child who accepts, moves on, and enjoys.

So, Gretchen, I've got as far as the urgent exhortation that I should believe this fully and act now. This is earnest. This acceptance of God's imperative to consider the lilies and the birds is earnest. This Gospel is earnest. Our "most irresistible invention does not cause it to smile". Lord, help my unbelief, and teach me to play joyfully and sustainably in your lily field.

Sunday, 4 October 2020

First weekend in October

 Hello, and Happy October to all the northern hemisphere bloggers for whom this is the happiest time of the year! The Hurricane Tree is resplendently golden (in the right light, though that was not today), and mostly bare on its north facing side. It's still quite green on the south side though. 

It's not particularly cold here yet. I did see the temperature below 10 degrees on the car display one morning last weekend. Otherwise it's still comfortable enough to be going to school in my raincoat, which I do leave in the car if I think the day will stay dry. However tights are most uncomfortably back after a blissful six month absence. 

The pears are still on the tree: please advise! We have discovered that there are in fact four of the wonderful things. One is much smaller and hides shyly above its three big siblings - I hesitated there on the gender of pears. Are all plants androgynous? Do I go out and pop them greedily from the branch, or wait for them to fall (there's a wee American pun for you) into the thick vegetation weeds below, risking never to be seen again by human eye?

I do get a thrill out of free food at this time of the year. It's like any time of the year when you can stand in the sunlight to warm up: free central heating. Our grocery delivery man brought four jars of jam this week. I should point out that he brought the rest for the order as well. 

I told him to take back three of the jars, thinking I'd ordered them by mistake. But he re-appeared at the door ten minutes later. It turned out that I had only ordered one jar, so because it was easier he told me to keep all four. That was more free food, albeit much less Godly!

I can more honestly claim the blackberries in the garden. We're not supposed to pick them after 1st October, according to folklore. A friend told me this morning that after 1st October the berries start to be eaten, from the inside, by little insects. I took the risk after lunch today.

I was at the same time able to be still picking strawberries, which seems utterly incredible in Northern Ireland in October! That mess of a broccoli bed has been cleared out and filled up with new strawberry plants that I had put in pots over the summer. They are long strawberries, with a strength about them. The flowers are pink rather than white. They must be a very hardy breed. Hopefully they'll do well in our rough environment!

There weren't as many ripe blackberries as I'd hoped for, so I just brought lots of branches inside to stick in a pot. The pumpkins are coming out too! I never quite know when it's the right time to be putting up "Hallowe'en" decorations. That only ever equates to pumpkins here anyway! Our half-term holiday is still three weeks away, so I will most definitely need the cheering up of much orange around the house before that! Our health minister is talking about a circuit breaker Lockdown when the schools would be off anyway, as seems to be the plan for the rest of the UK. The big question is will he give us more than one week off to make the circuit break more effective? You can guess which answer I'm hoping for!

And so, fine Blogland folk. blessings on your October! Here's what I'll be at:

What I'm reading: Psalms (up to 107 just now and isn't that refrain structure wonderful?); more of Lilies for Gretchen (I know, Gretchen, I'm nearly ready to talk about this!); the end of this William Morris collection (if you haven't read News from Nowhere, these Covid times are the ideal times).

What I'm making: Cushla's Comfort, and I'm back past the heartbreaking point at which I ripped it all out last month to work with a more comfortable hook; my Hookery Shawl which might get into its orange wool at some point this month, which is unbelievably exciting; two zipped pouches with gorgeous Harris Tweed remnants that a friend gave me and that are currently cut out and waiting for the Elves to come round from the Shoemakers.

What I'm doing: just about getting through the school days - I was so tired on Friday that Prince Charming made my porridge and then drove me to and fro; I signed up for that online course and now need to show up at some online tutorials, and probably even do some work; at the weekends I am still outdoor swimming in Belfast Lough with the wonderful women who have been doing it every day for years, and now that I've made it into October I find myself wondering if I can keep going to the end of the month when I too could swim every day for the week I'll be off...

Stay well, lovely bloggers, and prayers for the President; be blessed x

Wednesday, 9 September 2020

Home in a time of Covid

I'm trying to work out how many months I'd need to go back to get to a time when I wouldn't believe that I'd come home from school one day to pick up the mask cut-outs and get them all sewn up, like some bizarre pandemic version of the Elves and the Shoemaker. Except that there's only me, as presumably the elves would be not very good at self-isolating. This time last year I was also thinking about The Elves and the Shoemaker, but we're definitely into Grimm days now, and not the Ladybird book version. I think it would be only three or four months ago. Back when I thought hoped that Lockdown could last forever! 

