Thursday, 31 March 2016

A Day And A Life

In June, the final volume of The Hawk and the Dove series comes out. The title of this last one is A Day and a Life. This story looks at what commitment means – belonging, responsibility, patience; the interwoven threads of the fabric of love. It’s about community, vocation and relationship.

Within the context of one ordinary day at St Alcuin’s, it looks at the small but significant things that can make all the difference to our happiness; in this one day, the warp and weft of the life the brothers have chosen is made plain.

A Day and a Life is available for pre-order on Amazon UK now. Just to clear up a common misconception, US readers can order books from Amazon UK to get their hands on a copy faster; the postage is a little more than ordering for a US address from Amazon dot com – but only by about as much as it costs to buy a cup of coffee; and I think US readers will be able to buy Kindle copies from Amazon UK once it’s out here in the UK (set me right in a comment if that isn’t so).

Meanwhile, here’s Chapter Seven, and Father Bernard facing up to tackling a very unwelcome task all on his own.

*        *        *


Father Bernard has felt unhappy about this since he first had to do it. Years have gone by, nothing has improved. The problem has even been compounded by passing time, because if you do anything long enough it becomes tradition, it acquires a strength of its own. You tie a man with one linen strand and he can snap his bonds without the slightest effort. You wind the same strand round him a hundred times and you have a prisoner. There’s strength in habit. What you do every day becomes who you are. And that’s the whole problem.
It all started back in Abbot Columba’s time – whom they called Father Peregrine. To be fair, Bernard wasn’t sacristan then; that only started when Father Chad held the reins between abbots. Back in Father Peregrine’s time, he’d been sent as a novice to help out Brother Paulinus – and somehow got stuck with it, even after he’d been ordained and Father Chad made him sacristan. Bernard hoped he’d only have to do both jobs for a while, until they got a new superior in post.
And now there’s Abbot John, who apparently hasn’t noticed how extremely unreasonable and unfair this is; at any rate he shows no signs of doing anything about it. Father Bernard wonders if he can raise the matter. Not really, he thinks, seeing his only objections are that he’s sick of it, has enough to do already, and doesn’t see why someone else shouldn’t take on the job for a wonder. He suspects that on those criteria he could be the first in a very long queue asking for a change. The abbot himself doesn’t always look entirely overjoyed with the obligations his role places upon him.
There is something else, though, and if he’s honest (which just now he’s trying to dodge) Father Bernard knows this is not altogether admirable: it’s that he thinks, as an ordained man and the sacristan at St Alcuin’s, being expected to do the laundry is, frankly, beneath him.
It’s not that he has no help. Someone usually spares one or two of the novices from their regular occupations. Brother Cassian occasionally helps if the children aren’t in school – when they’re out picking the plums or the cherries. Brother Robert often comes over; there are natural spaces between jobs in the pottery. Brother Cedd hardly ever shows his face when there’s washing to be done; though, thinking about it, poor Father Clement is squinting badly these days. He’s relying on that lad, training him up in the fastest possible time. You can’t blame him wanting to make the most of what eyesight he still has. Now, Brother Boniface is a frequent assistant – because candidly he’s of little use in the scriptorium, but he delivers a mighty beating to a linen sheet with a paddle. Good thing he’s not left overseeing the schoolboys. And Colin, the new lad – ah, good value there! A hard grafter, no airs and graces; not like that Brother Felix.
Father Bernard, if he had to suggest someone else to take on responsibility for the laundry, would put forward Brother Richard. The fraterer’s work can’t possibly be as onerous as a sacristan’s duties; he doesn’t have to be up first in the middle of the night and again at dawn, for one thing. And a fraterer’s work isn’t so lofty. There’s not such a jarring contrast. What does the fraterer have to do, after all? Keep the whetstone and sand in good order, all tidy and ready in the lavatorium for the brothers to sharpen their knives. Set the table and clear everything away after meals. Make sure there are water jugs supplied and filled at mealtime – and ale. Work with the kitcheners to get the bread to the table, and the bowls of condiments – which have proliferated since Brother Conradus took charge in