Monday, 23 May 2011

Busy week!


What a busy week it’s been!

And we have a dotty phrase in our family (lifted I think from Tom Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound): “The night’s not over yet, Simon Gascoigne!!!” (the name to be said with great relish and dark, sinister meaning).  Which is to say that this day also is rather bustling with things queuing up to be done – but just time to wave and say hi, how ya doing?

The week was a full one, with two funerals to write and conduct, and the bereavement call associated with one of them to be wodged into the week as well, as the next-of-kin involved needed to cancel his Friday appointment of the previous week.   Those went well, and were I think a comfort to the people concerned. 

Through last week I was also reading through the manuscript of my novel The Hour Before Dawn, which follows on from The Hardest Thing To Do (out in July), and which will be published in the winter.  It had come back from the copy-editor, who knows how unbearably finicky I am about the exact detail of everything I write, and how prepared I am to argue about every comma.  So he had cunningly sent me the amended manuscript with the changes not tracked.  Actually to be fair to him, he probably has to format the text so if he tracked the changes the whole manuscript would be so peppered with tracking it would be barely legible.  I think.  Anyway, I had to be even cunninger and know what I’d written so that I could think: “What?  Where has that word gone?  Why does that phrase sound odd to me?  Shouldn’t there be a comma in here?” and go back and cross check with the manuscript I had sent him after the first editing process had been completed.  This took a long time.  He is a good-humoured and patient man, and I hope won’t mind the many changes and reinstatements in the manuscript that came winging back to him.

I just got it finished and off by Thursday evening, then a funeral to complete and conduct on Friday, from which I came home to find my dear and much-loved friend Julia Bolton Holloway sitting patiently on my doorstep (see her in the picture, top, talking to the Badger over breakfast about the Roma in Florence).

The last time I saw Julia in person was when I was in training for ordained ministry in the Methodist Church, which feels as remote as another life now!  The last few years she has been living in the English Cemetery in Florence, gradually restoring it to beauty as well as championing the cause of the Roma, who are persecuted in Italy as everywhere else.  We had a lot of catching up to do!

Then Saturday, after Julia had moved on to her next port of call, was dedicated to preparing for Sunday, that being the Wretched Wretch’s second birthday.  His entourage, who were with us from Sunday lunch through until well past his bedtime, included his godmother from Sweden, his Granny and her new (delightful) husband from Washington, his Great-Grandmother from Battle, his Great-Grandfather and Great-Grandmother from Hastings, his Grandad and Nanny (my first husband and his present wife), two of his best friends and their mother (who is his mother’s best friend), all his aunts (naturally) and of course his mother and father.  With me and the Badger added in, that makes 20, I think.

The Wretched Wretch’s mother and I went to church with him in the morning – she had dreamed of skipping chapel on this busy day, but thought better of it, which was just as well as they had a wonderful colourful Happy Birthday banner for him on the front of the weekly notices sheet, and sang a Happy Birthday song to him, at the end of which he won all hearts by shouting “Hooray!” and clapping enthusiastically, as his mother is wont to do at the slightest provocation (nobody can say the Wretched Wretch’s mother is not an encouraging and affirming parent!).  After that had been done, he and his mother and I repaired to a back room and played with toys while the service took place, returning to the fold to participate in the eucharist, where she and I insisted on sharing our bread and wine with our little one, because that’s our theology even if the church doesn’t see eye to eye with us in every respect.

He fell asleep on the way home, and was crashed out on the sofa for a long while.  When he woke, his daddy was sitting with him, and brought him into the living room where everyone was gathered.  Poor child.  He was overwhelmed to see such a huge gathering, but once he reached the safety of his mother’s lap he was happy to let her point from person to person, quietly reminding him of the name of each one, so that the realisation sank in that this appalling crowd was in reality constituted of actual friends that he knew.

It was a good party, with presents and lots of food and chat.  His American Granny and Barpar (this was the Wretched Wretch's choice of appellation for his new Stateside ancestor.  No-one knows why.) had brought him a wonderful birthday gift of an aeroplane full of little people – a great hit!  He loves it!

