Mind blowing!

This isn’t instagram but sometimes I want to show you this beautiful world and my words can’t paint the picture. I can’t link arms with you to walk along the beach, or stroll beside the river, or up on the Preseli Hills, or through the bluebell woods, but I do have my trusty little camera phone thingy…. so here I go… can I talk as we wander?

For all the war and suffering and starvation, for all the cruelty and the loss, this world, given to us in love, is beautiful.

This morning

This is where I was this morning. It’s where I am every morning but of course each day and sky is different, from fog and rain, to raging storm, or gusting wind, sometimes rolling sea mist, and sometimes the sand seems to take on an energy of its own, rising up, skimming past, blinding and stinging.

This was yesterday, bitingly cold, silver, entirely different.

Yesterday. No filter! This is the day that the Lord has made. I will shiver and be glad in it. A bit.

Which one gets my vote? The blue one, of course! Yes, I love the cold days and even the wet days, but I do love them a bit less.

This morning was amazing. Why? Because, because, because… it just was. Come, walk with me.

A prayer request pinged in late last night, from friends halfway across the world, and as I lay in bed I was thinking of these friends, who were driving quite a few miles from home to be with a very ill parent. The thought came to me that even as I snuggled under my duvet, praying from a great distance, they were at the sharp end – the painful end. In a way they were driving towards bad weather, towards an emotional storm, and wow! that realisation grabbed me. It hurt. I felt helpless, knowing that no one could get in there with them to ease their pain. I remembered a book I used to read to my grandchildren, ‘We’re going on a bear hunt’ by Michael Rosen

Can’t go over it,
Can’t go under it,
Can’t go around it,
Got to go through it!

Sometimes we just have to go through it. We have to go through what we cannot mend. It really hurt to think of these kind people facing such a hard time. That’s what prayer does sometimes – it hurts. Prayer isn’t words or wisdom or knowledge, it’s caring, and caring comes at a cost. Prayer isn’t easy, it isn’t liturgy, or shopping lists, it’s painful – it’s important – it matters! It matters and it costs. Then – somehow apart from me – as I prayed or maybe just cared, there came a really solid understanding that they were driving towards this hard time already sheltered, already safe, fully equipped. It was more than a comforting thought, it was the realisation that love will hold them secure, whatever the weather around them. However the earth trembles below their feet, they will be held steady. They know God deep in their bones, and they are steadfast and obedient, and he will not let them go. I sleepily tried to work out what time it was for them, mid afternoon, I think, and then I slept.

As I walked towards the rocks this morning, I realised that the tables were turned and it was now the middle of the night for them. That bloomin’ time difference! Keeps catching me out. I looked at the Sun in our bluest of blue skies and thought about its journey Westwards, about the Moon and the rotation of the Earth, about the greatness of our God. We are so tiny, specks of dust on a speck of dust. How is it that we are loved and how is that we know that we are loved and can even feel that love? How is it that we can think of the people we love, in all the hardship they’re going through, and say to God “I trust you. Here they are. ” Only by the grace of God. Our miracle. There are so many prayer needs, the thousands in Kyiv, the thousands in Mariupol, the millions seeking refuge from war, the friend in the village whose husband died suddenly and with absolutely no warning last week, the friend who is poorly, the friend who is bereaved… is it overwhelming? Sometimes. Yes, sometimes it is. But sometimes we know exactly who we must pray for at that moment. Sometimes we have a certainty. A sort of discipline, from outside of ourselves.

I prayed that at that moment, thousands of miles away, my friends were tucked up and dreaming in a velvet night, that the sick parent was painfree and unafraid, that the hospital was peaceful, that while I paddled in the glistening waves, their night was restful, to strengthen them for the days ahead.

And then it hit me – as the world revolves and we pray for each other, we truly are in eternity. Already. Time and distance? Bah, humbug! Nothing to God. His love binds us all, in completeness, nothing left unfinished. Yesterday I was talking to Sandra (you don’t know Sandra but you would like her) and we were exploring the idea of eternity and the eternal life that Jesus gives, but of course eternity is wider and greater than even that. Even than that! Even than that! The birth and death of a sinless God was a moment in history that, as the hymn says ‘split history in two’, but Jesus was in the beginning, before the beginning, beyond time. He knows no distance or time. Love knows no separation, no pause. Love binds all things together. That’s what ‘In Him all things hold together’ means. All things. Not most things. In Jesus, in God, we are all held together, past and present, fulfilled and yet to be fulfilled, near and far.

This is a chunky bit from The Message version of Colossians 1, the passage that talks about ‘all things holding together’:

For everything, absolutely everything, above and below, visible and invisible, rank after rank after rank of angels—everything got started in him and finds its purpose in him. He was there before any of it came into existence and holds it all together right up to this moment. And when it comes to the church, he organises and holds it together, like a head does a body.

 He was supreme in the beginning and—leading the resurrection parade—he is supreme in the end. From beginning to end he’s there, towering far above everything, everyone. So spacious is he, so expansive, that everything of God finds its proper place in him without crowding. Not only that, but all the broken and dislocated pieces of the universe—people and things, animals and atoms—get properly fixed and fit together in vibrant harmonies, all because of his death, his blood that poured down from the cross.

How wonderful. How absolutely mind blowingly wonderful. The love of Jesus transcends continents and oceans and time, from beginning to end, so that prayer knows no distance, is not a slave to the ticking of the clock, nor even to the rising and the setting of the Sun! Prayer. Mighty prayer.

After a while, my mind can go no further. It’s as if I have to shelve those thoughts for a ten minute break, to return to them later, maybe here at the keyboard. So I splashed and plodded and sat on a rock for a while, thinking of friends here and gone, alive and dead, near and far. And then I came home for coffee and waffles.

Time and distance. They are nothing in God’s Kingdom.