the kitchen with his conserves and pickles, his chutneys and mustards, and the good Lord knows what else. He has to change the towels but that’s only once a fortnight, and the last abbot put a stop to tablecloths – said they went beyond the boundaries of holy poverty – so he hasn’t got to bother with those. It’s the fraterer’s obedience to see the towels washed and repaired, but at the moment Brother Richard tosses them in with the rest of the things – as Father Bernard sees he has done today. He has to sweep the frater, of course, and the adjacent paths and cloister passage, and strew the floors with fresh herbs. He has to keep the lavatorium clean – so laundry should come naturally to him. But how long can those chores take a diligent man?
It hardly compares with his own responsibilities as sacristan. He’s the timekeeper for the whole community for one thing. The sacristan’s is a high-ranking office; he has to be a priest. He has to care for the candles and light them, scour the sacred vessels every week, bake the hosts, launder and iron and fold the corporals – which shouldn’t cause any man to say, “Oh well, if he’s doing that he might as well take on the rest of the laundry while he’s at it.”
So now, because it’s Tuesday, he has to take the barrow and collect all the dirty linen from the big chest by the bottom of the night stairs, and cart it along to the laundry room to be scrubbed. Thank God they at least wash their own braies. Half the men put out their sheets this week, the other half the following week. It’s a big load.
The water running into the laundry troughs is clean and pure. It comes from two springs high up in the hills, piped along lead-lined masonry conduits and passing through cisterns allowing sediment to settle and pressure to build. The laundry is warm (if oppressively steamy) from the fires under the big brass water pots. Father Bernard grudgingly concedes he should be grateful; at St Alcuin’s he doesn’t have to kneel at the water’s edge and scrub the sheets in the river shallows – at least their system is properly organized. And Father John lets them have the good olive oil soap all the way from Italy. Bernard still remembers the stink of the soap his mother made from lard when he was a lad. This is much nicer, and scented with Brother Walafrid’s herbal oils furthermore – lavender and rose, rosemary and lemon balm. Right round the edges of the drying green behind the laundry room, where Father Bernard spreads the sheets to dry in the sunshine, latherwort is growing in abundance. Well organized, true, and well provided for – but there’s no getting away from it, this is back-breaking work. Especially because Father Bernard is tall. The stone troughs and their slanting stone scrubbing slabs are that bit too low. By the end of the morning he will barely be able to straighten up. He knows that already. Tuesday is not his favourite day.
When he gets to the laundry with his mountain of linen, he can hardly believe his eyes. No one has come to help him. The water is heating – Brother Richard lights the fires early on while Bernard is still busy in the vestry – but now he’s gone, and there’s nobody around. It is physically possible to tip the water from the cauldron into the trough without help – whoever built the place thought of that when they sited the firepits and the washing troughs – but it certainly isn’t easy, and Father Bernard has scalded himself on that manoeuvre more than once. He could also do with some help to haul the wet things that have been soaking in lye to be rinsed off and washed through. They get so heavy.
He stands in the middle of the laundry room feeling immensely sorry for himself for some little while. It looks as though there really is no one coming to help him. He thinks of going to look for Brother Richard, but if he’s honest (and he’s still dodging that) the sense of absolute martyrdom has a sort of horrible addictive sweetness he’s half enjoying. He thinks he’ll struggle on alone. This is his cross to bear. This is what people are like. Where is help when you need it? What’s the point of all the fine talk about faith and dedication if you can’t even see to it there’s someone on hand to help with the washing? Call this a community? Huh. Moodily, he shoves the plug into the drain, and lets the water begin to accumulate in the big stone trough.
He fetches the bats and the soap, rolls up his sleeves and fastens them back, tucks the hem of his tunic up out of the way into his belt, ties on a big linen apron, soft with wear and many times patched, and starts to pile half the linens he’s brought along, into the trough.
Struggling and sweating, his hands double-wrapped in rags against the heat of the metal, he tips the hot water into the trough. He bungs the hole where cold water flows in. It doesn’t back up and flood – that’s the point of the cisterns; their capacity is enough to regulate the system.