His Grandad and Nanny (I hope you are keeping up with the component parts of this rambling 21st century tribe with its many step-relatives!) gave him a fabulous green wheelbarrow just like a grown-up’s one, with a watering can and gardening gloves.  Michael loves the garden, and I think this gift will be a favourite in days to come.

We (me and the Badger and the Aunts) gave him a farm with an eclectic selection of Schleich animals.  
“Where are these animals from?” asked his Grandad.  
“eBay, I said, They’re all Schleich.”
“Oh, mum, they’re not that bad!” responded his Auntie Fiona. 
The Wretched Wretch loved his farm.

Eventually the time came to ferry precious goodies and a tired child back home.  His godmother and father went ahead to fix dinner, his Grandad loaded up the loot, and his mother and I piled the young Adonis himself into my Nissan Micra.  This is a lengthy procedure, as he has ambitions to be the driver.  We waited a long time while he changed gear and adjusted the heating mechanism and opened the sunroof etc, responding with a decided “No!” to his mother's suggestions that he might like to get into his car seat now.  The time arrived when she had to Become Firm, and with cries like rending metal and many wild convulsions, the Wretched Wretch was pinned down into his car seat and strapped in (yes, readers, this is the Gentle Parenting of our dreams…)

As his sobs subsided and the sun went down, we drove him home.  My last memory of the day is of his still slightly distraught voice quavering pathetically: “DonkeyChocolate cake… ”  as we drove along – the memories of a wonderful day.

And today brings a réprise of beloved American family on their all-too-brief visit to the old country, then time spent with my mother so she knows she is loved and not forgotten, then my début as Parish Church Council Secretary at the Standing Committee this evening.

But tomorrow – ah, tomorrow! I am off to spend a couple of days at one of my favourite and most hallowed places, for some solitary peace and a double-dose of Minster evensong.  Ciaou!! xxx

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Guest post from Ganeida on The Quaker 'Stop'

Over at Ganeida’s Knots, Ganeida has posted an excellent piece on the Quaker ‘Stop’ in response to our conversations here.  She has given me her permission to reproduce it here (Thank you, Ganeida!).  As follows:

My lovely friend, Ember, has been on a fascinating journey & has been sharing how the Lord is leading her while all of us wide-eyed & avid readers goggle at the ups & downs of her journey amongst plainness & simplicity in a very modern world. And when you find you are being led down the narrow paths, the paths that most of us avoid because they are so very narrow - & lonely - & require so much of trust because there is only the Spirit to guide & even fellow travellers will baulk & say, "Thus far & no farther," there are many stops & starts & false leads & retracing of one's steps to begin again. Amongst the old signposts is one I know as the Quaker *Stop*.

The old Quakers were unusual. Firstly they were unashamedly & unambiguously Christian in thought & practice & while this is no longer always so many of their thoughts & ideas remain. They were also what I would term charismatic - in that they were spirit-led. I know most Christian churches give lip service to the power & place of the Holy Spirit but far too often that's all it is - lip service. The reality of the Spirit is too frightening, too overpowering, too dangerous & so people hastily pack Him back in a box & close their ears. The Quakers, on the other hand, stepped completely the other way. Their whole philosophy of religion was, & is, that God is available to everybody; that no intercessor is necessary because each & every one of us can hear directly from God. Indeed, as God's children, there is something wrong if we are not hearing directly from God for ourselves.

I have talked about Quaker worship here. I mention it because both the *leading* & the *stop*, two sides of a single coin, have their origins in the depths of silence. They arise out of listening for, & then heeding, the still small voice of God.

Now the *stop* is not conscience which is: For ever since the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky. Through everything God made, they can clearly see his invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse for not knowing God. [Romans1:20] There is set in the heart & mind of Man the knowledge of God, of good & evil, of right & wrong so that none will be without excuse on the day of judgement. That is basic. All of us, whether believers or not, instinctively know certain things are wrong because the knowledge of God is in us & all around us. Thus we know murder is wrong; theft is wrong; lying is wrong. I can't think of a culture in any age that has condoned these things whether they practise them or not.