The Three Musketeers

The Next Instalment

This is for those who asked for more of the book. It’s a series of short stories so you may get little snippets of narrative twice, and I haven’t yet decided whether they will be told chronologically or thematically. It’s a work in progress:

The Elliotts

Rob Elliott was a porter at Kingston Upon Thames Hospital, where I was a student nurse. He was broad shouldered, narrow hipped, blond, laconic, and everyone, but everyone, fancied him. It amazed me that out of all the nurses and care assistants and kitchen staff, hundreds of young women, he chose me. The thought that anyone wanted me was intoxicating. That’s what it is to be 19.

His family and his life were totally new to me; I had known only cold and unloving parents, and the Army. For ten years I had lived in a strictly controlled house where I wasn’t welcome and barely tolerated, so my life seemed stultifyingly respectable, boring and repressed, compared to Rob’s.  Just nine years older than me, he had been in 3 Paras, had served in Aden, was already competent and confident, a man of the world. I was over-awed. There was a para’s beret by his bed, pieces of Army uniform, a belt here and a shirt there, scattered around. He had left the military but it seemed that the military hadn’t left him. As an Army brat myself, I completely understood his feelings – and it was just another reason to fall in love with him.   I liked soldiers.

As if to underline the difference between us, and to entice me into his world, while my step-mother and dad lived in a neat pebble-dash semi, all net curtain and mowed lawns, Pop and Mum Elliott lived on a converted lifeboat on the Thames, in the shadow of a railway bridge. Pop was an ex merchant seaman, many years into retirement, happily pottering about on his mouldering but much loved boat.  They were messy, lovable, contented, full of laughter, and I was enchanted by them just as much as I was besotted with their son. After my rigidly correct family, their lifestyle, their casual approach to respectability, and their obvious affection for each other, was a magnet to me. 

Rob’s sister, Pat, lived with her husband, Roy, in North London in a house that should have been gracious, and comfortable, but instead was shabby and cluttered, reeking of dogs. It wasn’t quite filthy but it was certainly getting on that way. Pat, ten years older than Rob, bred Standard Poodles, lots of them, and these great big lolloping farting things lived in the kitchen, the living room and the tiny back yard. Roy was something to do with TV transmission, but he was no more than a silent shadow at the back of every family scene, his clothes crumpled and his thick glasses smeared, a shambling apologetic figure. I could never quite imagine him at his job, whatever that might involve, but it was part of the family narrative that he was a technical genius and that his work was far too complicated for any of us to understand.  When I visited them at home the first time I was shocked and wrong-footed by the clutter, the stench and confusion of that house. I didn’t know where to look, how to ignore that there was a huge dog turd in the middle of the kitchen floor – had anyone else seen it? Surely they must have?  Pat was tall and brisk, wearing clothes that wouldn’t have been out of place at Badminton Horse Trials, and although they were well worn and not quite clean they had obviously been, some time back, expensive. I couldn’t make sense of this well spoken woman, with her anomaly of a husband, and the house full of untrained dogs, the floor covered in newspapers, the work tops given over to dog grooming stands and driers, the walls peppered with fading rosettes and certificates, dusty trophies scattered around. Musty chaos. They had a son, Nigel, 5 years old, and he was the spitting image of his uncle, Rob. None of his classmates ever visited, and Pat was always too chaotically busy to take him anywhere, so his playmates were dogs, his toys were dogs, and that meant that he didn’t have to bother too much with speech. And nobody had to bother too much with him. When the dogs were fed, so was he (not, thankfully, the same food), he was bathed and cared for as if he was a puppy, with the same casual affection, the same lack of conversation. Every weekend, it seemed, there was  a dog show to attend in the Lake District or Wales, or a stud dog to collect from Birmingham, or a litter being born in the tiny dining room. 

Mum and Pop viewed Pat with the kindly acceptance that they bestowed on the rest of the world. Pat was just Pat. There was no changing her. In time I began to question their unthinking acceptance of everything – was it A Good Thing, or just feckless? Had they found a level of Zenlike peace, or was it simply that they couldn’t they be arsed to care about anything much? But these questions didn’t occur to me until much later on, when things were beginning to unravel.

There was another Elliott son,  Charles, who lived in Essex. Charles, twelve years older than Rob, was the white sheep of the family – he lived in a normal and peaceful house, had a normal job as a telecom engineer, a child who had friends, and a wife who didn’t spend half her life shampooing dogs or casually scooping up their droppings. We saw very little of Charles and I was barely aware of him until I had been married to Rob for some months. 

Mum and Pop were a delight. I loved them almost as much as I loved their son. Life on their boat was muddled and messy but always quietly happy, and even now if I catch a whiff of paraffin I am transported to 1968 and a cosy little cabin, lit by Tilley lamps, rocking gently as larger boats passed by. Pop wore two hearing aids but the batteries were often flat, and just as often the aids would scream so loudly that we would cover our own ears and Mum would wave her hands at him, or hit him with whatever came to hand, until he turned them off and the screaming stopped. He laughed a lot, did Pop, and then his false teeth would slip and he’d clamp his hand to his mouth, like a naughty little lad, his shoulders shaking. He loved rituals, familiar jokes, repeated one liners. Every time the biscuit tin came out he would tell his wife that it was a waste of money to buy biscuits as she did – “Go to Woolworths, to the broken biscuits bin. Half the price. Nothing wrong with a broken biscuit.” This became such a routine statement that one day Mum could bear it no more and she snatched the tin back from him, put the lid on, and threw it on the floor with some force. Pop stared. “There” she said, picking it up “There’s your bloody broken biscuits. Now will you give it a rest?” 