I'm using the rest of the Black Watch material to make more masks. My father was very pleased with his yesterday, although he's unlikely to be going anywhere to need it! The fabric looks quite light in today's afternoon sun, but it's actually extremely dark and thus acceptable to the men of my house. Aren't we all very particular about the masks we'll wear, or indeed not wear? They really do seem to be this year's latest fashion accessory. Fat quarters are taking on a whole new role!

Having the big table turned into a mask production line made me think about what home is like now, especially with three of us back in our two schools. Shoes and blazers stay strictly at the front door where we're greeted by a little tomte of hope that a friend made for my birthday in the summer. He tries to be a cheerful little soul. I wonder what conversations he has with the plague doctor though. Do they argue? I do hope not. I bought the little mask many many years ago in Venice. I was on a three city tour of Italy with my brother, zipping between destinations in first class train carriages and glorious heat. It all seems so long ago, not just because it was in fact decades ago, but also it seems now something from The Olden Days when people got on planes and went places! 

Admittedly we did enjoy five days canoeing on and swimming in Lough Erne, in Northern's Ireland's lake county of Fermanagh, in July; and a week walking and climbing in our Mourne mountains in August. So, there are no complaints here about staying home. It is just interesting, isn't it, how quickly life, and our expectations of it, have changed? I know we'll all have either subtly or even dramatically different opinions about that, but here in the Meadowplace, we're happy to keep it small.

I follow a local potter on farcebook - Rachel Julca. During Lockdown she made batches of these pendants. I bought a few for friends who had Lockdown birthdays and for the women with whom I was, and still am, messaging and calling to extend mutual love and support. Two of us were saying just this week, as we discussed whether or not we'd be going physically back to church this month, that we have never once felt devoid of teaching or fellowship over the last six months, and that indeed we have felt more a part of the body of the church in these last few months than in these last few years. I think we have made more of an effort to cleave to each other, as we have cleaved to the faithful loving kindness of God. I'm keeping my pendant up in the kitchen until the Christmas tree goes up, and then it can hang there with all the other keepsake memories that come out to tell their stories at each year's end. 

And really, apart from these few things, inside the house there's not much changed. It is wonderful to come home from school in the afternoon to decontaminate and decompress. Maybe that's the biggest difference now: school clothes come off, masks go into the washing machine, everyone gets scrubbed, and we gather round a table for tea and tales. We are definitely taking more deliberate time to be together and breathe - breathe easily and breathe healthily. I do most sincerely hope that we will all be able to do the same through the next months of These Strange Times, esteemed blogging friends. Thus far has the Lord helped us, Blogland; thus far x

Sunday, 6 September 2020

First weekend in September

Here is the Hurricane Tree. It's right outside the kitchen window, and above it's outside Mattman's bedroom window which is where we stood ? years ago when Hurricane Ophelia blew through, relatively kindly as it turned out. We thought we could track the strength of the storm by how bare the tree would get hour by hour. It didn't! So here is the tree in the first weekend of September. I imagine month by month bare is exactly what it will get. And I am really very happy to see the first few orange leaves and to feel that different coolness in the air and to hear the crisper rustling in the branches that whispers Autumn. Is it too early to get the pumpkins out?
I'm also very very very happy that my little pear tree has THREE pears this year. It has only ever had one pear per year, and that only twice. So this is a rich harvest indeed. I am very excited. I am less excited about the potential broccoli harvest. Mattman and I joined the home produce enthusiasm over Lockdown, but I have to admit that growing food has never been my success, and if we get one head of skinny broccoli, we will count ourselves lucky indeed.
And because of a blessing in my school's timetabling on Friday, Prince Charming and I got a walk all to ourselves on Friday, and it was sublime. A bright blue sky sort of a day with coast and tides and blackberries and muddy paths and languid cows and fields of corn. It was good to be right out of the city, after two weeks back in school with masks and visors and a circuitous one-way system, and to walk far and wide with lungs full of clean and healthy air.

And so, fine blogland folk, blessings on your September. Here's what I'll be at:

What I'm reading: Psalms; Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo; Lilies for Gretchen, finally.