If we indulge in certain acts our conscience will bother us because God is whispering that these things should not be so. At it's most fundamental the *Stop* is the warning to halt before proceeding on a wrong course of action into sin but it is also, in my experience, more than this. A *stop* can be a call to wait patiently until all those necessary are prepared & all that should be in place is in place before way will open to proceed. It can be a call to a complete halt allowing for greater light to reveal that a course of action is wrong & that one should no longer proceed along a designated path. It can be a call to wait patiently while others meant to journey with us catch up. It can be the call that there is a change of plan. It can be a place of enlightenment & also accountability. It's God's, "Whoa! Hang on & listen up!"

I like the old Quaker way of phrasing things. It speaks to my condition. It speaks of a people conditioned to patience, humbly listening for the voice of their God. It speaks, not of resolutions, but of the journey undertaken. "Way will open..." speaking of the patience to wait & allow God to work. "I felt a *stop* in my mind..." speaking of the humbleness to be corrected & directed by God Himself. It speaks to me of the practise of holy family because God is our Father & like any good parent He watches over His offspring carefully & because He loves us there are many yeses in our lives but there will also be the Nos, the *Stops*, the pauses for thought & reflection.

There is a delicacy about God. He is a gentleman. Where I go thundering about like a blunderbuss minus my manners creating Havoc & High drama, God quietly minds His Ps & Qs & waits to have my attendant ear & if I am listening carefully I will hear, "Stop. Wait. Proceed with caution. Way will open...."

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Easing life over the seams

Today, as well as the usual chores – cooking, cleaning, watering the veggies etc, I have been doing two particular things. 

The main task of the day has been to read through the 2nd of the three novels currently with my publisher, Crossway, to prepare a ‘glossary of terms’ for the copy-editor to add in at the end.  This is necessary because the novel is set in medieval England, so some of the words in it – glebe, extern, villein, frater, reredorter for example – are not in everyday use and are likely to be unfamiliar, especially in the US where it will be published.

A long time passes between submitting a manuscript and getting it to the copy-editing stage, and several more months will pass before the time comes for it to be published.  This book, called The Hour Before Dawn, will be out in January 2012 and is part of The Hawk and the Dove series.

[The Hour Before Dawn is the one with your dedication in, Jeannie :0) ]

The second chunky task of the day was to alter three petticoats.  I was slightly changing the necks because they are a bit high.  I don’t know why but I have a particular aversion to anything tight round my throat – I can’t bear cap strings and bonnet-strings at all.  The dresses I’ve had made for me I totally love in every respect except that when the high necks pull against my throat it triggers this aversion.  So I’ve slightly enlarged the necks.  And now the petticoats show a little sometimes, so I’ve altered those too.  I am not an enthusiast for visible underwear!

The new hem to the neck passes across the shoulder seam of course, so in sewing there comes a bulky bit where the needle has to stitch through that seam twice folded as the hem crosses it, if you can imagine what I mean.   What I find is that if I am sewing fast as I cross that lumpy bit, the machine just goes mental, running on the spot and convinced it can’t do it and then seizing up completely.  To get past the hiccup it’s necessary to be sewing slow.  As a bomb disposal expert once said: “Walk towards the problem slowly” – a good maxim for anybody’s crises!

Sewing slowly I can ease the seam along, and sew the hem with no difficulty at all.

Sewing, like all manual tasks, is an opportunity for thoughts to germinate.  The Hour Before Dawn is part of a trilogy that looks at people passing through transition, struggling to understand themselves and each other and assimilate change.  Though it is set in a medieval monastery, it explores many of the life issues and family problems that modern people in the everyday world experience – forgiveness, trying to see the other person’s point of view, struggling to remain faithful to our calling, discovering what that calling might be – sometimes slowly and painfully.