The hearing aids could make life interesting; Pop was a sociable man, friends with everyone who lived on or near the river, always ready for a chat. One morning he was on the deck, and we were in the galley, when another elderly man, Malcolm, passed by and the conversation that followed had us crying with laughter, enjoying the absurdity and too gleeful to hurry up on deck to explain the misunderstanding. Malcolm remarked that the police were dragging a dead body from the river. Pop said sagely “You’d think they had better things to do.” A bit perplexed, Malcolm said well, someone had to do it. “Can’t see why,” said Pop “They rot away eventually.” “They what?” said Malcolm. Pop said “Rot. Rot. They fall apart given a bit of weather.” Malcolm said “But you can’t just let them rot!” and Pop replied with an airy “Why not? There’s so many of them – they don’t let you pull ‘em out and and burn them any more. Bloody bylaws about bonfires I suppose.” We realised that Pop had misheard ‘dead body’ for ‘dead tree’ but Malcolm struggled on, appalled “But.. so many of them? Really?” and Pop said “Dozens! They fall in, upstream. Or some bugger tips them in. Always bumping up against the hull.” There was a silent second, or maybe two before Malcolm gathered his breath again “My God, that’s terrible!” and Pop, by now gathering that something was a bit askew with his old friend, said soothingly “It’s not a big deal, Malc. I just get the boat hook and shove ‘em off. Send them on their way to the sea. Best thing.”  By now we were on deck to explain the dead body versus dead tree thing, Pop was a bit miffed “You want to speak clearer, Malc. That’s the trouble with people these days. Always mumbling.”

Yes, I loved Pop. 

In the way that only young people do, Rob and I fell into marriage. I left my nurse training (Why? Why? I ask my younger self) and we blew all my savings and forty pounds from my dad, plus a boat loan,  on a ropey old, damp old, mouldering old, converted old police launch. (Why? Why? Why? I ask my younger self). Her name was The Miss Behave. Suitably rakish. This was to be our adventure. We were going to refurbish her, turn her into the sleek varnished head-turner that she once was. We couldn’t afford the moorings on the Thames and so we motored down to the Medway and found a farmer who would let us moor up on the edge of a cow meadow. Rob’s dream was to be a fireman and everything was falling into place, almost effortlessly, when he was accepted on a training course to start in a few months but with no other income and that loan to pay off I found a job in a paper factory, in the offices. And there we were, less than a year after we’d met, blundering along from pay day to pay day, unsure of everything, lost babes in the wood. We had few posessions but we didn’t need many, we had our dogs and our cat, a portable record player, a tiny black and white TV that worked when the wind was in the right direction, and Rob had his Army souvenirs, his Para beret. That’s all we needed. 

We did make some improvements, that first Summer on the river, with long warm days spent on the deck, sanding and caulking and varnishing the teak planks until the whole deck glowed a deep rich chestnut. We were so proud of that deck. Other boat owners would pause to admire it, and Rob’s chest would swell with pride as he told them about the engine overhaul we were going to do, the dry dock we were going to enter, the keel work that was planned for the next year. And while we spoke of the next phase in our grand plans, the rest of the boat silently continued to crumble and rot. 

The next Spring, after a winter of rain and wind and leaks, we sold up and moved out to a Fire Brigade house. Rob was sad. Me? Not so much.

In the cool of the day

There are some phrases that come to mean a great deal to us, often because they are simple and honest. ‘In the cool of the day’, a perfectly simple and everyday phrase, translated in some versions as ‘in the evening’ has taken me on such a good journey of discovery;

Sometimes walking alone turns into walking with God. (and yes, those are my footprints on Poppit)

As a young Catholic I learned a whole load of Catechism verses but not many have stayed with me. One of them (which probably stuck in my mind because I have a little argument with it) was the answer to the question “Why did God make you?” and I would dutifully trot out the response “God made me to love him, know him and serve him in this world and to be happy with him, forever, in the next.” My argument with that statement is a quibble, a sort of ‘how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?’ argument so I won’t waste your time with it, but surely the question posed is one we often ask ourselves?

Why did God make me? Why did he make anyone? Or anything? As he’s all knowing, all powerful, all complete, why did he make anything beyond his own divine nature? Here’s the big thing that life has taught me; To be complete we need to love. It’s common place to say that a child needs to be loved, but we don’t often turn that around to say that a child needs to love. To be complete there must be both, the loving and the loved, in any one consciousness. If we are loved but do not learn to love, there is something seriously wrong, damaged and damaging. If we love but are not loved , we are lost and sad, broken. To be complete there must be love and loving.

Growing up I didn’t learn to love. Attending 10 schools (that I can remember) and moving house 12 times by the age of 12, I learned how to leave people, how to pack up and move on, never looking back but I was neither loved nor loving. There! Confession time, eh? Loving is still something I need to learn, better, more fully, more experientially… how to love.

A little while ago one of my teenage granddaughters said that a hurdle between her and God is that he demands to be worshipped. I understand her problem. We had a good discussion about worship, and then about ..oh, all sorts. And in the course of that conversation we started talking about religion. Of course we did! My granddaughter wanted to explore the difference between knowing God and having religion, and I remembered Isaiah 1:11-15

The multitude of your sacrifices—
    what are they to me?” says the Lord.
“I have more than enough of burnt offerings,
    of rams and the fat of fattened animals;
I have no pleasure
    in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats.
 When you come to appear before me,
    who has asked this of you,
    this trampling of my courts?
Stop bringing meaningless offerings!
    Your incense is detestable to me.
New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations—
    I cannot bear your worthless assemblies.
Your New Moon feasts and your appointed festivals
    I hate with all my being.
They have become a burden to me;
    I am weary of bearing them.

That, I told her, is the perfect picture of religion. God is not interested. Doesn’t want it. In the words of the Beatles, all you need is love. If you know God, really know him, you cannot help but love him. and that is true worship. Forget the words and flummery, the incense and the blood of bulls, the hurdles we have to clear….