So he begins, his red, wet hands scrubbing and slapping the linens viciously on the grooved stone slabs. He repents of that fairly quickly; he knows perfectly well the way he’s going at it could rub the sheets into holes there and then, and linen is expensive. He pauses, stands quite still, discreetly smites his breast with his soapy fist, muttering “Mea culpa.” He comes back to the scrubbing more gently; but there’s nothing to stop him smacking the hell out of the wet linen with the bats.
In a weary pause, as he stretches his aching back and wipes the sweat off his brow with the corner of his apron, he hears footsteps approaching. Oh! Now they turn to, when the job’s half done!
He bends to the trough again so that they’ll find him hard at work and all alone when they come through the door. And then it’s his abbot’s voice saying, so humbly and full of concern: “I’m so sorry, Father Bernard, please forgive me. I didn’t remember until just now that Brother Thomas was meant to be helping you with this today. I sent him out on an errand first thing, and promised to look out somebody else to help you, and I completely forgot. I am so sorry. Here – let me help. What shall I do? Those bits in soak, in the other trough?”
As Father John rolls up his sleeves, kilts up his habit, dons an apron, and sets about it, Father Bernard steeps in shame. He can well imagine their former abbot, Father Peregrine, involving himself in menial tasks around the place. But if he had, it would have been in conscious self-abasement, humbling himself to the way of service Christ had chosen, and showed those who loved him, to follow. It would have been an intentional act of lowliness, to vanquish the stubborn pride of his aristocratic instincts. This man is different. Father John has scrubbed more sheets than he’s eaten hot dinners, in the course of the years of loving service he’s given in St Alcuin’s infirmary. And the linens he washed there would, for the most part, have been fouler by a long way than anything dropped off routinely from the dorter. It occurs to Father Bernard, he has never once heard Father John complain – nor yet Brother Michael, their infirmarian now. They just got on with it, cheerfully and kindly; the service of their love, for the care of the old and sick.
When the job is done, they spread as many sheets as they have room for on the drying green, towels draped over the bushes of rosemary and lavender, whatever cannot be accommodated here hung on lines strung across the cloister garth, the washing prevented from drooping too low by forked props cut from saplings in the spinney above the burial ground.
“Back aching?” asks the abbot with a sympathetic grin, as Father Bernard straightens up. “Let me take the baskets back, then. I got there late, it’s the least I can do. Then I think it’ll be all about time for the midday Office. These’ll dry nicely in this sunshine.”
“Father John,” says the sacristan. This is difficult, but he knows it should be said. “When you arrived, I’d been wrapped up in a very long internal monologue of bitter complaint. Thank you for coming to help me. It makes all the difference.”
He feels the warmth of kindness and understanding, sees it in his abbot’s face, those observant, evaluating eyes.
“Have you maybe been taking care of the laundry long enough, Father Bernard?” John asks him. “Is it time I asked someone else to pick this up? I think maybe you have enough to do with your other duties.”
And Father Bernard starts to dismiss it, to protest that he doesn’t mind. “Oh, don’t you worry about me. I can fit it in. Today was an exception; there are usually two or three here to lend a hand. I’m used to it, Father. I –” Suddenly he stops. Why do this? Why pretend? His abbot is listening thoughtfully to his lies, his prevarications.
“D’you know,” he admits, “I am fed up to the soles of my feet with this job. I’ve been doing it for years. There’s no reason why I shouldn’t – somebody’s got to. But, a break from it… oh, dear heaven, what I wouldn’t give!”
And his abbot is laughing at him, affectionately, understanding the way it feels. “I’ll sort it out,” he says. “Maybe Brother Richard, maybe Brother Giles. Let me give it some thought. I promise you faithfully, I won’t forget!”
In the cloister garth, as Father Bernard watches his abbot pick up the laundry baskets to return, the warmth of the September sun brings out the fragrance of the herbs, of the roses Brother Fidelis trains up every inch of stone he can reach, knocking nails into the mortar for the twine that holds them up.
And it takes him by surprise, coming back to him as sharp and vivid as when he first came here, not much more than a lad: that this is a beautiful place.