It occurred to me as I was sewing and thinking about the characters in my story getting to grips with the adversities life had thrown at them, that helping each other through the traumas and difficulties which every now and then are part of ordinary life for all of us, is quite similar to easing that hem through the machine as it passes over the shoulder seam.  Life goes along smoothly for a while, and then it hits a lump.  When it does, if you go at it with all guns blazing you just bring the whole thing to a grinding halt, seize up completely.  But if you ease it along slowly and gently, mindful and careful, not rushing, going slow, you get past it ok, and come through to the other side, and things smooth out again.

That’s what I thought.

And I apologise, my friends, if it sounds like a trite diary column from a women’s magazine in the 1930s….

Monday, 2 May 2011

Actions that speak of the failure of imagination

I don’t believe in smacking, spanking, or whatever you like to call it.  I don’t believe it is the way to deal with a situation that has gone wrong.  But of my five children there was not one that didn’t get smacked sometimes, and mostly by me.  The ones that were smacked the most were not the naughtiest – they were the ones I understood the least.  If I could live my life again, and change one thing, I would like it to be the case that I never smacked any of my children – never frightened them, never was harsh or impatient with them.  But that isn’t going to happen.

Whenever I smacked my children the same root cause was in operation; I had hit a wall.  I had run out of ideas, the situation was beyond me, nothing else seemed to be working, I couldn’t think of anything else to do.  As a course of action, in the here and now, it short-circuited a few dramas; but in the deeper and more important levels it was never an improvement.

I think now, and I thought then too, that smacking/spanking is evidence of failure: to communicate, to empathise, to exercise patience, and to understand.  It is a failure of the imagination and of moral strength.

I think the same about putting Osama bin Laden to death.

I can see how we got there, I can see why it has come about, but it seems to me to be at a deeper level a symptom not of justice but of division – the failure to imagine, to understand, to redeem and to heal.

He inspired and condoned violence on a mass scale.  He hated the West and all it stands for.  A lot of the things he hated about our way of life are things I hate too, oddly enough – secularism, imperialism, the ways of Mammon.

I am sorry that it had to come to this.  Sorry that, if we find killing and violence so repulsive, we couldn’t think of anything better than killing and violence exacted in revenge.

I have no idea what kind of a man Osama bin Laden really was.  I deplored the atrocities he inspired, and I can see that this execution was inevitable.  But I believe it was inevitable not only because of the evil in him but also because of the evil in us.  Supposing, like St Paul, he had experienced a visitation from the living Jesus, and come to us to tell us so.  Would we have received him like Ananias, like Barnabas, and taken his overtures of friendship on trust, in good faith?  I doubt it.

The Old Testament seems to be full to the brim of Osama bin Ladens, visiting the wrath of God on people and slaughtering the enemies of the Lord in their thousands – yet we don’t say they were evil; we say the battle belonged to the Lord.  This violence, this interminable bloodshed!  Until we can get past the mindset of it being about whose side we’re on and reach the mindset of understanding, the manufacture of guns and bombs will always be a lucrative trade.

As much as I deplore the violence and bloodshed Al-Qaeda has perpetrated, so do I deplore the cheering crowds on the news broadcasts today.

A man who was our enemy has died an untimely, unnatural, bloody death at our hands.  It is not a matter for rejoicing, even if it had to come to this.

There is only one good way to annihilate an enemy; and that is to annihilate the enmity itself, and win him over into being a friend.

I hope this day’s work will have weakened rather than strengthened terrorist activity around the world; but even if it does, I’m sorry we had to do it this way.   I wish we could have found a better way to draw the sting of terrorism and promote the cause of peace.  

The question we are to live by is “What would Jesus have done?”  In this case, realistically, I'm not too sure what Jesus would have done – and that’s always at the heart of where things begin to go wrong.

Sunday, 1 May 2011

Kindly light

I have felt disconcerted by the number of people I have heard saying, with reference to the royal wedding, that we (British people) ‘do’ this well.  I have heard it referred to as a ‘show’ by people who should know better. 

A creepy feeling as though the Abbey were no more than a film set, and the Bishop of London a fictional character in a TV drama, has breathed its miasma into something that was either real or of no value at all.