I was reading Genesis 3 this week, and the words ‘in the cool of the day’ hit me with such force. I don’t know how you regard the first few chapters of Genesis, whether you think of them as a history or a metaphor, and I don’t really have any opinion about your opinion (!). Either view may be entirely correct, or entirely wrong, and the truth may lie somewhere in-between. The important thing is that there is truth in the Genesis story, it’s a theologically rich picture of God and a devastatingly honest picture of man. Here we have a man who had walked with God, and lived at peace with God, but now this man is ashamed, deceitful and afraid. In the cool of the evening he’s hiding from Love itself. He’s hiding from forgiveness and unending kindness, just as every human being has ever since. This has crippled every man and woman since the world began.

What’s so great about the cool of the evening? The person who wrote Genesis was writing in the Middle East, to his own people. I lived in Egypt as a child and I remember so clearly that on a really hot, unforgiving day, we longed for the evening. That’s when the chairs were taken outside, families sat around, men drank their beers and smoked and talked, women caught up with neighbours, children played. The mornings were cool too, but the dew was heavy and even the corn in the field around our home would be bowed down by the weight of it. The sandy track leading to the front door would be deep red with morning dew, step into the house and red footprints followed you. Mornings were good but evenings were the time for company and walking together, wandering along the banks of the canal, strolling through the corn fields.

God came to man in the best part of the day, to walk with him, to be with him, to love him. And God doesn’t change. His intentions don’t switch and waver. He created us because he is love, to be loved by him and to love him, and to enjoy the best of the very best, not just in the great bye and bye, but now. Today. 15.02 on Tuesday 5th April. When we walk with God we experience the very best that every day can give.

God is complete. He is complete love. Why did God make me? Nothing to do with me, mate. He didn’t need me. Absolutely nothing to do with me. He has never needed anyone, and will never need anyone. Why did God make me? Because he is love.

That’s a huge truth to get our heads around. My head is jangling with it. God is love personified. Solid, unbreakable, unbreachable love. And it’s there, for anyone, for everyone, now. I mean, seriously, NOW.

This morning a friend told me that she has prayed for the first time, ever. And immediately she felt peace and freedom from the worry that’s been plaguing her. She was amazed. Really amazed. She didn’t know the verse “Come to me, all you who are heavy burdened, and I will give you rest.” but she didn’t need to know it… she just needed to turn to God. When I told her that those were the words of Jesus she was delighted.

So, in conclusion, my answer to that Catechism question?

“Why did God make you?”

“God made me to be loved by him and to love him, and to be happy with him, now and always.”

It’s not pie in the sky bye and bye. It was never that.

It’s our reality, now.

There’s no reasoning…..

This is not my usual blog. I’m shamelessly using you, as a sounding board. I’m writing my third book and it’s very different from my second which was a practical guide, and from my first which was written in the voice of a child. I don’t know if it’s any good… you are my tasters, don’t be shy, let me know what you think:

In my first marriage, to the fantasising Rob, we lived on a boat, moored on the banks of a small river in Kent. To reach home after a day’s work I had to catch a bus, walk a mile, climb a stile, trudge across a cow meadow, clamber down a bank and, if a cow hadn’t knocked it into the river, teeter across a dodgy gangplank to an always-cluttered deck. Sometimes the gangplank was in the river and – on bad days –  so was the generator. Once not only were the gangplank and the generator in the river but a large cow was standing, bewildered and stranded, on the deck. It was before we all had mobile phones so I had to trudge back across the field, over the stile, walk a mile into the village, to the phone box. Rob was at work so, when he had finished for the day, he and a mate turned up to rescue the wonky wood and the drowned machine and the cow. Until then I just had to sit on the riverbank, talking to the cow, plotting a divorce. 

The Miss Behave was a converted police launch, a narrow gutted, steep sided wooden vessel, with a smallish cabin and a two bloody great ferocious Perkins diesel engines under the floor of the cabin. When she went full throttle everything shook and thrummed and roared and fell out of the cupboards, and smashed to pieces.  Even when she was just gently moving through the water anything breakable had to be stowed away, and you really didn’t want to stay too long below decks, what with the noise and the diesel fumes and the shaking. But Rob loved her, and I loved him, and there’s no reasoning with a young woman’s foolish heart…..

I worked in a paper factory in Maidstone, in the offices, and one of the drawbacks to boat living is that while your colleagues may be delicately scented with Eau de Parfume, you will, however hard you try, carry with you a faint miasma of mould and engine oil. Rob could never see the problem with that, manly smells for a manly man who deliberately echoed John Wayne, but a bit of a problem for a clerk/receptionist in a busy office.  At weekends I would take two large bags on the bus to the laundrette, and read a book for a couple of hours, before lugging it all back, clean and fresh, to fold it neatly and put it away in the rot infested drawers and cupboards. It was a year of battling with smells, cows, weather, rats and cold. But Rob loved boat living and I loved him and there’s no reasoning with a young woman’s foolish heart….

We had a cat, Muffin, a lovely tortoiseshell, and that Summer Rob turned up with a scruffy dog. We called him Kipper. I don’t remember now how Rob ended up with this little mutt, but I have no difficulty remembering how much Kipper and Muffin hated each other. That’s quite a problem on a 32ft boat. And then Rob’s sister, who bred Standard Poodles, gave us a puppy (by then Rob had lost his job so he could look after them all while I was at work) and we called the poodle Sidcup. It’s traditional, or was then, to go on a laying-up cruise before the winter sets in, a sort of farewell to the warm days. We set off, down the Medway, on a really lovely September day, intending to get as far as Sheerness, moor up or lay anchor for a picnic, and then return, a nice simple round trip of about 30 miles. As we were approaching Sheerness Rob said we’d find a shallows and moor up, so that we didn’t stray into the busy commercial waters leading to the Thames and the oil refinery. I went below to sort out the picnic in the tiny space we called the galley. The engines were thrumming but only gently so although the crockery and pans were dancing, they were staying in place. And then the engines stopped. It seemed a little strange when there had been no manoeuvring, no call to me to come up and throw a mooring rope or drop the anchor. The door to the cabin flew open and Rob leapt in, down the steps, looking around wildly, shouting “Quick, quick, give me something.” Something? What did he mean, ‘something’? He grabbed at a knife, a bread knife and shouted “a cloth, a cloth” but before I could catch up with him he grabbed a tea towel and he was up and out again, the door swinging behind him. Now I saw the problem, a great gushing torrent was tumbling down the steps from the cockpit. I splashed through it, to find him on his hands and knees, frantically wrapping the towel around the handle of the knife. Water was gushing up through the wooden deck with such force that it was spouting. He wrenched up a deck hatch, and then a plank, and plunged his arm in, his head half submerged. It took some minutes, he came up for air, frantic, and plunged back under…. I could just see the hole in the hull, through water made thick with bilge rubbish and grease. As he rammed the make-shift bung into the hole, the flow almost stopped, just seeping now, no longer a small river.  He sat up, drenched, dirty, gasping for air. We had lost the propeller and its shaft.