Monday, 28 March 2016

Grocery shopping

I have to change the way I shop for groceries. This will be made easier by some other domestic changes we made recently, here in our shared house. Because the Badger is now home full-time, the rhythms and requirements of our home life changed too.

You might remember my little room and the wardrobe the Badger made me? Well, this is what it looks like now. He and I have it for our own little kitchen.

We share his attic for our living accommodation.

To the right of the guitar, the Badger is going to build a place for my clothes to hang (his hang under the eaves). At the moment they are hanging on pot hooks screwed into the wall in the place where we sleep (you can see through the doorway). 

I can only show half where we sleep because the space is very little. We sleep on the floor; the space is bed-sized.

Black thing with pointy ears in foreground is our cat Miguel sleeping, not my discarded PJs.

So, though we still source many household commodities in common with the other people in the house – and are comfortable with lots of cheerful sharing – the Badger and I now source some food for just the two of us.

That has made it easier (in principle) to source his and my food from the small shops, as we no longer need to shop at places where there’s a big choice. All of us still go to the wholefood co-op, of course, but otherwise we mainly go to one of three big grocery chains, where there are special offers etc.

However, I’d just got used to shopping where I always shop, so I didn’t do anything different when things changed at home. I didn't make a new habit of going to the small shops

Then this happened:
I was in a big grocery chain outlet, queuing up at the checkout to pay for my food selection on Good Friday. Behind me was a small old lady in a headscarf, shuffling and dithering and turning round in small circles muttering to the woman behind her. At first I didn’t pay too much attention because I assumed maybe she just had a neurological condition. I assumed she was with the woman she was talking to. Then I tuned in to what she was saying – that she couldn’t remember the PIN for her bank card to pay for her goods.

As I paid closer attention, I realized what had happened. She’d gone through once, got the PIN wrong, and the cashier let her come back for another try. The cashier also let her keep with her the goods all packed up in her shopping bag, and I was glad to see that trust and kindness.

As she had the bag all ready, I suggested she go in front of me, since I had many items to check out. She was grateful to do that, the cashier got the ticket ready, and the shopper tried again. She got the PIN wrong again. Her face all pale and distorted with worry, she kept saying ‘What am I going to do? I’ll have to put it all back.’

The public holiday weekend was ahead of us, she had guests coming, the banks were shut for Good Friday – so, no way to access cash without her PIN.

The cashier was very kind and gentle, soothing – sent her to sit down quietly on a seat nearby to try to remember. As I checked out my own shopping, the cashier had a bright idea – their instore ATM offers a ‘change PIN’ facility. No. Not without first entering the PIN you already have.

That particular story ended happily and the old lady was okay (I knew you’d need to know this to concentrate on anything else). It got sorted out.

But it made me think.

One of the things I love about weddings is the sense of convergence as people prepare (bear with me, this is not the complete change of topic it seems to be). Guests coming from overseas, the bride getting ready at home, the groom at his home. The minister, the organist, the bridesmaids, the chapel steward – everybody setting off each according to their appropriate timing, all to be there in the same place at the right moment.

I realized something similar had happened about that old lady’s grocery shopping.

First stores got bigger and chain stores emerged. So, smaller family grocers went out of business - like the cheese shop and the greengrocers in Hastings Old Town. In the new big chain stores, unlike the old family stores, you couldn’t get goods on tick, and the staff neither knew you nor had the power to let you go home with goods not paid for, on a promise to come back on Tuesday with the money once the banks had opened and you’d had chance to resolve the problem.

Then the banks became more centralized, and more dependent on codes, plastic cards, online services and PINs. Most local high street branches disappeared; for old people who were not internet savvy . . . er . . . tough.

Then cheques were no longer accepted for payments.

Then signing a till receipt and matching it against your bank card signature was stopped. Now, you had to remember the PIN.

In the new banks and chain stores, rules and procedures determined centrally applied. Nobody was empowered to let you go home and pay later.

[A similar thing happened in the libraries – when my previous (deceased) husband Bernard went to join Rye library, the staff member at the counter said he must provide ID. He stared at her in bewilderment. ‘ID?’ he said. ‘But . . . Ida, you went to school with me!’
‘Even so,’ she said, ‘I have to see evidence of your identity.’]

And it occurred to me, all these small, incremental moves towards centralization and aggrandization had culminated, like guests converging on a wedding, in this one moment ~ a little, pale, worried, anxious, disempowered old lady whose memory was going, reduced to shuffling and muttering in shame and terror, with no way to get her hospitality food for the weekend.

And I say, it stinks.

Convenient? Accessible? Efficient? Economical? Smooth to run? Yes – until you are the old lady.

Today, I checked out the times of the next Hastings Farmers Market. Mind you – to be fair – they wouldn’t let you take your loot on tick at the Farmer’s Market either. And neighbourhood communities are now so dispersed and fragmented and anonymous, they wouldn’t know you from Adam anyway. And the Farmers Market people aren't especially kind - probably not even as kind as the cashier in the chain store. But at least you’d know in advance you needed to take cash with you, and at least they’d have the power to sort the problem out if they wanted to.

Some of my shopping - like the meat, the really excellent sauerkraut and the equally excellent goats' milk kefir I get - I can source only online; and that suits me. I'm not an old lady who can't manage a computer, I know my PIN, and I am intensely introverted so handling the camaraderie of old-style shopping makes me nervous and tired. But I still think I'll be sorry if I just let the world be absorbed by machines and conglomerates.

Sunday, 27 March 2016

The Lord is risen

Only just today discovered Malcolm Guite's poetry, through Julia Bolton Holloway sharing his work on Facebook.

Oh my, you are in for a treat!