In the Sunday Times, Bryan Appleyard wrote: “…the royals are back.  They did what they do best – put on the greatest show on earth watched by almost a third of the world.”

On another page of the Sunday Times, headed “Frock watch”, another journalist whose name I couldn’t see, had this to say, under the heading The Mother-in-law Face-off: “Carole Middleton went for an ice-blue Catherine Walker coat and dress topped off with a Jane Corbett hat.  Camilla tried to out-razzle her with an Anna Valentine coat dress complete with embroidery, pleats and ombre detailing. She also sported one of the biggest Treacy hats of the day. So who won?”

On the back of the Sunday times Rotal Wedding section is a piece headed India Knight finds everyone aTwitter about Pippa’s rear.  “The assessment of Pippa’s physical charms quickly veered into ribald territory,” she says of Twitter commentary on the occasion.

Meanwhile online a Plain Quaker posted a photograph of the royal newly-weds on the balcony, unfortunately angled to suggestive effect.  And, as I noted here yesterday, a born-again evangelical Christian expressed disappointment that there were no assassinations.

To the world, to the stars, to the angels – to the watching, listening universe that believes in the image of God in us that we seem to have gone to sleep and forgotten, I want to say this: these people have got it wrong.  What we witnessed was something real.

The love was real, and its intention serious.  The Bishop is not a guy got up in a frock spouting pompous religious yadayada to please an eager crowd; he is God’s minister, and he brought us a word of truth.

Westminster Abbey is not a film studio or a backdrop, it is a holy place; and tittering twittering descending into ribaldry over a young woman’s body has no place there.

As to the third of the world that was watching and the ‘mother-in-law face-off’ of women trying to outdo one another to steal the show, this is the vain, shallow, empty thinking of Mammon, and it misses the mark by a hundred miles.  What I saw was people drawing together to support, to celebrate, to rejoice, for a young couple who really love one another and really meant their vows; and drawing together to drink at the well of ancient faith tradition, because it has power to feed their souls.  And in Carole and Camilla, I saw two elegant and beautiful women not rivalling one another but joining together to honour and celebrate a happy and wonderful occasion.

It cannot only be me who finds this smart-alec stance of cynicism, seeing only spectacle and statistics, looking gleefully for a fight or a cleavage to snigger at, unbearably wearisome.

The journalists all agree that Catherine Middleton, as a middle-class commoner, has breathed new life into the ailing firm that is “the royals”: “braying aristos” as Bryan Appleyard described members of the English aristocracy, ploughing on with such determination with his embarrassing vulgarity.

The English monarchy is not a commercial operation or a TV show.  The dignity and composure of the Queen is only stuffy and starchy to those without understanding of the value of restraint and majesty.  The fealty we owe her is something real, both as her people and as members of the Church of England.

I wonder if there may be enough of us to resist the creeping sulphurous suffocation of this slime mould of Mammon whose spread advances constantly, enough of us to see by the light that is both real and gentle, that beautifies and dignifies and clothes imperfection with compassion.  I wonder if we can come into the holy space with reverence, seeing not preening mannequins trying to outdo one another but the honest self-giving of people who have brought their best; and looking at a young woman not as a collect of ‘assets’ to nudge and wink and snigger over, but as someone whose humanity is beautiful in its wholeness, supporting her sister with love on this most happy of days, watching to see that all went well for her.

The gospel writers place great emphasis on how we see things, and sketch for our imagination the vision of the Kingdom of Heaven as a state of inner light.  The world we each live in is according to what we see; and what we see is not a random accident but a matter of choice, direction and focus.

The light illumines the sanctuary of our souls, lifting the darkness with its steady and gentle shining.  It is not a harsh light, exposing everything to the critical eye of judgement.  The light of Christ is a kindly lantern, clothing everything in beauty, transforming the world into a place of wonder and mystery.  If we want to, we can choose to see by the light of Christ.  There is no need for the glare and glitter of worldly cynicism to infect and ruin everything.

Turn your eyes upon Jesus

Look full in His wonderful face,
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim
In the light of His glory and grace.