With no engine power, we were sitting in the middle of the estuary, heading towards a busy sea lane, and night was falling. Two adults, two dogs , a cat and a tiny dinghy with the smallest Seagull outboard known to man. We still had electrics so we got the bilge pump working, while we looked at the chart and tried to work out where the tide was taking us, while simultaneously trying to plan how we could abandon ship, if it became necessary, and get us all ashore safely. By a stroke of almost- good fortune, the tide was taking us towards a sandbank, and Rob decided to steer towards it (in as much as we could steer) and hope to run aground. We decided that if the worst came to the worst and we had to abandon the boat, I would take the dinghy, with Sidcup and Kipper (it was like that Chinese puzzle, the fox, the cabbage and the hare) then I’d return and take the cat and Rob. If we could use the outboard we would, if not we would row. The running aground bit worked perfectly, we could hear the bottom scraping gently on the soft bed, the movement slowed on the boat and then stopped, and we were stationary. Sadly we were quite a way from land and by this time we weren’t sure how close we would be to the navigation channel when the tide returned. Rob threw out the anchor, which suddenly seemed like a tiny safety pin holding a rhinoceros in place, and we sat there, helpless, hoping for a passing boat, for one of the distant ferries to see us, but no boats came, no one saw us. As the tide rose, our batteries ran down, the bilge pump stopped, and the port and starboard lights went out. Now it was dark and we were sitting ducks. We could hear the anchor scraping. How far were we drifting? Where were we? As one of us operated the pump, the other kept watch for oil tankers. We simply had no idea if we had strayed into the main shipping channel.

Do we row ashore or stay put? We had to work the bilge pump by hand, a slog, a relentless slog, taking it in turns, but barely able to keep up with the water seeping in. We knew the estuary quite well, a wide, treacherous area of quicksand and mud flats, impossible to navigate safely, and so we agreed that we’d leave The Miss Behave only if she was going under. Our hope was that with the morning we would be seen and rescued.

As dawn broke we were huddled in the cockpit, exhausted from all the hours of pumping, and once again the tide had gone out. I made tea on the gas stove and we warmed our frozen hands, glumly facing the idea of losing not just our home but all our belongings. And we were still paying off the boat loan. ‘Would insurance cover us?’ I asked, and Rob shrugged. We had the cheapest policy going, the barest cover to satisfy the loan company, so probably not. And then I saw something glistening, maybe 400 yards away. I have great long distance vision and I knew, somehow I just knew, by the shape or the shadows or by serendipity, what it was. Our propeller and shaft. 

Rob was derisive. There was no way that a heavy metal shaft would have followed us down river. We must have drifted a mile or more. It was a piece of rubbish, an old metal strut or a lobster pot or something. But I knew what it was. I was absolutely convinced. So, complaining, Rob sloshed over the side into the thick mud and pushed the dinghy out until it floated, and clambered in, swearing. I watched him rowing, slowly at first, an exhausted very fed-up man, and then I realised that his strokes were getting faster. As he neared the shining object he just about fell out of the dinghy in his excitement, and I could hear his shouts across the shining mud “It is! It is! You beauty!” 

It took some time to get it on board the dinghy, and by the time he returned he was black from head to toe and completely exhausted, but triumphant. As the tide came in he detached the propeller and somehow, between the two of us, we managed to fit the shaft back into its housing in the hull. We still had no power, the engine still couldn’t engage with the shaft, and the prop was lying useless on the deck, but we were more or less water tight. By nine o clock we had been spotted and were given a tow back to the boatyard. 

The dogs exploded with joy to be back on dry land, the cat was allowed out of her carry cage (where she had been in case we had to row for shore at short notice) and we had a huge fry up. 

We found the insurance documents. We weren’t covered, at all. They were out of date. The repair and the recovery would come out of my wages. When I heard Rob recounting the ‘adventure’ with himself as hero and me as compliant side-kick, I really could have smacked him, quite hard. But I loved him and there’s no reasoning with a young woman’s foolish heart….

And now it starts….

I was dreading today. I didn’t know which ‘today’ it would be, but I knew this day would come.

Ukraine is the victim of an unwarranted and brutal invasion. Ukraine’s President has shown courage and devotion. In the face of terrible odds his people have been resisting, and in some places rebuffing, the Soviet military. Sadly, this means that the free press of the World and some social media has begun to paint Ukraine and its President as ‘good’ people. They are not bad people. But they are somewhere in-between. Human beings like you and me, but tested to the extremes of endurance and courage. And because they are like you and me they are not pure and untainted and perfect and always compassionate; when they are cornered they will fight with whatever savagery they need in order to escape, when their old people and their children and their comrades are being slaughtered some of them, at the end of their emotions, will react with anger, rage, red raw revenge, some will be just as brutal and just as cruel as the worst of the Russians. They are desperate people, driven to a desperate end.

And now the press of the West is ready to pounce. Maybe they’ll hold off until the dust settles, but they will pounce on Zelensky and his Army, they will paint them with the same brush as the Russians, and having held them up to an impossible standard the hypocritical press will cheer when they fall short. Today there are as yet unsubstantiated reports of Ukraine troops knee-capping Russian prisoners. Today is the day we begin to see that there are no heroes in war.