What I'm making: a tartan mask for my Scotland loving about to be 80 years of age father; Cushla's Comfort, a blanket in a secret colour; the Hookery Shawl, which only advances by six rows a week at my Hookery Crochet group which has been meeting in Zoom for six months now.

What I'm doing: getting used to us all being back at school (see Psalm 91); still thinking about signing up for an online course, deadline this Thursday; outdoor swimming in Belfast Lough with Jordanstown Lough Swimmers, and wondering if I can keep that up into October...

Happy Autumn  (let's all be like trees flourishing in the house of the Lord, whether we're back there physically or not, and whether they grow out of our heads or not) x


Tuesday, 11 August 2020

Stables and trees


I've been thinking about books this morning. This is a fairly common diversionary tactic for me, but now more than ever is there need for good books! I was listing in my head, as I ate my porridge, the books that were precious to me. I was thinking about Wendy Erskine's Sweet Home with all its illustrations of East Belfast life that manage to be illustrations of lots of life. She signed my copy at the book launch. And she used to be my head of department when I worked in her school. So lots of precious between the covers of that one.

And then I thought of Jostein Gaardner's not quite yet seasonal A Christmas Mystery. Definitely a book I'd want to throw in a bag of books to be saved in the event of a house disaster but obviously after my children (and Prince Charming) were safely out! I was trying to remember the end, and don't read on if it will be a spoiler, but Elisabet wonders what she'll do when all the others' roles are fulfilled and she decides that she'll bow her head under the lintel of the stable door, and she goes in to meet the Christ-child for herself. (Doesn't she?)

It strikes me today how very easy it was for Elisabet and the shepherds and the kings and the everybody to meet Jesus. They didn't have to book their place in advance, worry about how many of them would be inside or about how many households they represented, make sure everybody had a mask, that all hands were sanitised, and that there was enough ventilation. I'm very confident there was enough ventilation.

And what I think about all that is that today it is still very easy to meet Jesus. In fact, God is all over the Internet in these days of online church. Our local church is taking a return to the building very slowly and carefully, but my goodness, what an array of creativity has emerged. From services to a reading of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and amazing resources for all age groups. Prince Charming's Live Worship is there too from our mostly tidy book room! Have a look here, if you have any more time in the day!

We are less than two weeks from the return of schools here in Northern Ireland, and plans are still coming through from our Department of Education. One leading city school has this just this morning announced that face masks will be mandatory to protect staff. We'll all have different opinions of this, but I'll confess this house reassured by any strategies that acknowledge the need to manage fear as much as the virus.

I'm so grateful in These Strange Times that it is still easy to meet God. Easy to lift up His Name. Easy to call on His Name. And so worthwhile, since I do fully believe that history, even covid history, hinges exactly there.

Jeremiah 17:7-8 

But blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, whose confidence is in him.

He will be like a tree planted by the water that sends out its roots by the stream.

It does not fear when heat comes; its leaves are always green.

It has no worries in a year of drought and never fails to bear fruit.

Thursday, 23 July 2020

What I've been reading during the Covid Spring and Summer of 2020 when I haven't been blogging

 I had ordered Hilary Mantel's The Mirror and the Light a good while before our Lockdown*, but had been more than slightly daunted by the size of it! I was daunted as well by that fearful anticipation you suffer when the last episode of anything comes out, and this one had been so very long awaited! It turned out however to be the perfect Lockdown read: long, consuming and a very good place to hide during my early Lockdown very sleepless nights. Not that I'm sure the court of Henry Tudor would have been a good place to hide at any time of the day, as dear old TC did indeed find out. Why couldn't he have just retired to Launde? It reminded me of the very little that I recall from my English degree - the idea of the overreacher in literature from around that time. How do you know when much is too much? Tome though it was, this much of Mantel is definitely not too much. I thought she closed the saga beautifully. Thank you, Hilary. It was worth the wait.

 I read Ali Smith's Spring just before Lockdown, but brought it to my At Home At Hay digital festival week because Smith was one of the many fabulous events that I had booked to stream from my makeshift festival tent. Instead of the usual conversation that other authors set up with the very serious Peter Florence, the sparklingly original Smith shared an extraordinary film of still images narrated by that scintillating word play that lights up all her work. An absolute gift of thirty minutes exploring the "and" of these covid times. Up until the film I had been thinking what a broadside covid had been since the seasons books are being written in real Brexit time, but not quite real enough for covid. Smith is obviously not so easily defeated. I'm not sure if the film is available anywhere yet, but it's worth looking out for. And after all those blissful events in my bookish haven, what did I read first out of all the erudite discoveries from this monarch of literary festivals? Pyramids by Terry Pratchett as recommended by the classicist Stephen Fry himself!