He has written just the best villanelle for Easter Day, and a cracking good sonnet as well. Superb.

His poems are here.

The beautiful picture he posted with the last stanza of the villanelle, he credited to Lancia Smith. So I went along to her website and - oh, wow! That's wonderful too! Look - here.

Well, what wonderful discoveries. Those'll do me for Easter eggs.  Hatched and cheeping.

Thanks, Julia, for the heads-up.

The Lord is risen - he is risen indeed! Hallelujah!

Happy Easter everybody.


Saturday, 26 March 2016

I Will Meet You in the Morning

Today (again!) I felt ruffled and uneasy - hemmed in and out of sorts.

When that happens something that restores me is this particular version of this song. It reminds me of the dawn chorus in May - the open, simple singing of birds. The singing is so unaffected, so true and easy. One time before when I posted it here, I remember Buzzfloyd commenting that its quality is to do with the people being so accustomed to singing together.  This is so in the way lives groove along too - that some groups grow together (or grow up together) to develop an almost unnoticed synchronicity, harmonising on a deep level.

I thought I'd post the song again (and it's always in the list on my sidebar here if you're ever hunting for it again) because today is Holy Saturday, and some of the words of the song seemed to accord with that.

As I listened to it, I could feel it bringing to mind something else I'd heard. When I stopped and paid attention to that elusive stirring, I found I could track it down quickly. It reminds me of the wonderful recording of a chorus of crickets singing slowed down 800%. Here.


I wondered this morning, in the bath – where is our fur? 

Where is it? 

Why do we not have any?

Friday, 25 March 2016


I spent a while again today watching a chunk of my forever most favourite movie – Into Great Silence. It reminds me of the 23rd Psalm – thou leadest me in green pastures . . .  thou leadest me beside still waters . . . thou restorest my soul. Whatever’s going on, whatever may have shaken or ruffled me, half an hour with Into Great Silence will restore my factory settings and have me up and running again. Beauty, order, light, purpose, quietness – the things I love. It teaches me, it challenges me, it calms me.

Today it reminded me afresh of what I so easily forget – that the beauty of simplicity has to be guarded and prized.

At one time in our family life we lived next door to an elderly man who lost the will to take care of his garden. The neighbours on the other side of him had mare's tails in their garden – and those plants spread like wildfire! They travel (I think) by sprouting from an underground root system. Before too long they infested his garden. Then they started to appear in ours.  Because he had ceased to tend his plot and the folk beyond weren’t bothered, there was nothing we could do about the continual uprising of mare's tails in our midst. So we just pulled up every one that appeared as soon as it appeared. We got rid of a convolvulus infestation completely that way. If you try to dig up convolvulus you just propagate it, because it sprouts from every root fragment; but I figured a plant needs aerial parts as well as roots to survive, so I just picked every baby convolvulus plant that put its head above ground, eventually winning the day.

With the mare's tails we were successful, but because of the way they spread they travelled on to the next garden. That also belonged to folk halfhearted about tending their plants – they did mow the lawn, but not much else. Our garden soon became the sole plot in the row with no mare's tails; and the only thing that kept it that way was unremitting vigilance.

So it is with the beauty of simplicity. Watching Into Great Silence again today – feasting my eyes on the beauty of sunbeams in the empty cloister, of plain wooden floorboards and scrubbed stone, of a white linen towel hanging against a rough whitewashed wall, I remembered that you have to exercise unremitting vigilance to keep it like that.

In her book The Magical Art Of Tidying Up, Marie Kondo (KonMari) has a wonderful moment where she describes the unthinking action of putting some item down on an empty shelf, and forgetting to put it away in its proper place. She says it’s as though the discarded item calls out to all the other items in the house “Gather round everybody!” and before you know it you have a whole shelf full of clutter.

And then, where are the sunbeams slanting across the room, the loveliness of the wooden floor, the clean simplicity of a linen towel? Well of course, they are still there – and yet they functionally vanish as the eye becomes distracted by the accumulation of objects.

So I sorted through my things again, and could hardly believe the cling-ons I’d acquired – a button; a washer; fairy lights; the product box for earbuds; four (4!) uncomfortable bras; the plastic top from a cardboard poster-roll; a useful little plastic bag; a bobeche; a special electrical cable with a transformer, a plug at one end and a cylindrical jack at the other for – what? Not to mention the 3 ex-margarine-tubs I’d washed and kept, to store these things, in my drawer.

I paused Into Great Silence while I sorted them out and disposed of them as appropriate. Then back to the sunbeams and stone.