I saw a terrible fb posting a while ago, claiming Zelensky as a man of God. Don’t. Really, don’t. Have pity on him, admire him, support him, most of all pray for him, but don’t give him a halo. If any man wears one of those, it will burn him.

Yeah, yeah, alright… calm down….

So several of you have fish knives (see my last blog) and some of you even have grapefruit spooney-fork things, and someone has a butter fork (doesn’t it slip through the prongs?) and there are rumours of a pickled onion spoon (although it’s been mislaid apparently) and about 50,000 of you use soup spoons on a daily (hourly?) basis.

I’m amazed. How do your butlers and kitchen maids find the time to polish them all?

Remembering Fish Knives

Do you remember when fish knives were a sign of gentility, or respectability? Probably not. If you weren’t brought up in the UK, definitely not. They’ve dwindled away into history now, and good job too. I thought about them tonight, when a neighbour gave me some home-made chicken soup (this is a friendly village), and as I was heating it, and getting out a bowl and spoon I noticed, lying at the back of the cutlery tray, and rarely used, soup spoons. I was musing about man’s desire to clutter up life with completely unnecessary stuff when I remembered fish knives and forks, and that thought in turn conjured up my step-mother; Norah Gannon was a convert to Catholicism, and anyone who knows anything at all knows that converts to Rome are the worst (!forgive me, Catholic friends), so Fridays were penitential fish days. That probably sounds ok to you, but she didn’t go for crispy battered cod and a tumble of delicious chips, no – her idea of a fish supper was a mean little fillet of plaice with slimy grey skin, poached in milk for far too long. She had a set of six fish knives and forks and an ornate slice for transferring the pathetic thing from serving dish to dinner plate. Such nonsense.

I hated Fridays, hated the limp skinny fillet oozing milk, the spoonful of mashed potato, the peas and the half tomato ‘to add a splash of colour’. She knew that, as I forced it down, my gorge was rising up, she must have seen how my eyes watered as I tried to somehow neither feel it nor taste it, but righteousness is merciless, and that plate had to be emptied. Fridays were the only evening when I ate with my parents so there was no escaping the ritual and I’d taste it all night, and pee out fish-water in the morning.

If you’ve had the great fortune of never seeing a fish knife, I’ll try to describe it… a strange  thing, flat and blunt, with a sort of curl or hook at the end of what should have been the blade. Hang on… I’ll find a picture.

Bit of a shocker! They are still made and sold.

This, Norah said, was designed so that the diner could hook out bones. We didn’t have bones in our fish, but we had the hooks for finding them, and so our credentials as middle class aspirants couldn’t be questioned, at least on a Friday evening. 

There were many fish-knife examples in her life, objects that showed she was a cut above, or maybe just that she was determinedly Southern, in the face of her husband’s and her step-children’s equally determined Northernness. Just as she would never stoop to fish and chips, she would never let my dad have his favourite kippers, in case, she said ‘Someone calls and they can smell them.’ Kippers were Northern.  No one ever called but she lived in fear of being found out in some small transgression.

I wonder if you had – or maybe have – some tiny prejudices? I do. I loathe net curtains seeing them as bourgoise (yep, Norah loved them) and I dislike house plants (her windowsill were full of the damn things) and I’m a real snob about books (not a boast, a confession) and tabloids and commercial radio and so-called ‘reality’ shows. So, you see, I’m no better than Norah, not really. Just different.

But boy! She gave herself so many problems. She made life so difficult for herself and for others. There were so many unspoken rules, and quite a few very spoken ones too! Even when money was tight I had to have Start-rite shoes, costing probably twice as much as any other shoe, and even Clark’s shoes, which were perfectly good by anyone’s standards, were just not good enough for Norah. She would tell people that I had to have Start-rite to ‘try to undo some of the damage already done’. And yet, as we tried them on in the shop she would turn to the assistant and say ‘They’re wasted on her of course, but we can but try.’ I had, she said, fat flat feet. It wasn’t true. I have always had rather nice feet… long toes, no corns or bumps or bunions, but she knew that I had spent most of my early life either bare footed in the Middle East or casually shod in Woolworth’s daps. It was an unspoken shame that my mother had been working class, the daughter of a miner, and so now my stepmother’s job was to remedy my accent and my manners and to make me into someone else entirely. Why on earth did my dad let her? Weird, eh? He had loved my mum, why did he let Norah make us all somehow ashamed of her? People are strange.

When I look back at her now (she’s been dead ten years) I see what a constant uphill struggle her life was, how she was always striving to impress, to meet some non-existent standard of acceptability and I think she must have been exhausted by it all. But she continued searching for perfection right up to her death, never realising that none of us would find it in this life. And even when I was grown and flown, she still disapproved of me; when I met the Queen and my dad asked me what we said, Norah sort of flinched… as if whatever I had done or said must be somehow a faux-pas. My friends in the hall had heard her laughing and had said to each other “That must be Luce” and it was. But poor Norah could only flinch at the thought of me maybe ‘letting the side down’.

Oh, there’s a thought – maybe that’s why she loved the Catholic Church so much, because it set out exactly what she should do and she could follow it to the letter. Maybe she really believed that ritual would make her acceptable, or that by saying three Hail Mary’s after confession she had earned a place at the high table. Maybe it was only in the Mass that she felt secure, knowing exactly what was to be said, when to stand, when to kneel, when to close one’s eyes….

PRIEST: have mercy on us, O lord. 
PEOPLE: For we have sinned against you. 
PRIEST: show us, O lord, your mercy. 
PEOPLE: And grant us your salvation.

Poor Norah. I have Catholic friends and I know that they don’t think as she thought. I know that she misunderstood the joy and the love of the church, and that’s her tragedy.