 My boss brought me two books when we had a socially distanced cuppa in the garden as soon as that was allowed back in early summer. I read Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens first. Sad; beautifully sad; but sad. I was slightly distracted by the changes in pace. Measured, gentle telling of the first chapters. Then into the segmented sequences of crime and detection. Then all of a rush of the rest. Glorious twists and turns and eddies and roars. And achingly sad. I posted the Crawdads to Catherine in Glasgow. My boss is religious about recycling.

By which time homeschool was out for summer, and they opened self-catering accommodation and the National Trust rang us to say we could after all have our lakeside cottage for four nights at the start of July and we went. Feeling very brave despite the fact that we took everything we could possibly need in the way of food and all else to obviate the need to visit a shop. I took my Boss' second book, as she reassured me that this would not have me in a constant state of tension. She was wrong. Where Crawdads was sad but beautifully sad sad, Kate Atkinson's Big Sky is depressing, but interestingly depressing. Admittedly it does turn out to significantly less distressing than you fear and from the little I know of her work, Atkinson does write the most eloquent detective fiction I've come across. I read When Will There Be Good News because it was intriguingly on the A-Level Literature syllabus. Jackson Brodie, interesting guy, and the nanny from WWTBGN is one of the main characters in Big Sky, so there was enough of a continuity to intrigue. Also interesting, and mostly very accurate, commentary on National Trust members like us.

I left Big Sky in the cottage with other novels that previous guests had left behind. I thought my Boss would approve, and sent her this picture to tell her that I was exchanging her book for a German novel. I have a German-teaching, Germanophile friend who would appreciate a German read, I thought. I am still wondering if that lies within the etiquette of holiday cottage stays. I somewhere reasoned that there really couldn't be that many German-speakers booked into deepest, darkest, wettest Fermanagh this summer?
 And here we are, moving inextricably towards whatever level of normal the Assembly wants us to reach. And I am reading Bill Bryson's The Body: a guide for occupants. I'm missing the rip-roaringly laugh-out-loud-in-public funny of Notes from a Small Island, but then since I'm not much back in public yet, that's ok.
 This is next on the pile of To Be Read, and it's an ambitious pile because of Hay "purchases" and having had a birthday. I don't know how you're feeling right now, or what sort of a boat you're using to sail through this same storm that we're all apparently in. I'm a bit fed up with that image, to be honest. All the different boats seem to do is either sail too close to each other just to try to sink that sort of a nonsense fearful excuse for a vessel, or sail circuitous routes around anyone approaching in that silent ballet that we've been dancing round each other for four months now. I'm in the second boat. Don't rock it! Apparently Bernardine Evaristo's Girl Woman Other is utterly devoid of punctuation to make it easier to swim into. I'd be happy enough to swim through the rest of this storm as hardily as I can if the sea could be utterly devoid of boats at all.

I have learnt one thing from Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, in all these months. The word egregious. He used it last week and I will confess that I had to look it up. Isn't it interesting that the archaic meaning is the complete opposite of what it means now. That seemed to me to be a better image for These Strange Times than boats. I know how shockingly bad these months have been for many of us, maybe most of us; but for us here, they were most remarkably good. And that does indeed feel archaic now, as we inch our way slowly and quietly out on to The Other Side.

*Lockdown for us started on Thursday 19th March which was the boys' first day of school being closed, earlier than the blanket closing from London as schools here began moving teacher training days to that week in the expectation of the inevitable announcement. Prince Charming started working from home two weeks later, and we have spent four months now healthy, with everything we need, privileged with space and digital devices and wifi enough for four sets of online needs. It has been remarkably good indeed. I do most sincerely hope that you and your families have all found happiness and health in the midst of your circumstances.

Saturday, 18 July 2020

A cheerful little tale after many months of These Strange Times

Once upon a time there was a little dream. It really was a very little dream. Round like a creamy pearl it had trundled through the days and weeks and millennia even, scuttling quite happily along to the left and the right with a still small voice smiling in the background and telling the dream that this was indeed the way to be going.

It had admittedly bumped into lots of unpleasant obstacles along the way. But the smudged tarnishes rubbed off eventually, and the little pearly dream trailed joy happy ever after for the rest of the day and all eternity.

Happy St Patrick's Day!

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