How did I get there from talking about fish knives? I suppose I’m still trying to work out why she was who she was, what could have made her like that, and why she loathed her husband’s three children so much. It is still intriguing.

A few months ago, trying to find the answers to those questions, I was thinking about how proud she was of her house. When I was a teenager we lived in Chippenham, in an ordinary comfortable semi-detached three bed. The house was comfortable but life there wasn’t. The lawns were velvet smooth and mown twice a week in the Summer, the flower beds were weed free and symmetrically planted, even the vegetable garden was meticulously neat. Inside, some walls were papered, thin strands of gold on white in the dining room, pale eau de nil ivy in the living room, Wilton carpets (what else?) and curtains lined with sateen. It fed her soul. It reflected her soul.

A few months ago I went on Google Earth and travelled down that road, towards the house that meant so much to her. A shabby car is in the drive, the garden is a comfortable mess, the window frames could do with some attention. 

If she could see it now, I wonder what she would make of it?

I hope the people living there have lovely fish and chip suppers, sitting around the telly, their feet up on the coffee table, with their toes poking through the holes in their socks. I hope it’s a happy, messy, noisy, chaotic house with not a fish knife to be seen. 

Yet again, it isn’t a blog

It’s a sort of exclamation this time. It’s a Eureka! moment as I head off to bed.

I’ve realised something about praise and joy. Something that you’ve probably known for ages, and intellectually it’s something I already knew but hadn’t quite cottoned on to. The dots weren’t joined up, you know? But now they are. A perfect circle. God’s perfect circle.

I’m reading a Psalm or two every day, and for the first time this book has grabbed me in the same way that Isaiah and Job and the Gospels and a few others have. Suddenly it’s come alive and some days I can’t stop at two or three, and then on other days I’m transfixed by one verse or one word.

What is my Eureka! moment? Well, in Psalms I’ve learned that if we praise the Lord our God we simply cannot be defeated by sadness or worry. Not at the same time. When we praise God our hearts lift and our spirits clamber up to the next level. Listen to Psalm 100

Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth.
 Worship the Lord with gladness;
    come before him with joyful songs.
Know that the Lord is God.
    It is he who made us, and we are his;
    we are his people, the sheep of his pasture.

Enter his gates with thanksgiving
    and his courts with praise;
    give thanks to him and praise his name.
For the Lord is good and his love endures forever;
    his faithfulness continues through all generations.

List ’em – joy, gladness, songs, belonging, thanksgiving!

Joy when we praise him, gladness when we worship, songs (and shouts) and great roaring anthems of praise. We are made to worship God, and when we fulfil the purpose for which we were created, we are the happiest of all creatures. We are back in a state of grace, the Garden of Eden, made to walk with God in the cool of the evening (which, in the Middle East, is just a way of saying ‘the best part of the day’)

When we praise God, we don’t enter a mindless euphoric state, a Pollyanna pretence of bliss, Ukraine still breaks our heart, injustice still rankles, the world is still a sad and beautiful and fallen place, but none of this defeats us. We grab it and lift it up to God. We take our sorrow about Ukraine and our anger and confusion about Putin, and our frustration at our own leaders and we praise God that he holds all things together. When we think of God, turning to him intentionally, exploring his greatness and his goodness, we can’t help but praise him and, as we do, our joy and love grows and deepens.

Jesus quoted Isaiah 61 at the very start of his ministry, a bold and arresting declaration of prophecy fulfilled, in that first step in his long walk to Calvary and the cross. And because of the ignominious and glorious cross, inextricably intertwined with all the sadness and pain of sinful man, we have the promise of good news, freedom, joy and praise.

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
    because the Lord has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
    to proclaim freedom for the captives
    and release from darkness for the prisoners,
 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
    and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn,
   and provide for those who grieve in Zion—
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
    instead of ashes,
the oil of joy
    instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
d of a spirit of despair.

Listen, listen, think of this when the world seems to overwhelm you, when evil seems to be winning, and you can’t bear another news broadcast, know this, this is the Christian walk;

a crown of beauty
    instead of ashes,
the oil of joy
    instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
d of a spirit of despair.

Songs In The Night

Long, long ago, in olden days, I lived in England and every morning, without fail, I would swim in an Olympic size pool. It was fabulous, clean, sparkling, peaceful. I would plunge in not just to do the grown-up stuff of lengths but to stand on my hands, touch the floor of the diving pool, sit on the bottom and hold my breath until my lungs were bursting so I had to shoot upwards, gasping for air, like a teenage lout I would jump off the spring board and if there was no one near I’d do a bomb…. I loved those mornings. I’m homesick for a few English things but that pool is definitely the main one! There were three elderly women who would come into the pool, every day, stepping carefully through the footbath, their floral swim hats bobbing and their laughter echoing and they made their slow way to the steps. Once in the pool (gingerly) they stayed exactly where they had ‘landed’, halfway along, up to their shoulders in the water, chatting and nodding, a little island of colour and life. They stayed for about half an hour, chit-chattering like a small flock of busy birds, hardly pausing to take breath, smiling at the swimmers as they passed, sharing ribald comments with the pool attendants, shrieking with laughter sometimes, or ‘Ooohing’ and ‘Ahhhing’ at some piece of new news. And then they would make their stately way out again, without having swum so much as an inch. As I continued my lengths I’d keep an eye on the café and there, after another half hour or so, the women would arrive for their coffee and cakes. When I was changed and heading home they were often still there, still talking of course. I used to wonder, much as I do now with married couples, “What do they find to talk about day in and day out?” Just remembering them makes me smile.

I like to think of their families, telling each other, marvelling, “Mum is amazing. She’s 83 but she goes swimming every single day of her life.” I hope they had that myth woven around them, and I hope they smiled demurely and nodded and didn’t confess the truth.

Those three elderly women are in my thoughts because I’ve returned to swimming – not in a lovely olympic sized pool but in small one, barely long enough for 15 breast strokes or 9 front crawls (it’s West Wales, barely adequate is what we aim for). And you know what? It’s OK. It could do with it being just a tad warmer, but if you keep moving it’s OK. It wouldn’t please the chatting trio, that’s for sure.

So, why? Why am I returning to the water even when it’s a bit too cold and a bit too small and a bit too… you know… blah? Listen, and I’ll tell you why. It’s by way of a confession but it’s not a shame faced one – it’s loud and brazen and a bit waggy fingered. So, listen up. I don’t know a whole lot of things for absolute certain but this is something I have come to know to be true. TRUE.

I’m going through a rough time at the moment, with family problems and the news from Ukraine, and some friends who are in a difficult situation, and no real ‘must do’ jobs in my life, so the world seems unrelentingly grim just now. I despair of church traditions that imply we must always be victorious and defiantly jolly Christians. That’s not real. It’s make-believe. It’s self serving, like Eleanor Rigby ‘wearing the face that she keeps in a jar by the door’. And pretending that all is always swingingly good doesn’t acknowledge our weakness and God’s great strength. I am weak. I stumble and feel lost at times. And that’s OK. That really is OK. Look at what this guy called Asaph said in the Psalms:

Psalm 77.

I cried out to God for help;
I cried out to God to hear me.
When I was in distress, I sought the Lord;
 at night I stretched out untiring hands,
 and I would not be comforted.

I remembered you, God, and I groaned;
    I meditated, and my spirit grew faint.
 You kept my eyes from closing;
    I was too troubled to speak.

So the poor man couldn’t sleep, he was in despair, felt abandoned. I don’t know what his problems were – probably not a mad Russian dictator or the other things affecting me just now – but he was longing for ‘the old days’ Listen as he remembers being happy, ‘singing songs in the night’

 I thought about the former days,
    the years of long ago;
 I remembered my songs in the night.
    My heart meditated and my spirit asked:

But even remembering the good times he felt desolate.

“Will the Lord reject forever?
    Will he never show his favor again?
 Has his unfailing love vanished forever?
    Has his promise failed for all time?
 Has God forgotten to be merciful?
    Has he in anger withheld his compassion?”

I too got to the point of saying to God, ‘Enough! Surely, it’s enough? Can’t you please turn your spotlight on someone else for a while? Give us a breather, do!’

But this guy, Asaph, made a decision, a choice. Even though it was hard, he chose to remember, and focus on the things God has done, the great things God has already done. He was intentional even though he felt defeated;

Then I thought, “To this I will appeal:
    the years when the Most High stretched out his right hand.
I will remember the deeds of the Lord;
    yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago.
 I will consider all your works
    and meditate on all your mighty deeds.”

And as he thought about them, he saw again, the character and the steadfastness of God’s love and began to slowly come out of his slough of despond

Your ways, God, are holy.
    What god is as great as our God?
You are the God who performs miracles;
    you display your power among the peoples.
With your mighty arm you redeemed your people,
    the descendants of Jacob and Joseph

He was thinking about the parting of the Red Sea, when the people of Israel were terrified and fleeing, and exhausted and bewildered… like the poor people of Ukraine. And Asaph remembered that back then, when it was as bad as it could get, when all seemed hopeless and and lost, God stepped in

The waters saw you, God,
    the waters saw you and writhed;
    the very depths were convulsed.
The clouds poured down water,
    the heavens resounded with thunder;
    your arrows flashed back and forth.
Your thunder was heard in the whirlwind,
    your lightning lit up the world;
    the earth trembled and quaked.
Your path led through the sea,
    your way through the mighty waters,

    though your footprints were not seen.

And his last thoughts (I like to think these were his last thoughts before he fell into a deep and reviving sleep) were

You led your people like a flock
    by the hand of Moses and Aaron.

I know what you’re saying now. “What the hell has that got to do with three old women in Derby twenty years ago?” Well, not a lot, but listen, this is what I’m trying to say: Life deals us a hefty shovel full of ordure sometimes. We can end up old and alone when everything we have been working for is the very opposite, or we can lose our homes in a war not of our making, or our most precious loved ones die too young to make any human sense. These things happen. Don’t pretend it’s all candy floss and merry-go-rounds. But we have a choice. We can buckle under the weight of grief and loneliness or we can do what Asaph did…. we can look to God, remember his goodness, remember when things were better, celebrate past victories and happiness. And in our history we can rediscover and reaffirm the nature of God.

Part of ‘looking to God’ is being aware of our frailty, our vulnerability to despair and it’s our place to shoulder the burden and walk onwards. It’s not our place to pretend that all is well and wonderful and that our faith and love is unshakeable. We are all too shakeable, each of us.

Part of walking away from despair, or depression as we call it nowadays, can be something practical as well as something prayerful. For me it’s going back to something that I know feeds my heart, swimming. And another choice is the deliberate habit of thanking God for each day (whether I feel like it or not), thanking him for good friends who will pray for me if I let them know I’m sinking beneath the waves (this is a very watery blog), for the front crawl and for goose pimples and warm towels. It’s thanking him for those three old women and their echoing laughter, their naughty jokes. It’s thanking him for a doughnut I ate with a pal this morning, and it’s thanking him (and remembering) that I have known what it is to sing songs in the night, and I will again.

God is good. It’s the rest of us that are not so great. How amazing that I read that Psalm this morning, of all mornings. I didn’t know Psalm 77 at all, yet of all the pages in my Bible (well over 1000) that’s the page I came to this morning, when I needed it most. You might think that’s not nearly as marvellous as parting the Red Sea, but it’s the miracle I needed and it’ll do me just fine. A great Pastor I once knew (still do) would call the Bible ‘the Living Word’ and as he said it, he couldn’t help but hold his Bible out to us, and the soft cover would unfold like a bird’s wings.

The Living Word. Taking flight. When we cry out to God for help, the first thing we should look at, with prayer, is his living Word. That’s where we will find him.